I went on the Field Study in Belize course in 2013 and spent the following months processing all of the photos that had been taken since it began in 2011. I identified species and uploaded the photos onto a crowd-sourcing site iNaturalist. As this year’s class eagerly anticipates the end of May when they set off to Belize, I reflect on some of the interesting trees characteristic of the systems they will visit. Plants in tropical ecosystems, particularly rainforests, are so numerous that they can be overlooked. The students visiting Belize this year will be likely to see the plants listed here, either at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) field station, in the tropical rainforest, or on the island.
Students will begin their journey at BFREE, where they will be able to explore the tropical rainforest. Fishtail Palms (Chamaedorea ernesti-augusti), also known as Xate, can occasionally be seen on the rainforest floor. These palms typically only grow a few meters high, and they have distinctive split leaves, giving them their common name. These Central American palms are threatened by deforestation and unsustainable harvesting. Leaves are harvested and sold for use in the floral industry, particularly for Palm Sunday. Students in Dr. Evan’s Conservation Biology class explain the ecological impact of the illegal harvesting of fishtail palms in this video.
There is a demonstration Cacao (Theobroma cacao) plantation at BFREE, and staff showed us how they grew the trees sustainably in a mixed forest. Cacao is a small tree that is native to Central and South America, and its seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate. The flowers are pollinated by midges, but the majority do not receive enough pollen to produce fruit.Cacao trees are easy to spot because of their pods, which are bright orange when ripe and contain approximately 40 seeds.
Leaving the field station, the class will walk through a pine savanna and potentially see the Central American native Nance (Byrsonima crassifolia). This drought-tolerant shrub was recognizable by its yellow and orange flowers. Nance produces a pungent yellow fruit which has been used to make candies and drinks.
The second half of the course takes place on the island of South Water Caye, which has its own flora composed of native and exotic plants. Beach Morning Glory (Ipomoea pes-caprae) stretches out along the sandy dunes. This vine is salt-tolerant and common – it can be found on shores throughout the tropics. The ocean disperses its seeds, and they colonize disturbed areas. The vine stabilizes sand dunes and has been used in some locations to prevent erosion. Beach Morning Glory produces pink and lavender flowers.
Mangroves represent a unique ecosystem driven by salt-tolerant tree species that form dense thickets – one of these species is Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). Red Mangroves have prop roots that characteristically arch out of the salty water. These roots support a diverse community of organisms including sponges, crabs, and fish. Red Mangrove grows in brackish or salt water in the tropics and subtropics. The tree is viviparous, producing propagules which can then take root and grow.
All of the plants listed here, along with birds, fish, reptiles, insects, and others, can be found on the Sewanee Belize class iNaturalist page