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01 September 2017

ABC of Belize: Adventure, Biology and Culture #HogsAbroad in Belize #HogsAbroadScholarship

Excited about jaguars and coral reef of the second-largest barrier reef in the world, I signed up for the Study Abroad course on Coastal Caribbean Biology in Belize. Little did I know that I am in for a journey through Mayan culture, mystical caves, intriguing rainforests and rivers and of course, delicious local Belizean food. Over seven days and night, we explored flora, fauna and the culture of different regions of Belize.
Figure 1. A Verditer Flycatcher (top) and a Rufous-naped Wood Rail (botttom)
Tropical forests host a plethora of life forms (Fig. 1), but what fascinates me about tropics are the relationships between these organisms. Amid the struggle for survival many species haveevolved a mutually beneficial relationship to survive in tropics. Relationship between Azteca ants and Bullhorn Acacia trees is one such example. The Acacia tree produces food specially for ants and provides them shelter in its hollow thorns. In return, the ants defend the tree against parasites and grazers. Birds nest next to wasp nest for protection against any attack on nest.

Even the coral reefs exist because of symbiotic relationship between coral and microscopic algae living inside corals called zooxanthellae. Corals provide shelter to the single-celled algae and the algae produces food by the process of photosynthesis and release oxygen. Some food and oxygen is utilized by the corals (yes, corals are animals!). In the infrastructure build up by corals, lives many aquatic insects, fishes, crabs, shrimps and many more. Snorkeling through these coral reefs around Caye Caulker and watching myriads of creatures swimming around you (even sharks! a harmless nurse shark though) is a lifetime adventure (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. A variety of coral species such as the Brain Coral at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve
Even we learned some jungle survival tips (just in case)! If hungry, you can snack on termites. Termites can be easily collected by breaking one of the termite trail on trees and ambushing the termites coming out. They do taste like spicy carrots. If thirsty, one can drink water from base of traveler’s palm.

Every morning we went for a walk exploring plants, insects and birds and on many nights, we went for a night-walk to look at animals active at night. We saw birds, snakes, frogs, scorpion, tarantulas and lizards (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Some animals seen during night walks. A scorpion illuminating in black light (top). Common Pauraque (middle). A Checkered Garter Snake (bottom).

We also tried to setup a camera trap by the Macal river in Crystal Paradise in hope to film a Jaguar in wild, we were not that lucky. Determined to see a jaguar (Fig. 4), we made a trip to Belize zoo, known to house only native animals including the majestic King Vulture.

Figure 4. A jaguar at Belize zoo.

The most exciting moment for me was when our TA, Anant Deshwal caught a snake while canoeing on Macal river. You can watch the live action on youtube ( You can feel the excitement in the video… Right…

Figure 5. Xunantunich Ruins, Belize

I learned a lot about Mayan culture by visiting the Xunantunich ruins (Fig. 5) and Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. Xunantunich was center of a Mayan city with rivers as its major transportation routes. We climbed the 130 feet high building and saw the view of a lost ancient city from the top. They believed higher the building is closer they are to their Gods. However, the tour to ATM cave showed the other side of Mayan culture to us, the darker one. With the mysterious demise of Mayan culture, they started praying to the God of underworld, who were believed to reside in caves. After a beginner-level spelunking adventure, we came across a cathedral which was sacrificial ceremony to please underworld God. There were skeletal remains dated back to 400-900 A.D. It was little bit creepy but a part of Mayan culture.

We visited Community Baboon Sanctuary in Belize (Black Howler Monkeys are called baboons in Belize). Two local Creole gals gave us a tour of the sanctuary and took us to a family of Howler monkeys. The alpha male definitely (Fig. 6), did not like our presence!

Figure 6. A male Black Howler Monkey at Community Baboon Sanctuary, Belize

The sanctuary was a unique conservation effort by the local community. People of this community came together and sworn not to cut trees crucial to survival of Howler Monkeys, thus protecting the forest. A simple grass-root movement to share earth with other living beings is an inspirational story for protecting our quite fast changing planet.  Our amazing faculty Dr. Smith and Dr. Kannan and our TA, Anant Deshwal made sure we had the time of our lives. This course changed me for good.

Pooja, a Biology graduate student, studied abroad with our U of A Faculty-Led: Coastal Caribbean Biology program with the help of our Office of Study Abroad Scholarship.

To find out more about the Coastal Caribbean Biology summer program, visit
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