Biology in Belize: LB students spend spring break conducting environmental research and cultural exploration in Belize

The LBCC and Belizean student research team

Four LB students and their instructor, Diana Wheat, participated in a nine-day educational course in Belize over spring break called the “Belize Marine Ecology Program.”

The expedition was presented through the Ecology Project International (EPI), a nonprofit, educational organization that works with both high school and college teachers.

Students and instructors stayed on Belize’s Turneffe Atoll for five days to learn about the effects of coral bleaching, how to identify and monitor it, examine reef populations, and analyze the effects of invasive species on the ecosystem.

“Belize is one of the very best places to study coral and coral reef communities,” said Wheat. “The Belizians are now saying after this year, that because of what’s happening in the news in Australia that they now reside on the largest living coral reef in the world. Prior to that it was the great barrier reef but over 50 percent of the great barrier reef died this year because of [ocean] warming because of stress.”

During days six and seven they headed to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in the Belizean rain forest, where students were taught how to set up and check on remote cameras as part of a jaguar monitoring project. Wheat and her students then spent the remaining time learning aspects of traditional Mayan culture at the Mayan Cultural Center, learning things like how to make homemade tortillas and chocolate.

LBCC students and Belizean students pose for a photo.

“It was definitely a cultural experience, it was a biology experience, and it was a lot of fun,” said Wheat.

For the full length of the trip, the LB students were combined with six students from Galen University, Belize. Wheat and her students were hosted by the University of Belize and made temporary home at the field station site on the Calabash island on Turneffe Atoll.

The entire trip consisted of over 40 hours of coursework and 20 hours of fieldwork through which students learned snorkeling techniques, some for the first time, even learned how to swim in open water. Usually taking two trips per day and in between classroom time and activities, the students spent about four to five hours in the water, conducting research and learning new techniques. At one point during the trip, students and instructors participated in community service, gathering trash for one hour in the morning.

“We collected over 200 pounds of trash,” said Wheat.

Taylor Davis, a biology major hoping to become a teacher, was one of the LB students to take part in the trip.

“I gained a new love and appreciation for ecology. it has never been my favorite but being out there was just amazing,” said Davis. “It also opened my eyes to the dangers of people not taking care of our Earth. We saw so much trash on the beach and out further towards the reef.”

The days also consisted of eating an early breakfast, interacting through a team-building activity, and learning research techniques in both an outdoor and indoor class setting.

According to Wheat and the New York Times, the current coral reef collapse in the Great Barrier Reef located in Australia is 30 years ahead of schedule. This issue is of huge concern for scientists and researchers, and could lead to a mass ecological extinction of marine species.

Wheat made the conscious decision to plan a trip for her specifically to Belize because although it would be more costly to go to Australia, Belize offers a reef that is yet to be affected by coral bleaching.

“Belize hasn’t been as affected by coral bleaching, which is what is killing the reef in Australia, but this is a world-wide phenomena, it’s happening everywhere in the tropics but for whatever reason primarily related to geography and geology, Belize is more resilient – it’s reef is surviving,” said Wheat. “We went there in order to learn about the reef, to learn about coral bleaching and to learn about invasive species.”

Not only is coral bleaching a main concern to scientists, but invasive species are as well. Invasive species are species that are not native to a specific location and have a tendency to spread and cause damage to the environment, human economy, or human health.

“We got to do some citizen science work with the invasive lionfish,” said Wheat, “which is a really cool-looking fish but it doesn’t belong in the Caribbean. It’s from southeast Asia and it was introduced, some people say intentionally, some say accidentally, about 15 to 20 years ago and it has spread and is a serious problem throughout the Caribbean.”

LB student Jordan Glass, an Agriculture Major, says that this trip has taught her many things, from “ecosystems and interactions between their members, and [even] about the Belizean culture.”. Going on this trip has opened her eyes to the many environmental issues that we are faced with, including pollutants.

“I was struck by the amount of garbage I saw everywhere,” said Glass. “I would like to do more to reduce the amount of trash and pollution getting into our rivers and oceans.”

LB student Jennie Link, a double major in Human Biology and Art Illustration, was immediately interested in participating in this trip not only because she is a Bio major, but because the jaguar is her favorite animal and her family is also from Belize.

“Once I found out more about the research and sites we’d be going to, I was hooked,” said Link. “Especially about the (slim) possibility of seeing jaguars. They’re my favorite animal.”

Link’s depiction of the trip is an overall success and that her biggest takeaway from this trip was “the overall learning experience.”

Link says she learned many things she did not know beforehand, like “learning about the animals and multiple ecosystems, more about my family’s country, gaining more perspective about the delicate relationship between humans and nature, myself and my career goals, and the real-life application of what we learned through the 200-level Biology courses,” she said.

Bottlenose dolphins swimming by the students.

Wheat is thinking about recreating this experience or something similar in the future in order to educate and allow students to get hands-on experience beneficial to their careers.

“The reason I chose to spend my spring break doing this is because I want to help young students who are at the beginning of their career to make some decisions that can be very impactful in a positive way — for their careers but also for the environment because there isn’t a more timely issue than this one right now,” said Wheat.

As a scientist or researcher, the more field knowledge and experience, the better.

“Any work at a field station as a biologist is beneficial for career development,” said Wheat. “Having a field experience in the tropics during this time of coral bleaching is going to put them on the map in terms of future undergraduate research so because they’ve already had a taste of research, it’s my hope that it will propel them to want to learn more and to work with people when they transition to university.”

To participate in an opportunity like this you do not have to be a Biology major — just an inquisitive person. If you would like more information about this program or have any questions, contact Diana Wheat at wheatd@linnbenton.edu.

“[Overall,] getting people to be excited about coral and wanting to learn about it and have an attitude of ‘what can I do to make a difference?’ is the big picture,” said Wheat. “The truth is, what you can do isn’t in Belize, what you can do as an American [is] be conscious of your choices.”

Story by Samantha Guy

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