Belize Trip Brings Dose of Reality

07/16/99 by Staff Writer

Belize Trip Brings Dose of Reality

From the July 16, 1999, issue of the Salisbury Post

It’s just a memory now – trapping the Jamaican fruit-eating bat; entering a cave through an 18-inch-diameter hole to discover ancient Mayan pots; catching marine iguanas, 5-foot, 50- pound spiny lizards that the Mayans herded to the tips of branches where the lizards dropped with a splash into Blue Creek.

Eleven Catawba College students and three faculty experienced the exotic creatures of the rain forest during a recent biological field trip to Belize.

“The enrichment value of a trip like this is tremendous,” says Dr. John Wear Jr., associate professor of biology. “You can hear the sounds and smell the smells and just really connect to what we’re trying to teach, from the sense of understanding both the natural history of the area and the complexities involved in protecting these areas.”

This is the third year that biology and environmental science students at Catawba have had an opportunity to experience a tropical habitat and the second time they have gone to Belize.

“We did a lot more interacting with the local people this time and saw the people interact with their ecosystem,” says Dr. Steve Coggin, chair of the biology department.

The students accompanied the Mayans on an iguana hunt. “It was fun to be able to go out and catch these lizards,” Coggin says, “but for the people who live there, that’s a source of food.”

The students witnessed the Mayans trapping birds and small animals. The Mayans load a snare on a bent sapling to trap moles, which grow as large as rabbits in Belize and serve as another food source.

The students also helped catch bats. After hanging mist nets between trees six-to-seven feet off the ground, they returned in the dark to extract the hairy big-eyed bat, the chestnut short-tailed bat, and the striped yellow-eared bat from the nets. They carried the bats in plastic bags to the field station where they identified the fuzzy creatures and
measured wing spans of 15 inches.

Students sat quietly in the rain forest and observed the adaptations both plants and animals have made to help preserve the species. They witnessed the blue morpho butterfly, whose electric blue wings dazzle onlookers when it flies. “But when it lands and folds up its wings, the bottom surface is brown,” Coggin says. “It’s a very good camouflage.” They also noted that leaves in the rainforest have adapted to the downpours by developing long, narrow tips called “drip tips” which allow the plants to do photosynthesis,” Coggin explains.
The students spent an evening in the palm-thatched home of one Mayan family. “They saw that the Mayans had the same problems in dealing with life that we do,” says Coggin. “Yet they are doing it at a material level that we would consider unacceptable in this country, and they seem to be pretty happy people.”

The fragility of the rain forests became real for the students when they saw a flatbed truck loaded with mahogany logs rolling by a local market. “Our students stood there open-mouthed at that,” Coggin says. “They saw the jungle being hauled away on a truck, and they were appalled. There was the future of Belize going down that road.”

The whole experience, which included identifying plant species on three different islands, collecting base line data on water quality, and observing fluid dynamics in fishes, brought a deeper understanding of the ecosystem than any book could have conveyed. “We want the students to see that these ecosystems are real,” Coggin says.
“They’re not just something you see on the Discovery Channel.”

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