June 20, 2023

UM Professors Lead Conservation Biology Class on Trip to Belize

Adventures and discoveries were plentiful for University of Montevallo professors Dr. Susan Caplow and Dr. Jill Wicknick and a group of 16 students that they took on a trip to Belize in April. The class spent nine days exploring the country’s ecological offerings and learning about conservation efforts through a study abroad field program hosted by the Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

This is the third time that Caplow, associate professor of environmental studies, has led a class trip to Belize. She also studied abroad there for a semester when she was in college.

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Students on a conservation biology trip to Belize“Belize is a really good first international experience because the official language is English,” Caplow said. “It’s not physically very far away, but it also feels like another country. You certainly don’t feel like you’re right next to the U.S. It’s also a beautiful place with a barrier reef, mountains, rivers and tropical forests. It’s magical.”

Wicknick, associate professor of biology, taught the conservation biology course attached to the trip. Prior to the trip, her students engaged in different group projects and presentations related to international travel and animals they would see in Belize. For many of them, it would be their first time overseas.

Each day of the trip brought new experiences like trail hiking, boat excursions, canoeing on the Sibun River and snorkeling at Tobacco Caye, which is home to a six-foot Moray eel, squids, octopus and hundreds of fish species.

Students on a conservation biology trip to Belize“I remember one of the students on our first full day of snorkeling said, ‘this is the best day of my life.’ It was just such a unique and rewarding experience for them,” Wicknick said.

The students also visited various wildlife preserves, including the Community Baboon Sanctuary in the Bermuda Landing Village, home to more than 3,000 black howler monkeys; the Belize Zoo, which exclusively houses the country’s unique fauna; the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a 128,000-acre jaguar preserve; the South Water Caye Marine Reserve, Belize’s second largest marine reserve; and the Green Iguana Conservation Project Center, which aims to educate the public about endangered Green Iguana species in Belize.

The class lent a hand with conservation efforts like removing invasive lionfish — their guide caught several and they feasted on lionfish ceviche — and searching for “nurdles,” which are small lentil-sized pieces of plastic used to make larger pieces of plastic.

Students on a conservation biology trip to Belize“Tobacco Caye is this tiny island where nothing is produced, and yet we found nurdles all over the beach,” Wicknick said. “So, we were looking for those and talking about plastic and the impact of this on wildlife, and how that can cause problems and sometimes death when they get into water systems.”

Aside from conservation-related  activities, students also soaked up some ancient history at the Xunantunich Mayan Ruins, where they tried some traditional Yucatec cuisine and climbed “El Castillo,” a 130-foot-tall pyramid covered in intricate carvings.

The group got a chance to leave their mark on Belize, painting a sign for the study abroad display wall of groups that had visited Monkey Bay. Two of the students, one of them an art major minoring in environmental studies, painted UM mascot Freddie the Falcon with a lionfish in his mouth on the back of a swimming flipper. The students all signed their names.

Students on a conservation biology trip to Belize“I think the students had a great attitude collectively,” Caplow said. “They were curious, they were engaged, they were excited and they were flexible when we had to pivot. I think they really got a lot out of it because they were willing to think and talk about it and not just be on autopilot, but really be intentional about the experience.”

Caplow and Wicknick have discussed other ecotourism destinations for future class trips like Costa Rica or Iceland, but they would be interested in taking another class to Belize one year.

“It’s remarkable how much biodiversity is there,” Wicknick said. “And it really gives you a lot of hope that maybe we can save some of it.”