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Mayan Macal Magic

July 25, 2013
Samantha holds a Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) that we found during our walk in the Botanical Garden.

Samantha holds a Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) that we found during our walk in the Botanical Garden.

Our amazing day started touring the Belize Botanical Garden and meeting students who attend and are learning about horticulture here at Duplooy’s Lodge.  Several of us held a Cane Toad, whose defense is releasing a hallucinogenic compound in the mouth of a predator.  The botanical highlight from our morning walk was the Black Orchid, the national flower of Belize.  Collared Aracaris,  a Bat Falcon and colorful Social Flycatchers kept our binoculars glued to our faces.

The national flower of Belize - the Black Orchid.

The national flower of Belize – the Black Orchid.

After crossing the Mopan River on a hand-cranked ferry, we hiked up a long hill to the Xunantunich archeological site, which means “maiden of the rock.”  This ruin is the longest established archeological site in Belize, presenting the accomplishments of the ancient Mayan culture.  From the top of the ruin we could see the border between Guatemala and Belize.

Laura enjoyed the view down into the ceremonial area from the top of the temple at Xunantunich.

Laura enjoyed the view down into the ceremonial area from the top of the temple at Xunantunich.

We learned how the word “Mayan” came to be:  when Columbus arrived and communicated with the indigenous people in Belize, they said “ we don’t understand” which sounded to the Europeans like ‘mayan’.  There are three different types of Mayans in Belize: Mopan, Yucatan, and Ketchi.

We visited a local craft market with authentic handmade slate carvings, jewelry, colorful textiles and painted drums, before preparing for our afternoon canoe adventure.


Adrienne and David paddling down the Macal River.

Adrienne and David paddling down the Macal River.

We paddled in canoes down the Macal River for nearly 7 miles from Duplooy’s Lodge to the town of San Ignacio.  Each canoe harvested floating green figs from the river.  We saw a variety of birds: Neotropic Cormorants, Collared Aracari, and the most rare heron in the world:  the Agami Heron.  Even our native Belizean naturalist guide was speechless when he first saw it!

A Collared Aracari bends down from a branch to get some berries to eat.

A Collared Aracari bends down from a branch to get some berries to eat.

Some of the figs, which look like bright tennis balls, when cut open had tiny fig wasps inside.  We learned that these wasps pollinate the fig flowers from the inside — very different from most flowers.  The figs must be pollinated by the wasps, and in turn the wasps depend on the developing fig for a safe place to mature into an adult wasp.  This complex interaction was acted out in a fun play for better understanding — with some of us acting as fig wasps, and some of us as flower parts.  Such a fun way to learn!!

Robin and Kate acting out their parts in the fig wasp activity.

Robin and Kate acting out their parts in the fig wasp activity.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth Howard permalink
    July 26, 2013 6:42 am

    To all of you on this amazing trek… enjoy it ALL… every food, every sound, every critter, every sight, every person you come in contact with. Belize was my first EE travel adventure I went on more than 17 years ago! I still remember the child-like wonder we all experienced and it will remain with you and be passed on to your students, family and friends when you return home! Have you seen any sloths, ant eaters or red-eyed tree frogs? Liz, you have been to Belize for many years… are things becoming more “westernized” now or are there still areas (besides the interior of the cave) that you have no ambient light to disturb the star gazing? Have a wonderful trip and I look forward to reading your posts and living vicariously through you!

  2. July 26, 2013 9:13 am

    Oh Kate, I am so jealous! Hope you are enjoying every moment!

  3. KBaker permalink
    July 26, 2013 11:50 am

    I teach with David at Belville. I love that you have this blog so all of us here at home can follow this amazing journey. What an awesome experience!

  4. July 26, 2013 3:37 pm

    Happy Birthday, Robin! Love you and glad you’re having fun in Belize pretending to be a fig… or wasp. Say hello to the monkeys for me.

    Oh, I do have a question: how many plants have you checked off in your book?

    • lizbaird permalink
      July 29, 2013 5:24 pm

      Robin says she has checked nearly every plant off her list!
      She had a great birthday, although the days blended together so much we actually celebrated a day late and Robin did not figure that out until the next day! She was sung too many times during the day, including by every group of children from Monkey River!

  5. July 26, 2013 5:52 pm

    Looks like everyone is enjoying the trip and the wonderful new species of animals and birds in Belize. The orchid is one of the most unique I have ever seen and I have never seen one like that even in the Caribbean. I would love to know if on the trip to the Belize zoo, did anyone catch a glimpse of the Peregrines Falcon or the Mauritius Kestrel? Two species of bird that can be found at the zoo down there in Belize. I would love to see some pictures of them.

    • Kate Wernersbach permalink
      August 5, 2013 2:20 pm

      Hi Jenniel. Those are two animals we didn’t actually catch, but we were able to get up close and personal with several jaguars, and many of us held a boa constrictor and a baby crocodile, including me! (not at the same time of course!) The black orchid is Belize’s national flower and the keel-billed toucan is the national bird.

  6. July 27, 2013 8:04 pm

    Hi Liz: Were you able to get pictures of the agami heron? Please compare/contrast to other herons. Were the figs you collected on the river edible? If so, how are they prepared? Are there any Belizian teachers with the group this year? I didn’t see any listed in the group profile.

    • lizbaird permalink
      July 29, 2013 5:21 pm

      We took some pictures of the Agami Heron but they are really just a dark smudge! It reminded us a bit of a cross between a night heron and a Tricolor Heron. The figs we collected on teh river are not eaten by humans but many different animals eat them, including the fish in the river! We have 2 Belizean teachers with us and will try to get their bios posted tonight!

  7. Andrew Preston permalink
    July 28, 2013 9:22 am

    Wow I am really jealous!! I love to travel and participating in outside activities. On google I have looked up the fig wasp and saw so many pics. It was really interesting. What did the wasp feed on for food? How did the wasp get in the fig in the first place?
    I have also looked up the cane toad and that thing is huge! I have never seen a toad that big. What was some of the food it likes to eat? How did they actually realease the hallucinogenic compound directly in the mouth of a predator?
    I am really interested in seeing more about the animals and insects. I am actually traveling to jamaica soon and looking at the pictures of yall enjoying the Belize trip is making me more excited to go. I hope yall enjoy the rest of your trip!

    • Kate Wernersbach permalink
      August 5, 2013 2:24 pm

      AJ – the fig wasps and the fig feed off each other and need each other to grow and reproduce. The wasps initially get in the fig by tunneling an air hole inside the fig and then laying eggs. The hole will close up, but when it is time for the figs to leave, the male wasps tunnel a hole out for the females and the males die as soon as they get out. That’s the general gist of a complicated process – I think I have it mostly right 🙂 We re-enacted the whole scenario. The cane toad was very cool and I actually got to hold him. I can’t remember what he eats right now, sorry! Hope your trip to Jamaica is fabulous – I’m sure you’ll see some of the same animals and insects!

  8. Ruth Steidinger permalink
    July 29, 2013 10:06 am

    Love seeing my sister, Laura, an inspiring teacher, have this opportunity!!!!

  9. Renee permalink
    July 29, 2013 9:44 pm

    David, it looks like the week-long kayaking staff development you and Christina attended has paid off. I so envy you and hope you are having as good a time as it appears. What is the most surprising thing you have experienced thus far?

  10. Jesse Rodriguez permalink
    July 31, 2013 7:53 pm

    I was reading that Belieze has the only known jaguar preserve int he world and that it looks like you might have visited it. Wow! What was it like to see a jaguar live? I also read that Belieze is the only country in South America that has English as its official language…why is this and did it make the trip easier? I used to SCUBA dive in Japan, it was amazing…were you able to SCUBA dive in the Belieze Natural Reegfs or did you all just snorkle? Either way, was the water amazing…similar to North Carolina in the summer or was it warmer?

    • Kate Wernersbach permalink
      August 5, 2013 2:29 pm

      Jesse – we didn’t get to see a jaguar. They tend to stay away from people and the preserve is so huge that they have plenty of room to stay away! We did see tracks one morning for possibly a margay or an ocelot – two smaller species of the big cats, and we saw tracks for a Baird’s tapir. Belize was a British colony until 1981, so that is why they speak English. Many Belizeans also speak Creole – which is based on English, but much harder for us to understand! It was fun to learn some Creole from the Belizean teachers who traveled with us! We just snorkeled – from a little island off the coast called South Water Caye. It was fabulous! Water was mostly warm – sometimes you’d hit cold patches and amazingly clear – we saw parrotfish, sergeant majors, barracudas, huge starfish, yellow stingrays, upside down jellyfish and some people got to see a nurse shark!

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