Trying to summarise 6 weeks of an invaluable expedition in a way that justifies it is proving pretty much impossible each time I am asked ‘How was Mexico?’. I will say to anyone considering wildlife biology as a career, Operation Wallacea offer unmissable opportunities to immerse yourself in authentic and enlightening projects in various countries around the world. Working with a diverse group of volunteers and experienced academics, I learned more than I could have anticipated, and feel far more prepared and knowledgeable for working towards the career in research I hope to have one day.
The first 3 weeks was spent living remotely in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, a protected area of the Mayan forest. Here, we learned how to survey different animal taxa and forestry methods, before contributing to the biodiversity surveys collecting data.
An individual of Artibeus jamaicensis, a fruit-eating bat common to the peninsula. Bat surveys involved setting up mist nets at night, and upon successful capture of an individual, it would be identified and processed for morphometric measurements before release.
Here I am holding a Yucatan blunt-headed snake, during its processing. Another key group surveyed was herpetofauna, sampled on transect walks in the morning and at night. Encounters were recorded and if possible, temporarily captured for data collection.
Our volunteer research assistants and dissertation students atop one of the Calakmul ruins on a day off’s visit. We were shown the Mayan city ruins by project manager and primatologist Dr Kathy Slater, who after living in Mexico for 15 years could confidently act as our private tour guide.
Ornithologist Carmen Dionísio is holding the Yucatan peninsula’s famous blue-crowned motmot, known for its striking appearance and pendulum-like tail. Birds would be surveyed the same way as bats, but in early morning.
The second camp we stayed at, Dos Naciones, used tarps dually for rain cover and collecting freshwater to be filtered to drink. The benches, fire, shower and shelves are made each year, as the camp is temporary. Sleeping facilities are hammocks with integrated mosquito nets.
A keen eye will see the print of a jaguar. As large mammals are elusive, survey methods involve tracking them. I found this the most interesting terrestrial work, learning how to spot tracks and discern their identity and age. One similar to this was even found near our camp after we had a visitor one night.
The local guides assisting with tracking had an impressive plethora of knowledge on forest life. Pictured is an acacia tree we encountered, with its protective acacia ants abound. Seeing this symbiosis that I had studied in lectures in real life was both astounding and consolidating.
The latter 3 weeks were marine-focused. On scientific dives, we assisted with coral restoration and ecology studies. The first lionfish was encountered early; it is an infamous species that is widespread and invasive in the Caribbean, flourishing without predators and devastating herbivorous fish populations.
A colony of Acropora cervicornis, or staghorn coral, one of the important, reef-building hard corals sought for restoration. On coral mapping dives, we would note important data on the condition and size of encounters, in order for healthy colonies to be returned to for assisting with their sexual reproduction.
Coral biologist Jenny Mallon lives locally and leads the restoration efforts. Here is one of her nurseries, with new colonies growing, suspended from a line. Those that grow well are transplanted back onto the reef to increase 3-D complexity and encourage ecological reef diversity.
Assisting a Masters student with her data collection involved conducting fish transects, where numbers and species of fish were recorded, requiring us to learn how to identify 80 fish. This four-eye butterflyfish is a positive presence, indicating reef health as it is sensitive to environmental changes.