The following was a term paper written for my conservation biology class in collaboration with Hallie Draegert
It is a well-known fact that the human population is increasing in size. The growth of one population, the humans, tends to impact other populations negativity. In this case, the concern is the impact it has on wildlife populations. As long as wildlife and human populations coexist problems will arise. These problems can occur in response to tension between local human communities and the attempts of organizations working to conserve native populations of animals. Often these organizations seem to forget that the local’s livelihoods depend on exploiting the local animals. This has led to the creation of conservation models that do not work because they did not consider the local politics.
One of the most common crimes committed is poaching. Poaching has led directly to the extinction of many species and induces stress, on currently stable species. This could make future extinction of the population an issue that needs to be addressed. Since poaching is a serious problem for highly stressed species, it is critical to work to prevent the crime. There are many current techniques used to reduce and combat poaching. However, the issue has not been fully resolved. This is likely because only a single model is in use at a time in an area.
There are many dynamic relationships in the rainforests of the world. Which is expected as they are home to up to 40 percent of known plant and animal species. Within the forest there are a widely variety of symbiotic relationships, which means there are interactions between two species. For some species the relationship is beneficial for both parties, this is call mutualism. For example the Brazil nut trees (Bertholletia excelsa) produces a nut that is an only be cracked by a few species, one of which is various agouti (Dasyprocta sp.) which is a small rat like animal. The tree benefits as it’s seeds are dispersed and the agouti receives a free meal.
English: A Central American Agouti (Dasyprocta punctata) in Panama experimenting with a western diet.
In some cases one species is unaffected and the other benefits, this is commensalism. A example of this would be a frog sheltering itself from a storm event under the leaves of a plant. The plant is un effected but the frog benefits. Lastly, parasitism is when one species is harmed and the other benefits. Bot flies are a common tropical parasite that lay their eggs on a mammal host. The eggs then hatch and the larva develop in the skin of the host animal.
A frog in the rain in Belize. Image by Lauren Schramm
Competition is a symbiotic relationship in while two species use the same resources. Because it requires an energy investment both species are harmed, but the harm may be unequal. Many rainforest plants are animal pollinated or their seeds are dispersed by animals. Resource partitioning occurs when a resource is divided among species in some way like time or place. One way plants reduce their competition against each other is by targeting different animal groups. For example flowers pollinated by bats are often white making them easier to see at night, while flower pollinated by other animals are red, orange, and yellow. Bat pollinated flowers also contain a musky smells, while flower pollinated by moths, bees, and other insects have a strong fragrance. Plants also reduce competition by flowering and fruiting at different times. This is one reason there are always flowers and fruits available in the rainforest at any given time.
A harmful aquatic algae bloom is when there is sudden a rapid growth of algae. In the past these were more commonly referred to as red tides. These populations of algae in term then produce extracellular compounds that can cause harm and even death to humans and wildlife and fish. Shellfish that are subjected to HABs cause humans to get sick. In rare cases people can even die. HABs most commonly occur in the oceans and large freshwater lakes, such as the Great Lakes.
Often HABs occurs due to nutrient runoff but it is important to understand these have been occurring for millions of years. There are fossilized HABs and fossils of whales found in a proximity and quality near the fossilized HABs that is is theorized the HABs resulted in the death of the whales. Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of HABs so it is clear we need to develop tools to predict and mitigate risks with HABs.
I looked at research into using remote sensing to predict algal blooms of Karenia brevis in coastal Florida. This algal is responsible for the most red-tides in Florida. It produces a neurotoxin that kills aquatic life and makes shellfish toxic to humans. Researchers used a geographic information system (GIS) to develop a machine learning method to detect harmful algal blooms (HABs).
Benthic organisms are remarkably diverse and vary with habitat. They include protozoa (like amoebas), sponges, cnidarians, flatworms, nematodes, isopods, crayfish, amphipods, mollusks, gastropods, leaches and aquatic worms, pelecypods, insects, and fish. Benthic species I have observed in my area (Cobb County, Georgia) include the Asian Clam (Corbicula fluminea), larval brook salamanders (Eurycea sp.), common sunfishes (Lepomis sp.), the Chattahoochee Crayfish (Cambarus howardi), caddisfly larva (Order Trichoptera), damselflies and dragonflies larval (Order Megaloptera), mayfly larva (Order Ephemeroptera), dragonflies and damselfly larval (Order Odonata), aquatic worms (phylum Annelida), Eastern Dobsonfly larval (Corydalus cornutus), water snakes (Nerodia sp.), longjaw minnow (Ericymba amplamala), river Cooter (Pseudemys concinna), true bugs (Order Hemiptera), true flies larval (Order Diptera), beetles (Order Coleoptera) and stonefly larval (Order Plecoptera). It is worth noting some of these species may only occupy the benthos for a period.
Image of a Brook Salamander. Brook salamanders are a genus, Eurycea, image by Lauren Schramm
In some streams, Asian clams, an invasive aquatic species, can be one of the largest components of the benthic invertebrate community (Poff et al.,1993), however this is not the case in all streams in Cobb County. Black et al. (2003) evaluated benthic macroinvertebrate populations of two local streams: Sope Creek and Rottenwood Creek. In Sope Creek they found Ephemeroptera and Diptera to be the dominant orders. In Rottenwood Creek they found Trichoptera and Diptera to be the dominant orders.
An Asian Clam (Corbicula fluminea). Image by Lauren Schramm.
Corbicula fluminea is a species of freshwater clam that is native to eastern Asia and has become an extraordinarily successful invader of freshwater ecosystems and is found on every continent except for Antarctica (Leff et al., 1990; Hornbach, 1992; Karatayev et al., 2007; Lucy & Graczyk, 2008; Sousa et al., 2008a; Crespo et al., 2015). It is widely theorized they were introduced as a food source on the west coast of the United States and were first discovered in the country in 1938 (Sinclair & Isom, 1963; Counts, 1981). Impressivly, C. fluminea have the highest secondary production values ever measured for a species colonizing a freshwater ecosystem and the highest record net productivity for any bivalve (McMahon, 2002; Sousa et al., 2008b). While there are multiple species of Corbicula that are invading aquatic systems, the most common species is C. fluminea (Renard et al., 2000; Siripattrawan et al., 2000). There are several factors that have led to successful invasions of C. fluminea including high fecundity, functional hermaphroditism, self-fertilization, rapid sexual maturity, lack of a parasitic life stage, pedal feeding (that is feeding via the cilia on the foot) and filter feeding, and the ability to disperse across long distances (McMahon, 2002).
The Gaia theory was first introduced in 1979 by James Lovelock in his book Gaia a New Look at Life on Earth. The basic idea is that the earth is a self-regulating entity. While the theory was a scientific one, it launched a new pantheism religion known as Gaia worship or Gaianism, whose practitioners are known as Gaians. While Gaia worship is not new and Gaia is the oldest divine being who dates back to prehistoric times, the concepts of this religion are. For example, Gaianism is monotheistic while Gaia worshipers of the past were polytheists. Central to both the Gaia theory and the beliefs of Gaian is the concept that the earth is a self-aware being that is able to self-regulate. The relationship between the earth and Gaia is that of your body and you. The Gaians believe that this is their goddess. Many of the core concepts of this fringe pagan group stem from the Gaia theory or are directly linked to it. The three core concepts of Gaianism are honor the earth, reduce human impact on the earth, and be respectful of life in all forms and of the systems that support them.
The religion tends to be much unorganized due to the nature of pagan religions. There is a very negative cultural associated with the word pagan, therefore, many pagans prefer not to state their religion. In addition, those who have not heard of the religion obviously will not follow it. Since it is not that popular not many people have heard of Gaianism. However, the most organized group of Gaianism developed from a Wicca coven in New York City. This group called themselves Gaia Group, but was created from Coven of Caerlleuad (Castle of the Moon) in August of 1983. This group saw that other Wicca groups were changing to have more future thinking outlook rather than trying to preserve the traditions of the past. The group saw this as holding them back due to the fact the negative views of Wicca are based mostly on their past practices. The group also saw the belief systems of the past as no longer relevant. In order to make the religion more universally accepted they replaced welsh traditions and gods with an ethic focused on Gaia. The group focuses on the ideals of repairing this world and the fact that we are members of a larger community. They took part in many protests and had a strong emphasis on community service. Unfortunately, the group disbanded in 1998.
If you spend any amount of time in the town of Wimberly, Texas locals will be sure to mention the flood that happened in 2015. 13 people died and 350 homes were destroyed. However, there was a silver lining to the flood, a large number of fossils, including dinosaur footprints were discovered in the Blanco River. These footprints were discovered when the City of Blanco GIS manager was reviewing aerial photographs. From the photographs, we can clearly see the footprints of a four-legged dinosaur (or sauropod). Based on the distance between the front feet, foot size, time at which the tracks where made, and stride length it’s like that the tracks belong to Paluxysaurus Jonesi, or as anyone who has watched the land before time would call it, a longneck. It’s actually the state dinosaur of Texas. The footprints are located on federal owned land that you can only access with a ranger and I’m not sure if the public can visit. I was able to visit through the master naturalist program. Here is a link to other dinosaur footprint site in Texas you can visit though.
There were a ton of other fossils the rangers pointed out to us as well. The most mind-blowing to me was a microfossil. At one point we were walking in some small gravel and the ranger told us to look down. Turns out we were actually walking on millions of microfossils of a former unicellular organism that lived in the ocean. The sheer number of them was astounding. The concept of microfossils is pretty crazy too. Researchers can actually find microfossils of plankton or pollen and learn a lot about what past environments where like.
As a cave lover, I have been on a lot of cave tours and during the tour, the cave ecosystem is always something that is discussed. They are very unique and fragile systems. The most important factor in depending on what the environment is like in the cave is what zone you are in. Caves are divided into 3 zones; the entrance, the twilight zone, and the dark zone. In the entrance, there might be green vegetation and there is a lot of light, the temperature is more variable. In the twilight zone, there is less light and minimal plant life. Finally, in the dark zone, there is no plant life and the temperature generally stays the small all year round. In most caves, it’s around 55 degrees Fahrenheit or so. All of the nutrients in this zone have to come from outside the cave.
Trogloxenes and Troglobites are also important terms to know for understanding cave ecosystems. A trogloxene is a species who uses caves but they don’t spend their entire life in one. An example of this is bears or raccoons. Bats also fall into this category as they must leave caves to find insects to consume. The material brought in by trogloxenes and their poop are the only resources that troglobites have to use besides debris that may wash into a cave during a storm. In a lot of caves, bat dropping can actually serve as the major source of nutrients. Troglobites spend their entire lives in caves. A lot of caves have unique species of troglobites because they don’t leave and therefore don’t have any other populations to breed with. These species generally have really interesting cave adaptions like lack of eyes or any pigment. Pigment is lost in the cave environment frequently because it doesn’t benefit the organism and is energetically expensive to produce. Common examples of these species are cave crickets, spiders, psuedoscorpions, salamanders, crawfish and more.
Belize is found within the tropics. The tropic is the region between the tropic of cancer and the tropic of Capricorn. More specifically Belize is found in the Neotropics which are the new world tropics (Central America, South America and the Caribbean). Between 80-90 percent of known species live within the tropics. Belize also has a wide diversity of habitats including savanna, rainforest, mangroves, and coral reefs. See the below photos, taken by yours truely, that show just some of the diversity Belize has to offer. It has one of the largest reefs in the world which is able to support a large number of species.
Within tropical forests, there are many ways in which a species can specialize. This is because a large number of nutrients and space resources are available. This type of environment can create endemic species which are species whose range is limited to a certain geographic area. When there is a high number of endemic species there is a high level of biodiversity.
In comparison to other nearby areas Belize has a high number of native forests, 65-70 percent of the country is covered by the native forest. In part this is because some areas are too remote to sustain development. Native forests are found to have greater diversity than secondary forests. A large area of the country is a part of reserves, about 26 percent of the land and sea, and 33 percent of the land. The average percent for land conserved across Latin America is 20 percent.
Belize contains 4000 species of flowering plants, 730 tree species, and 280 orchids. Its biodiversity is high compared to the surrounding regions because of the island biogeography theory. Basically what this means is that the level of species on a landmass is contrast (but not necessarily the same species) and species richness is positively correlated with landmass size. So the greater the landmass the more species there will be. Since the Caribbean is made up of islands then there cannot be as many species as a place on the mainland like Belize.
Indicator species are species that are heavily influenced by the quality of the environment in which they live. Because of this, they are often used to gauge the health of the ecosystem. Because amphibians breath through their skin they are considered an indicator species. In Belize, there are 37 species, in 10 families. In contrast, Bermuda only has 3 species of amphibians, in 2 families. This can be explained by the latitudinal diversity gradient. Belize is much closer to the equator than Bermuda and other Caribbean nations. The theory says that species richness declines the further away from the equator you move. Because there are many species in the tropics the species are often found in low abundances.
There are many theories on why diversity is high in the tropics including high speciation rate, low extinction rate, more net primary productivity, structurally complex ecosystems, and stable climate over time. In addition, there is lots of rain in the tropics which means that lots of water is available. Species like epiphytes greatly benefit from this. The environment has been stable over time so likely the species there today are similar to those in the past. However because there are a large number of species, none dominates. This means that each occurs in a low number. In areas with fewer species, there are often dominant species.
The San Marcos River is a spring-fed river located between Austin, Texas and San Antonio, Texas. The San Marcos River is only 75 miles long and eventually joins with the Guadalupe River. At the headwaters the river is crystal clear, thanks to the headwaters being spring fed. It is the crown jewel of Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas and is a popular site for tubing but few know about the interesting animals that live in the river. In fact, it’s considered one of the most diverse aquatic habitats in the southwestern United States.
It’s home to an endemic species of river grass, called Texas Wild Rice (Zizania texana). Other inhabitants of the river include freshwater mussels (including the Golden Orb (Quadrula aurea)), turtles, prawns, Guadalupe bass (Micropterus treculii), and suckermouth catfish (Hypostomus plecostomus). The later as nonnatives, that were accidentally released into the river by humans. The river is also home to the endangered foundation darter (Etheostoma fonticola). It formerly was home to the endangered. San Marcos Gambusia (Gambusia georgei) but the species hasn’t been seen in recent years. There are a few other endangered species you can read about here.
The headwaters of the river come from Spring Lake in San Marcos, which was originally created by a dam. You can watch the lake turn into the river from the patio at Saltgrass Steak house. The lake is fed by the Edwards Aquifer. You can actually dive in the lake, or take a glass-bottom boat (at the Meadows Center) and see the aquifer producing water. If you park in this area and access the river via the culvert by the Freeman Aquatic Center the island is actually a great source of arrowheads after a large rain event.
The Meadows Center is located where a former amusement park was located called Aquarena Springs. The park was home to “real” mermaids and a diving pig. Today you can still find pony beads from the former clown act and bottle caps from an act the mermaids did in which they drank coke underwater. Technically the beads and caps are artifacts so you are not supposed to take them but that doesn’t stop people.