A Research Trip to Belize
By David Wyatt
It was late 2002 and I had just received my latest Bat Conservation International magazine. As I relaxed on the couch and read the articles, my eye caught on a field expedition to Belize being led by biologist Fiona Reid. This expedition would study the bats of Belize at several locations in the northern half of the county in July of 2003 and they were looking for participants. I ended up going on the trip with two of my former students and it changed my life! We not only worked with the bats, but we stayed longer and brought back over 200 insect specimens from that trip. This trip started my love affair with that remarkable country.
Since that trip, I’ve been back to Belize eight more times — often leading eco-tours that have a distinctly wildlife biology slant. On every trip, there is always a small research component where we document inventories of wildlife we see. But since 2003, I haven’t led a purely research-oriented mission until my upcoming trip in June 2014. For my next trip, seven biologists, including myself, will be studying the insect and bat diversity in the northern Maya Mountains of Belize. We will also establish a major entomology collection in Belize while conducting an inventory of bats in the area of the Maya Mountains.
A wasp-mimicking moth that came to our porch light one evening. Blue Creek, Toledo District, Belize. 11 January 2014. Photo by: D.T. Wyatt.
My research team includes three professional entomologists, three of my former students (all now professional biologists and seriously involved with entomology), and one of my current students who will be heading to the University of California to study entomology. As implied above, I am a biology professor at a community college in Sacramento, California, and yep, entomology is one of the classes I teach. I fell in love with the subject through the mentorship of entomologist Dr. Bill Shepard who took me on many collecting excursions when I was his student. Now I’m able to return that favor to my own students — FUN!
Hesperidae – Blue Creek, Toledo District, Belize. 9 January 2010. Photo by: D.T. Wyatt
We will be spending two weeks in Belize setting up the entomology collection at the field station owned and operated by the Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society. This is a relatively new field station operated by two professional biologists and situated in the northern section of the Maya Mountains. We are bringing with us all of the entomology collecting and curating materials, including 24-30 California Academy of Science drawers. The collection will be housed at the field station. In addition, we are collaborating with the Biodiversity Center of Belize, who will be doing DNA barcoding of specimens we collect.
Tenebrionidae – Blue Creek, Toledo District, Belize. 8 January 2010. Photo by: D.T. Wyatt
In addition to the entomology work, we will also be inventorying bats through mist netting activities. While I really love working with the insects, I also love studying bats, and four of my team members also have experience with bats. So, we are also going to work with the insect ectoparasites that are specific to bats — namely the fly families Streblidae and Nycteribiidae. This is such a fascinating group of parasitic insects (they are all blood feeders) that are exclusive to bats and highly co-evolved with the bats. Below is a photograph of a Noctilio leporinus (the greater fishing bat) with what looks to be streblid flies on her face.
Noctilio leporinus with bat fly ectoparasites – northern Maya Mountains, 17 July 2013. Photo by: D.T. Wyatt.
It truly is exciting to be part of an effort to increase knowledge of the biodiversity of this area of Belize. After all, the first impetus to protecting wildlands is to develop a better understanding of what lives out there. Thus, biological inventories are crucial to this effort. We plan to contribute our share of information to this effort through the establishment of this entomology collection for current and future researchers.
Below are some quotes from three of the team members, and if you wish to learn more about this work, click here to visit our webpage.
Be sure to check out the Lab Notes too — we’ll be regularly posting our findings in the Lab Notes.
“I’ve listened with envy to stories entomologists have told me about their first rainforest collecting trips, but I never thought I’d be in a position to go on one myself. I’m going to miss my wife and two little girls immensely, but it’s an exciting honor to be a part of this volunteer team of zealous amateur and professional entomologists. It’s also thrilling to think that the results of our fieldwork will actually contribute to the corpus of knowledge; this isn’t like collecting butterflies in my neighborhood — it’s Real Science.” – Daniel Neal
“It is a bit difficult to explain exactly what this trip means to me because of its immense significance and power to share knowledge. This research expedition fulfills a childhood dream of mine. I have the opportunity to help build our scientific understanding of an ecosystem so incredibly rich with life that nobody knows all of what resides in it. Not only that, but this project will assist in forming the basis for future conservation efforts. This will be an incredible experience and I am honored to be a part of it.” – Krystal Pulsipher
“This project is something special to me. As an entomology student, it was somewhat frustrating to not have all the skills to make a difference to entomology. It was Professor David Wyatt who showed me that I can make a difference to the insects that I so love. What this project means to me is beyond words. It is a chance to walk in the footsteps of heroes like Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and E. O. Wilson. Equally frustrating to students are the huge number of insect collections that are locked away, eaten by dermestids, or crumbling with age. This project is different. It is not a closed expedition. It will remain behind for others to come and add their knowledge too. It is a collection that will add to the scientific knowledge which will benefit the entire entomology and ecological communities, regardless of where you are in your educational journey. To me that is important. If all of the entomological collections around the world were open to scientific input, the amount of knowledge that we could create would be insane. That is one reason. Another is that we will leave Belize with the makings of a collection that will not only benefit the people of Belize, but will bring more people into a place of learning. That could change the world for some of us. If I had been exposed to such a thing when I was a boy picking up bumble bees, I wonder where I would be in my educational journey. That is a gift that we might give to other youngsters. For me, those are all reasons that make this trip important.” – David Stillwell
David Wyatt is a professor of biology at Sacramento City College who has participated in or led nine trips to Belize to study its biodiversity. His research interests are in mammalogy and entomology, with extensive research work having been conducted with ringtails (F: Procyonidae) and bats (O: Chiroptera). In addition, beetles remain a favorite entomological taxon for David, with a special affinity towards adaptations involving predation and predation avoidance.