By Helen Vessels and Danielle Lara
The chance to explore the vast biodiversity of a tropical rainforest is a rare opportunity for New Mexico State University students in the desert Southwest. This spring, the much anticipated Tropical Insect Ecology course, taught by Professor Scott Bundy, became available for a select group of students. A 10-day trip to the beautiful country of Belize can be an enriching opportunity for anyone, but for a group of like-minded students bent on scoping out arthropods in various tropical habitats, the excursion was also like experiencing an endless menagerie of the six-to-eight-legged variety. Southern New Mexico has an array of insects and arthropods — especially those adapted to extreme heat and little water — but Belize’s biodiversity of insects was astounding. Not only were the numbers of insects and arthropods bountiful, many were massive!
On our first night in the Cayo district, we set up light traps and were quickly bombarded by all manner of flying insects, small and large. Alien-looking praying mantises and scarab beetles were a welcome sight. Hundreds of moving, glittering flecks of light in the grass were actually the predatory eyes of wolf spiders and their kin that prowled along the forest floor. We soon realized we were in the very midst of their domain. Our legs were pockmarked with mosquito bites, but after that first night we were filled with excited anticipation of what the next day might bring. There was still so much to be seen!
The following day we trekked along the Mopan River bank with beat nets, sweep nets, and aquatic nets in tow. Bizarre, stalk-eyed flies were found resting on the trunks of trees, and many butterflies flitted along the beaten trail. For those of us all too familiar with our arid hometown in sunny southern New Mexico, it was refreshing to wade in the river and observe a myriad of aquatic insects and other arthropods along the sandy banks.
During our trip we visited the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, a significant Mayan archeological site containing artifacts and even Mayan remains within its depths. We swam, waded, squeezed past tight formations and climbed to reach various hidden chambers. What we didn’t expect to find in a cave devoid of light and food was a massive cave spider crouched against the cave wall, and the occasional cave cricket, tailless whipscorpion, or millipede meandering around nooks and crannies.
We also spent a few days exploring Tobacco Caye, a tiny tropical island about 10 miles from Dangriga. There was a significant lack of insect biodiversity in that isolated habitat compared to the mainland. However, while the island lacked innumerable varieties of moths and beetles and spiders at night, we were still able to attract no-see-ums with our black light traps and uncover mole crickets on the beach floor. Sea-loving arthropods such as hermit crabs and other crustaceans were the most common inhabitants on the island.
Maya Center and the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary were our final stops. Here we caught one of our most impressive specimens: a massive katydid spanning four inches in length, dwarfing those found in our desert back home. Along the four-kilometer-long trail of Ben’s Bluff, we crossed a small stream and observed leafcutter ants, stingless bees, and giant damselflies. The whole mountainside was teeming with life, and there was no shortage of new and unusual insects to uncover.
Our class shared some very memorable adventures together during our 10-day trip in Belize — there was always something new to discover. We got to personally experience the enchanting atmosphere of Belize, along with its biodiverse ecology. We were fortunate enough to observe and interact with insects we’ve only read about in textbooks back at home. It was truly a worthwhile opportunity to explore so many diverse habitats and appreciate the beauty Belize has to offer.
To read more, check out our blog at http://eppwsbelize.blogspot.com.
Helen Vessels is a research associate at the arthropod biology laboratory at New Mexico State University. Danielle Lara is an undergraduate student studying agricultural biology at New Mexico State University.