Tarantulas in Paradise

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Beware of “Lisa”

I woke up in my palm-leaf thatched cabana, confused and surprised for a second. “Wow, I’m in paradise!” I thought to myself. I walked outside, strolled over to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee to shake off the exhaustion from the flight the day before. I had just arrived at La Milpa Field Station in the heart of the Belizean rainforest with a group of middle school science teachers and scientists and we were about to embark in an early morning birding  walk. No sooner had I taken a sip of coffee that our naturalist guide, Melvis, called me over to look through a birding scope. “I found a toucan in this tree, take a look,” Melvis exclaimed. I glanced through the lens and spotted this majestic, brilliantly colored toucan, who exceeded all of my expectations based upon the illustrated toucan on a Froot Loops box. I was already having the time of my life and it was barely 6am. I could feel it would be a fantastic trip already!

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Cabanas in the middle of the rainforest

For 10 days, my group is traveling to three locations in Belize, to investigate and observe forest and coral reef ecosystems  up close in order to write curricula for our students to learn about ecology in new and creative ways. The seven of us have been participating in a program through Boston University called G K-12 Glacier for the past school year. It is sponsored through the NSF, and promotes global climate change awareness through pairing graduate students in the sciences with middle school science teachers to engage children in science topics they would not other wise experience. Basically, we all work with scientists to help kids become excited about science! We are starting our trip in the Rio Bravo Conservation area, which is the largest pristine protected rainforest outside of the Amazon. It includes La Milpa, and another site called Hillbank, where we stayed for two days. The last destination is the beachside town of Placencia, where we will be spending our days snorkeling the reefs.

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Early morning birding

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Massive grasshopper

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Keel-billed toucan!

 

 

Ok, back to the trip. Basically, the past few days have been the longest adrenaline rush of my life. It’s like adult summer camp where every adventurous activity involves the possibility that you might be stung, bitten,  poisoned, or fall from precipitous heights, all in the name of science! In order to concisely portray the insanity of the past few days, I’ll highlight the exciting parts:

  1. As we arrived on site, we were greeted with a sign  on the property that read, “Beware: crocodile.” Naturally, the next morning we took a walk across the bridge where “Lisa” the crocodile likes to bask.
  2. As we started our morning walk through the forest, Melvis pointed out the black poison wood tree as a precaution. It is only about 1000x worse than poison ivy, and gives a person extreme, scaring blisters upon any skin contact.
  3. While we were walking, he thought he heard a jaguar- the most feared and revered animal around here. Luckily it was just another unknown large mammal.
  4. A few minutes later, he told us to duck down. Apparently there was a swarm of African honey bees overhead- an invasive species- who would obviously attack a human if provoked.
  5. I held a tarantula on my arm.
  6. I held a scorpion. (Which apparently glows under a black light, wicked cool.)

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    Scorpion looks like its ready for a club

  7. We traveled out into the forest at night, around some Mayan ruins, where there were poisonous snakes, leaf cutter ants, red army ants, kinkajou, cockroaches, more of those black poison wood trees, and so many other species I didn’t really want to think about. All in the pitch black forest under the canopy. The only warning Melvis gave us was, “Shine your flashlight on the ground, and do NOT lose concentration of every single step you take.”
  8. The following day we traveled back to the Mayan ruins, where we climbed a steep temple now overtaken by roots of trees.

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    Climbing a Mayan temple

  9. We found an emerald toucanette- a very rare species of bird around here!
  10. Climbed inside a tunnel of a Mayan tomb. Other than the possibility that the roof could collapse, the only other thing I was scared of was the very large scorpion spider about a foot above our heads the wall.
  11. In this span of three days, we learned probably twenty species of trees and plants and saw countless animals, including foxes, deer, turkeys, parrots, howler monkeys, woodpeckers, raptors, and SO many more. No Lisa the crocodile, jaguars, or poisonous snake sightings though- and I’m pretty happy about that.

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    Found some Tarzan vines and howler monkeys- it was a great morning. 

Next stop is Hillbank Field Station which includes rafting down a freshwater mangrove creek towards a crocodile filled lagoon…

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