Entries in #animals (7)


My Top 5 Marine Creatures Of  Belize

I have been in Belize for 3 weeks now and have loved every moment of it – from the exciting nights out with everyone on the South island to the more chilled nights at camp playing cards on the North island. However the amazing marine life that I’ve been lucky enough to encounter is what I know will stick with me forever.

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Meeting The Gentle  Giants

I have been in Caye Caulker for 3 months now and I had the opportunity to encounter numerous amazing creatures already. From the quiet nurse sharks, the curious stingrays, the shy turtles or even playful dolphins, every animal has its own behaviour and reacts differently to human presence.

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Time Flies When You're Counting Manatees

When I first arrived I was told by nearly everyone I came across that here on the island life is all about learning to “go slow”, a lifestyle that is highly contagious! Despite this, I feel like I arrived, blinked and suddenly 1 month has past.

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Diving At The Blue Hole 

Whoooaaaa, what a great day! Last week the dive instructor told Tori and I that they needed 2 more people to do the blue hole trip the next day, so.. Tori and I decided to go!

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Jumping Eagle Rays...Everywhere!

So this morning I was sitting at the end of the dock on basecamp enjoying my morning coffee when I heard an almighty splash about 10m away. Whatever just jumped out the water was big and I watched intently to see if I could glimpse whatever did it, moments later I spotted (no pun intended) the culprit; it was a huge spotted eagle ray. It jumped out of the water again - as if flying - just not very successfully… But got some serious air.

The spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) is one of my all-time favourite aquatic animals. They are relatively abundant here in Belize, so you can often see them gliding effortlessly through the shallows. Fortunately, they are not currently a threatened species but are caught as a bycatch from unsustainable fishing practices (i.e. longlining and trawling). They tend to swim solo but are known to form loose aggregations of many individuals on occasion. They feed predominantly on crustaceans such as crabs and shrimps which they ‘dig’ for in the sand using their snouts. Just like sharks, rays are equipped with a unique sensory organ (known as Ampullae of Lorenzini) which can sense weak electric signals emitted by their prey. Having this sensory organ allows rays to sense their prey without seeing or smelling it first; which is ideal, especially when you have to dig for your din-dins!

But why do they jump? Unfortunately, scientists still do not know the exact reason for this energetic and seemingly random behaviour. However some speculate that female rays may jump to avoid unwanted male attention; or both males and females do it in order to attempt to dislodge parasites or remoras (suckerfish) which have become attached to their body, and have become a general nuisance. Or simply they just do it just for fun.

By Alex Sullivan - Assistant Research Officer

Find out more about the Belize Manatee Conservation project 

Check out what volunteers in Belize are up to right now!


First Thoughts As The New Assistant Research Officer 

My name is Alex Sullivan and I am the new Assistant Research Officer here in Belize. I arrived in Caye Caulker just less than a week ago, there is a lot of stuff still yet to get used to but I am looking forward to being a part of the great environmental conservation efforts which are underway here in Belize.

After an awesome and windy boat ride from Belize City, my first sights of Caye Caulker were of beautifully colourful buildings,  a white sand shore and blissfully turquoise sea. It was surreal to think that this beautiful place was going to be my home for the next six months.

Our base-camp located on the northside of Caye Caulker is not remote enough to feel totally isolated (there is the occasional boat going-by), but it is remote enough to be living closely with nature. Base-camp is basic, with a simple stove, outhouse, limited electricity, two resident chickens and no internet. Yet, you can still get phone signal which some may find handy.

Although the utilities at base are simple, I have managed to eat some of the best food I have had in a long-time, including fried pancakes with bananas and honey for breakfast, as well as breaded fish (freshly caught) with delicious homemade sweet potato fries, thanks to Holly our project coordinator and on-site masterchef. The simplicity of base-life will take a while to get used to, but with each passing day it is beginning to feel more and more like home.

The Caye Caulken people appear to be at the forefront of conservation work initiatives on the Mesoamerican barrier reef system, and I have noticed many novel signposts encouraging locals and tourists to be good to the environment and it will be good to you. Our environmental aims and objectives are closely aligned with that of the Belizean Fisheries department, whom we provide important environmental data on the health of the reef, seagrass beds and mangroves. This data hopefully provides a quantitative insight on the viability of current conservation efforts such as the allotted conservation zone and preservation zone.

I am looking forward to helping Holly develop our important survey work and important seagrass monitoring programme, which will provide  crucial data on the health of seagrass beds and allow us to compare the effects of anthropogenic development on seagrass proliferation and health. We are also in the midst of working with locals in the forthcoming island-wide invasive lionfish derby, where we hope to do a presentation and accompanying dissection for the locals.

It is currently a very busy and exciting time for Frontier Belize and I feel privileged to be a part of it.

By Alex Sullivan - Assistant Research Officer

Find out more about the Belize Marine Conservation & Diving project.

Check out what volunteers in Belize are up to right now!


Coral Bleaching 

To understand coral bleaching, one must first learn a little bit about the biology of corals. First of all, corals are not plants, and similarly they are not simply rock as many novel witnesses to a reef will believe.

They are in fact animals and while they do lay down calcium carbonate (or limestone) – which is responsible for forming the massive tropical marine structures referred to as reefs – they are actually more related to jelly fish than they are to plants. They are comfortably nestled in the Phylum Cnidarians – a taxa of invertebrates that are united by the following attributes; a life cycle with sessile (stationary) and medusa (free swimming) phases; radial symmetry; and the presence of a special type of ‘stinging’ cell called nematocysts (effectively a harpoon cell with a trigger hair and a venom sac). Hard and soft corals belong to the class Anthozoa which also includes anemones, sea pens and sea fans. One very interesting ecological adaptation of many species within Anthozoa is the mutualistic symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae known as Zooxanthellae.

healthy coralThe Zooxanthellae live in the surface tissues of the coral colonies. They are very adept at photosynthesis; that crucial biological phenomena, without which the vast majority of ecosystems on the planet wouldn’t exist. They produce far more glucose than they ever actually need to survive themselves – and this excess is gladly ‘mopped’ up by the coral. Many species of coral will supplement this diet by filter feeding, but most estimates suggest that 80% of the calorific intake for the colony comes from the sugars produced by the Zooxanthellae. All in all, the algae are crucial to the corals’ survival, and thus, the overall health of the reef ecosystem. Unfortunately it is a very fragile relationship that requires a more or less constant bio-chemical environment to function effectively.

Research now shows that under conditions of increased sea temperature the various rates of reaction for the necessary steps in photosynthesis increase. The amount of glucose produced increases, but this is not a good thing, because the higher rates of reaction reduce the stability of the whole system, and very destructive oxygen free radicals are produced. If left unchecked these free radicals have the potential to cause serious cellular damage within the coral tissues. To combat this, the coral effectively ejects the algae, and tries to make do with filter feeding to sustain itself. This is a tall order for any organism (although medically, I can think of a fair few cases where consuming 20% of the ‘natural’ diet might be a good thing?).

This is where the term bleaching comes from. The corals, without their photosynthetic algae turn a shade of ivory white and more serious cases can leave the whole reef looking like an ominously fragile skeleton. There are some species which turn other colours such as purple or pale yellow, but in essence without the natural pigments provided by the algae, the coral takes on a completely different appearance. This whole state is very taxing to the coral, and if elevated sea temperatures persist, then the reef slowly starts to die.

bleached coralAny given coral colony will hence have a natural temperature range in which its Zooxanthellae work most effectively. Coral bleaching will happen fairly innocuously in a healthy ecosystem and the coral colonies will often recover, but there are times when global climatic fluctuations spell real trouble. Twice in recent memory, first in 1998 and then again in 2010 there have been devastating world wide incidences of serious bleaching patterns, which have since been dubbed Global Bleaching Events (GBEs). Both of these years coincided with the global climatic fluctuation known as El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

During El Nino years the sea currents in the Pacific Ocean deviate from the stable norms, and a massive influx of unseasonably warm water drifts across from western South America all the way to the Indian Ocean. The effects are widespread and there are serious upsets to agriculture and fisheries all across the Southern Hemisphere. The El Nino events in the winter of 1997-1998 and early 2010, are widely considered as one of the main causes for the respective GBEs. Climatologists say we are now entering the first El Nino year since 2010 and as such face the third GBE within 17 years. The first GBE resulted in up to 70% coral mortality in some places, with the Maldives being particularly effected, but reefs in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the South Pacific also showing signs of significant degradation.

Here in Belize, the corals have started to show signs of bleaching. Colonies of two of the most dominant species here, known commonly as Lobed Star Coral and Massive Starlet Coral (or scientifically Orbicella annularis and Sideastrea sidera respectively) are exhibiting early signs of bleaching. Forecasts predict that coral mortality might result in the loss of more than 12,000 square kilometres, or 5% of all of the world’s coral. These numbers are staggeringly high, but paired with additionally stressors on the ecosystem such as overfishing, nutrient run off, coastal development and ocean acidification the future looks bleak for coral reefs. Yet as the past has shown, they are robust ecosystems and new evidence is really starting to show how resilient they are to these environmental perturbations.

Bleached coral stones washed up on a beachProjects like ours aim to monitor coral cover among other things, and help to paint a detailed picture on how healthy the reefs are and how they are effected by these problems. Only time will tell how badly effected our beloved reefs will be, but in the mean time it is definitely time to wake up and become aware and educated about the issues facing some of the most important, beautiful and essential natural resources on the planet.

By Rob MacFarlane - Principal Investigator

Find out more about the Belize Marine Conservation & Diving project.

Check out what volunteers in Belize are up to right now!