Sierra Nevada College biology students celebrate a Mayan New Year in Belize

Mayan New Year 2012 - students visit the Lamanai Archeological Site in Belize.

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Nine Sierra Nevada College students celebrated the New Year in the birthplace of Mayan Civilization, whose infamous calendar (b'ak'tun) dates back to the 5th century BCE.

As a culminating academic experience in Dr. Levitan's Tropical Biology Class, students arrived in Belize on Dec. 29 with their scientific equipment and training to learn more about the tropical country rich in teeming jungles, lush rain forests, dry pine savannas, tangled mangrove swamps and dynamic coral reefs.

“Belize provides one of the best examples in the tropics of a species rich, biologically diverse ecology and takes a lead in conservation initiatives,” Levitan said. “Forty percent of Belize's land mass is designated as protected areas, the highest percentage in the world, and almost sixty percent of the country remains covered with biologically diverse forests. Our students will be right there studying in the heart of it all to kick-off 2012.”

Students studied the effects of human activity on natural environments associated with the variety of ecosystems and areas in Belize before they departed.

Their biological research has included species taxonomy lists with special emphasis on the biodiversity of Belize, where a tremendous variety of organisms — from the solitary jaguar, giant tapir and miniature silky anteater, to leaf cutting ants and the rare fungus they work so hard to cultivate. Students have also studied sustainable use and preservation of natural resources.

“Belize is an interesting case study in ecotourism as a tool for developmental and for biodiversity planning and conservation,” said student Graham Johnson. “I am interested to see how both a country and individuals can benefit from eco-development and economic growth, while preserving the natural heritage.”

Scientific expeditions will also explore the Mayan archaeological edifices, hidden deep in the forest where carefully monitored and controlled eco-tourism is encouraged. In addition, students will explore the Belize Barrier-Reef Reserve System, listed in 2009 on UNESCO's Danger List. It extends for about 185 miles, making it the second largest coral reef system in the world after the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

“The degree of specialization and the fascinating adaptations of the flora and fauna found in this region have intrigued scientists for generations,” Levitan said. “Nowhere else in the world can you experience two more intriguing, dynamic, and diverse habitats as Belize's barrier reef and tropical rain forest.”

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