Field Courses

University of Massachusetts, Amherst group spent time birding. Photo by Sean Werle

BFREE offers content specific study abroad experiences called “field courses.” Designed in collaboration with the school instructor, these courses range in length from one week to three weeks and are structured to encourage participants to actively engage with and appreciate their natural environment.

Learn about “Birds, Chocolates, Forests” a new field course offering in 2017!

Courses are geared toward high school and college students and may be tailored to incorporate a home-stay experience in local a Maya, Garifuna, or Creole village, a community service project, and/or a visit to one of the many magical places throughout Belize, including the Belize Zoo, ancient Mayan ruins, national parks, the barrier reef, islands and coastal beaches. Students take part in hands-on investigations of Belize’s diverse tropical ecosystems.

BFREE field courses create opportunities for students to become familiar with the scientific investigation of flora and fauna, while also learning about tropical riparian systems, protected areas management, and the manner in which humans interact with these ecosystems.

For pricing, detailed itineraries and other inquiries, contact BFREE Program Coordinator at tsanville@bfreebz.org.

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Curriculum Packets

In order to engage student groups in long-term educational and research projects and data sets, BFREE’s Education Committee created scientific curriculum packets. The goal has been to identify questions that are principal to BFREE’s mission – to conserve the biodiversity of Belize – and are amenable to the development of field activities and research for student groups.

The original two studies (Small Mammal Community Survey and the Fruit Phenology Study) utilize two comparison plots, a managed cacao plantation and an unmanaged forest habitat.  These studies strive to produce a better understanding of the ecological differences between cacao and unmanaged forest habitats. Because these projects are focused on the comparison of agroecosystems to natural habitats, they serve as a good example to students of the importance of integrating human needs and concerns in the disciplines of ecology and conservation biology.

Small Mammal Community Survey                     Fruit Phenology Study 

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Avian Monitoring

BFREE Avian Technicians focus much of their efforts on monitoring wild Harpy Eagles

Integrated Community-based Harpy Eagle and Avian Conservation Program

Between 2006 and 2014, BFREE and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington established and implemented an intensive Harpy Eagle and avian monitoring program onsite in the BFREE private reserve and in the Bladen Nature Reserve.

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BFREE Mapping

BFREE is beginning to realize a long time dream; creating a multi-layered, standardized base mapping system of the entire 1,153-acre property! Under the guidance of Alexis (Lex) Thomas, Director of the GeoPlan Center at the University of Florida and the BFREE Science Committee, the project is well underway. The large-scale mapping project will culminate in a spatial database of the diverse habitats, natural features, and research sites at BFREE. In essence, the BFREE property will be viewed and managed as one large research plot.

The project employs the military grid referencing system (MGRS), which is made up of nested cells to allow for simplification, comprehensiveness, and consistency. A canopy and ground cover classification system was developed for the entire property and was tailored to the characteristics of Belize’s tropical lowland rainforest.

Through the project, the property has been broken down into 100m2 grids. To put this in perspective, if two (densely forested) football fields were side by side, they would include 100 of these smaller 100m2 plots. There are approximately 46,660 of these 100m2 plots on the BFREE property, so initial sampling focused on the approximately 460 – 100m * 100m (1 hectare) grid squares.

Sipriano Canti, BFREE’s head ranger, was trained specifically for the project and has been collecting these data points since October 2014. To collect the data, Canti walks to the center point of each grid, hammers a PVC post with a numbered metal tag into the ground, determines which of the ten habitat/cover classification best describes the plot, takes digital images in the four cardinal directions, then estimates the height of the canopy, and takes note of any unusual characteristics or features. We expect it will take several years to complete this extensive project.

The most immediate and utilitarian impacts of such a comprehensive map are that it will allow researchers to keep track of where ongoing research is being carried out, provide a visual tool to understand the characteristics and natural resources within the property, create a method to reference less frequented areas, and will allow future researchers to pick out potential research sites before they even arrive at BFREE.

More broadly, this initiative puts BFREE in a good position to monitor and document environmental changes over time—information that is crucial for BFREE and its researchers, as well as Belize and the world, especially in the face of climate change. A standardized base map of BFREE within the context of a large research plot will be a valuable contribution to science on a global scale.  For more information on this project and participating, contact Jacob Marlin at jmarlin@bfreebz.org.

 

Ant Foraging Behavior: A field exercise for student groups studying leaf cutter ant behavior at BFREE

Author, Amy Treonis, Department of Biology, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA

Introduction

Leaf cutter ants are unmissable denizens of the rainforest, and a visit to BFREE is not complete without spending some time observing their activities. Leaf cutter ants live in complex, agrarian societies. They harvest leaves, bring them back to their underground nests, which can host millions of ants, and feed the leaves to a cultivated, specialized fungus. The ants feed on the swollen tips of fungal hyphae, called gonglydia. The fungi live in obligate mutualism with the ants. Bacteria are also cultivated on the ants that produce antibiotics that help that keep foreign microbes out of the fungus culture.

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A field activity for student groups studying the Bladen River at BFREE and beyond

Author, Amy Treonis, Department of Biology, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA

Map of Monkey River Watershed, showing potential study sites

Introduction: The Bladen River is one of the most spectacular features of the BFREE field station, offering countless opportunities for ecological research.  The Upper Bladen watershed flows through the tropical broadleaf forest of the Bladen Nature Reserve, arriving at BFREE in a remarkably pristine state.  From there, the river flows downstream into the Monkey River and ultimately empties into the Caribbean Sea at Monkey River Town. The river flows through a landscape that is a mosaic of protected and agricultural lands, including cattle pastures, banana plantations and subsistence farms (i.e., milpa). Replacement of riparian vegetation with agriculture has destabilized soils in many places, resulting in increased erosion and sedimentation throughout the watershed. Ultimately, this impacts both wildlife and people that depend on the river’s health.  The river’s course has also been affected by natural events, such as Hurricane Earl in 2016.

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Field exercises for student groups studying small mammal communities at BFREE

Mouse opossum photo by Dan Dourson

As part of BFREE’s initiative to enhance field experiences for student groups, members of the education committee have designed field exercises focused on small mammals at BFREE. In January 2015, two permanent small mammal trapping grids were established in two habitats at BFREE: cacao agroforestry and tropical broadleaf forest. These permanent grids will facilitate the study of small mammals by student groups and will allow a better understanding of the differences in biodiversity between cacao and unmanaged forest habitats. Because this project is focused on the comparison of agroecosystems to natural habitats, it will also serve as a good example to students of the importance of integrating human needs and concerns in the disciplines of ecology and conservation biology.

Dr. Sara Ash and Audrey Ash weigh one of the small mammals trapped in the forest grid.

We recognize that instructors have limited time to invest in these field exercises. As such, we have written exercises that require varying levels of engagement, thus allowing for flexibility for instructors (Table 1). While all exercises focus on small mammal species living on BFREE’s property, the Gold exercise requires trapping on both grids, and the data collected from this exercise, when compiled with other groups, will have potential management implications.

Click here for links to further instruction including video demos.

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Herp Survey at BFREE

 

Researchers from L to R: Briana Sealey, Courtney Whitcher, Alison Davis Rabosky, Peter Cerda, Iris Holmes, Michael Grundler, John David Curlis, Erin Westeen, Maggie Grundler

This May, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, visited BFREE to do a survey of amphibians and reptiles. They worked for two weeks, both on the BFREE property and at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Between these places, they recorded 47 species. Two of those finds (one snake and one frog) were significant range extensions within Belize.

Iris Holmes, University of Michigan Researcher, measures a snake collected during the survey in the BFREE Lab.

In addition to a biodiversity survey, the researchers collected a variety of data on each animal. They recorded snake anti-predator displays and took high-quality photos to study snake and lizard anti-predator and social color displays. One project focused on how frogs fluoresce in the UV spectrum and found new accounts of biofluorescence in several species.

The researchers also took microbiome samples from frog skin and snake and lizard digestive tracts. These samples will be used to understand the parasites that infect these species, and the bacteria that might help protect their hosts against these parasites. Other researchers worked to test hypotheses the diets of snakes, lizards, and frogs. Understanding what animals eat is key to conserving them – animals can’t survive if they can’t get enough food! The team was happy to find such diversity and abundance in the amphibians and reptiles of Belize. It was a particularly special experience to be at BFREE as the hicatee turtles were hatching.  Watching animals emerge with the first rains of the wet season was a true privilege.

Wild Cat Research is Alive and Well at BFREE!

Jungle Encounters owners, Debi and Ed Willoughby and their group pose in front of a ceiba tree at the BFREE Field Station.

By Debi Willoughby, owner of Jungle Encounters

Jungle Encounters is conducting a long term field research project at BFREE using trail cameras to gather information about the five species of wild cats native to Belize. The mission is to use this data to develop and maintain conservation practices throughout Belize that will benefit both the native wildlife as well as the local people. The owners of Jungle Encounters visit BFREE 2-3 times a year to maintain the trail cameras and meet with BFREE’s staff to discuss the progress of this project. BFREE’s head ranger, Sipriano Canti, is in charge of maintaining the cameras year-round and provides Jungle Encounters with critical information to keep the project moving forward.

Jungle Encounters recently invited a group of people to BFREE to help with the project. The trip began with an “initiation” into BFREE by hiking the 6 mile long trail that leads to BFREE’s compound. It was a long, rain-soaked walk that introduced the group to the different habitats surrounding BFREE. After a brief rest and time to dry off, the team had a course on trail cameras, how they work and how to use them. This allowed the team to prepare the trail cameras to be put out in the field. Early the next morning the team, guided by Sipriano Canti, hiked the jungle trails looking for locations to set out the cameras. As we hiked, Canti taught us about the flora and fauna of the jungle and pointed out wildlife that we came across. It was an enlightening hike!

A jaguar captured on a Jungle Encounters field cam at the BFREE Field Station.

After getting the cameras set up in the jungle, the team took a break from talking about wild cats to learn about the turtle conservation work BFREE is involved in. Jacob Marlin brought us to their Hicatee Conservation and Research Center to learn about the amazing work BFREE has been doing with the endangered Hicatee Turtle. It was a delight to learn how successful BFREE has been with this conservation work!

The team kept Canti busy with jungle night hikes and an early morning climb up the tower to watch the wild birds start their morning flight over the awaking jungle. We saw a kinkajou, family of howler monkeys, fer-de-lance, tayra, multiple birds and even heard a jaguar calling by the river!

The rest of the trip involved maintaining the trail cameras, reviewing camera data and learning how to analyze it; enjoying a refreshing swim in the Bladen River which is surrounded by jungle life; relaxing in hammocks in the compound and brainstorming on how to improve the wild cat project.

The team left with a greater understanding of our wild cat research, a new respect for Belize and it’s wildlife and unique lifelong memories that they will share forever!

Monkey River Watershed Association Annual Press Meeting

On Friday, February 1, the Monkey River Watershed Association hosted a community meeting in Monkey River Village. The purpose was to present the working document ‘A Road Map for the Restoration of the Monkey River, Its Watershed and Its Shore,”  to community members and the funding agency, the United Nations Development Programme/ Small Grants Programme.    Residents within the watershed have seen dramatic degradation of the river over their lifetimes. As a result, in 2016, the Monkey River Watershed Association (MRWA) was formed with the intention of saving the river and those communities that rely on the river’s health. This road map was created to help communicate the issues and guide the decisions of MRWA and its partners. The document describes the most likely causes of the river degradation and erosion problems and outlines a long-term vision for the restoration of the river and its watershed for the benefit of all of its users and downstream ecosystems.    The road map was produced by: The Monkey River Water Association Board of Directors, Dr. Peter Esselman, and Nilcia Xi. Additional support was provided by BFREE, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT), Fyffes Inc., Belize Hydrology Department, Toledo Institute for Development of Environment, Southern Environmental Association, and Ya’axche Conservation Trust.   Monkey River Watershed Board of Directors include: Mario Muschamp, President; Jacob Marlin, Chairman; Ornella Cadle, Secretary; Elroy Foreman, Board Member; and Audra Castellanos, Treasurer.