Belize ecosystem reveals 'amazing diversity' - 02/27/12 02:17 PM
University of Wisconsin-Stout student Josh Costa snokles with fellow students in Belize s barrier. The students traveled to the country last month as part of UW-Stout s new Natural History of the Neotropics course. ( Courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Stout. )
Homeroom University of Wisconsin-Stout: Field study of Belize ecosystem
Zip lining, snorkeling and hiking in the tropics - not a bad way to earn college credits.
But while University of Wisconsin-Stout students say their adventure in Belize last month was a welcome change from a Midwestern winter, the trip was wasn't just fun in the sun.
"I learned a lot more than I would have learned in any classroom," said Theresa Olson, a UW-Stout junior studying biotechnology.
Olson was one of 17 students who made the trip to Central America as part of a new UW-Stout course, Natural History of the Neotropics. The winter session class focused on the ecosystems of Belize and the rest of the neotropics - the tropical areas of the Americas.
"These areas harbor some of the most prominent hot spots of biodiversity," said UW-Stout assistant biology professor Michael Bessert, who developed the course and accompanied students.
The biodiversity of Belize quickly was apparent to students, he added.
Students were instructed to identify 50 species of flora or fauna, a task they imagined would be something of a challenge, Bessert said.
It was anything but - students discovered 50 species on their first day in the country.
"That was by design," Bessert said. "I did that to demonstrate the amazing diversity there."
Belize's abundance of life came as a surprise to Olson, who called the variety of plant and animal life on land and water "mind-blowing."
"I never expected to see that many species in one place," she said. "We got to
snorkel a lot, and every time we went snorkeling we saw 10 new species we had never seen before." For the first three days of the 10-day trip, the group stayed at a rustic field station on a peninsula in the Sittee River, about a mile from its mouth into the Caribbean Sea. They studied the lowland rainforests that extend into the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, which operates as a jaguar preserve.
"I had never been out in the jungle like that," said Catie Rawlins, a UW-Stout senior
Theresa Olson, a junior studying biotechnology at the Universiity of Wisconsin-Stout, holds a marine toad while in Belize. Olson and 16 other students traveled to the Central American country last month to study its biodiversity and culture. ( Photos Courtesy of University of Wisconsin) studying applied science. "It was pretty intense."
Theresa Olson, a junior studying biotechnology at the Universiity of Wisconsin-Stout, holds a marine toad while in Belize. Olson and 16 other students traveled to the Central American country last month to study its biodiversity and culture. ( Photos Courtesy of University of Wisconsin)
The students, who read about Belize jaguars during two weeks of instruction before the trip, didn't spot any of the reclusive cats while hiking through the preserve.
"I told them jaguars saw us, but we didn't see them," Bessert said.
The next three days were spent on the Wee Wee Caye Marine Lab, located on a crab-inhabited mangrove island surrounded by coral reefs. The time there was a highlight for Olson and Rawlins.
"It was really nice to learn about marine biology and get coral reef interactions," said Rawlins.
One thing that surprised Bessert, who has been traveling to the country for two decades, was that the group didn't see any sharks. Fishing pressure on sharks has been intense in the area, he said.
While they didn't get to see any sharks or jaguars - at least, not until they visited the Belize Zoo - plenty of other wild creatures kept them company, including crocodiles, crabs, tarantulas, toucans and a giant ray.
"Everything was really colorful and exotic," said Ray Chojnacki, a UW-Stout sophomore.
A favorite animal of Olson's was the red-chested, magnificent frigatebird.
"We went to an island where there were hundreds of them breeding, and they were flying over our heads," she said. "That was really cool to see."
The end of the trip was spent in more modern accommodations in the town of San Ignacio. From there they hopped the border into Guatemala, where they visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal.
"The diverse human cultures there are very interesting in and of themselves, so I did include a strong cultural component in the course," Bessert said.
The cost of the trip and course for each student was about $3,600, he said.
There was a high degree of interest in the class this year - 35 students applied - and it likely will fill up again next year, Bessert said.