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Belize Dazzles Biological Science Students

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – JUNE 13, 2014 – Vanessa Treviño, 21, a senior biology major at The University of Texas at Brownsville, does not know how to swim. But she did not let it deter her from taking a class and a trip she learned about seeing informational flyers in the Life and Health Sciences Building.

“Fortunately, I was able to take a short lesson and become a c​ertified scuba diver so that made my decision that much simpler,” said Treviño, a 2011 graduate of La Joya High School in La Joya in Hidalgo County. “I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to see if marine biology could be a step in the right direction.”

UT Brownsville Associate Professor Dr. David Hicks and a group of students visited the Mayan Xunantunich Archaeological Site in Belize.  

​The University of Texas at Brownsville’s Department of Biological Sciences recently conducted its first research trip to Belize for students taking Coral Reef Ecology during Ma​ysemester.

Dr. David Hicks, Associate Professor and Department Chair, led a group of students for a week at the Calabash Caye Field Station managed by the University of Belize’s Environmental Research Institute in Belomopan, Belize. The facility is Belize’s first nationally ​owned​ and manag​ed marine research facility.

“The reef environments we visited were pristine, and some, particularly the Blue Hole, were truly unique,” said Hicks. “I am already planning for next year.”

The class was a combination of lectures, laboratory work and field studies to examine the evolutionary patterns and ecological importance of coral reefs.

Catheline Froehlich, 23, a second year graduate student in biology from Newton, Mass., signed up for the class to learn about natural coral reefs. Her graduate thesis focuses on fish surveys on artificial concrete reefs.

“The class was very fulfilling,” said Froehlich. “The first week we learned all about coral reef ecosystems, as well as the organisms that inhabited them. This allowed us to become familiar with the sites and associated systems we were going to visit.”

UT Brownsville students scuba dive in the coral reefs at the Calabash Caye Field Station managed by the University of Belize's Environmental Research Institute in Belomopan, Belize.  

Once landing in Belize, the group boated through a channel surround​ed by red mangrove forests. The group quickly held their first snorkeling session once arriving at Calabash Caye.

“We were welcomed by a vast seagrass bed infiltrated by sea urchins, elegant anemone, Halimeda algae, damselfish, snails and crabs,” said Froehlich. “Then there were the stoplight and princess parrotfish that swam around coral and munched on the hard coral so loud you could hear it underwater. What an experience of sensory overload! We got lucky because we even saw spotted eagle rays or southern stingrays.”

Treviño also enjoyed her views from underwater.

“The view was beautiful,” she said. “We encountered blue tang, French angelfish, parrotfish, spiny Caribbean lobsters, a sea turtle, octocorals, sea fans, sponges and so many other remarkable organisms that would take anyone’s breath away. We snorkeled every day and dove practically every day. We even had the chance to do a night drive and night snorkel.”

The University of Belize Environmental Research institute

Ricky Alexander, 28, a master’s student in biology from Evansville, Ind., did algal surveys on the leeward and windward sides of Calabash Caye.

“In general, windward sites were more diverse than leeward sites and patch reefs were more diverse than turtlegrass beds,” said Alexander. “The data was very neat, and that makes me a happy scientist.”

Students also did research on fish assemblages, lionfish diets, coral community structures, urchin densities and other oceanic topics.

After departing Calabash Caye, the group visited the not-for-profit education Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, an education and training center, east of Belmopan, Belize.

“Several of us camped in our tents for fun,” said Froehlich. “The array of plants, shrubs and trees was astonishing. Our guide was equipped with a machete which she used on countless occasions to cut down some vegetation. Walking through the jungle, we saw beautiful birds and insects in the greenery. Some flying splendors we saw included toucans, frigate birds, red footed boobies, cormorants and many others.”

On the last day of the trip, the group experienced some of Belize’s Mayan history by visiting the Xunantunich Archaeological Site near San Jose Succotz, a village located a few miles east of the Belize-Guatemala border.

“The climb up the hill and up the ruin was a long, steep one, but the view from the top of the ruin made it completely worth it,” said Treviño.

For more information contact the Department of Biological Sciences at 956-882-5040 or Academic Department Liaison Raquel Vasquez at



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