Lakeland University Blog

Students, faculty conduct research in Belize

Students, faculty conduct research in Belize


Students, faculty conduct research in Belize

Six Lakeland students and two faculty recently returned from a unique study abroad course that had them conducting research in the rainforest of Belize.

It’s the seventh time Lakeland has offered Tropical Ecology in Belize, which was created in 2008 by biology professors Paul Pickhardt and Greg Smith. Pickhardt led this trip with biochemistry professor Jered McGivern. Students on the trip included Mya Fettes, Quinn Gardner, Gerardo Ibarra, Gavin Malwitz, Brandon Uhlean and Kaylee Zipperer.

Belize is a tiny country, about the size of New Hampshire or Vermont, east of Guatemala on the eastern coast of Central America.

The centerpiece of the 15-day trip is nine days and eight nights at the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE), a private, protected area of 1,153 acres which adjoins what is now considered the largest tract of rainforest north of the Amazon.

It’s a hotspot for biodiversity where tapirs, howler monkeys, jaguars and harpy eagles are often spotted, and is the last stronghold for many endangered species.

BFREE, a nonprofit founded in 1995, strives to successfully integrate scientific research, environmental education, conservation and create sustainable development opportunities for alternative livelihoods for Belizeans.

After spending part of the first day in the local market to buy food for their visit, the group walked six miles in 95-degree heat to reach the BFREE jungle and conduct their research. The trip also included one night in a Mayan village, three days of coral reef explorations in a barrier caye and a visit to the national zoo.

Here is an overview of the research conducted by the students:

  • Ibarra, a biology major with a life science emphasis, and Uhlean, a biology and food safety & quality major, conducted a study testing trail displacements in leafcutter ant trail function. The two disrupted the trails of leafcutter ants in various ways and timed how quickly the ants could recover and get their process back to normal. They studied the various kinds of leafcutter ants and their roles, and how those roles were impact by their research.
  • Malwitz, a biology and chemistry major, and Zipperer, a psychology major with minors in biology and business, conducted a study assessing river snail forage availability to predict snail densities in the Bladen River. The pair spent most of their time in the Bladen River and they focused on three species of snails: river dart, black dart and quilted Melania. Their research included studying various patterns in how the snails fed.
  • Fettes and Gardner, who are the first business administration majors to participate in the class, conducted a study on the viability of using heirloom, shade-grown cacao (chocolate) within a lowland tropical forest preserve. They studied seeds from the Trinitario tree, which is most common source for most of the chocolate Americans consume, and the Criollo tree. They researched projected revenue from BFREE’s cacao tree production and learned about BFREE's chocolate bar production process.

The Belize travel course, which receives generous funding from 1969 Lakeland graduate Cliff Feldmann, will next be offered in May of 2024.

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