From Diego to the Bay-lize

Sierra McLinn has been the CRC Community Ecology Intern for 5 months, assisting us in conducting bird and aquatic surveys, as well as dissecting snails for their parasites (parasites are great biological indicators of species richness and local biodiversity!). Originally from San Diego, California, USA, she received her Bachelors of Arts in Biology from University of California, Santa Barbara.  From graduation she hoped on a plane and headed down to Belize to be the CRC’s 1st Community Ecology Intern. As we say good bye to Sierra, here is a reflection of her time as an intern with the CRC…

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Living in Belize while working as the Community Ecology Intern for the Crocodile Research Coalition has truly been an experience that you could never find in my home state of California. From eating breakfast on a dock while casually watching a boa constrictor kill and eat a greenish elaenia, to making a last minute sprint to catch a bus to conduct a necropsy on a croc that just died (you can only imagine how important it is to conduct necropsies ASAP in this tropical heat!), these past 5 months have given me enough stories that my mother is shocked that I still have all of my fingers and toes left.

In college, I studied animals from various environments from the confines of moldy 5-

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Sierra dissecting a manatee that died of natural causes

story buildings through pictures on PowerPoints, with the occasional fish necropsy. In Belize, however, I’ve identified 862 wild birds across 83 species including three species of toucans, and four species of parrots. I’ve seen agouti and green iguanas just outside of my house, driven by grey foxes, hiked by howler monkeys, kayaked past Antillean manatees and bottlenose dolphins, as well as both American and Morelet’s crocodiles. On my days off, I have snorkeled just inches from huge loggerhead sea turtles, spotted eagle sting rays, nurse sharks as well as of course countless species of fish.

While it has been incredible to see such a rich ecosystem of wildlife, the vast amount of bugs here have seemed far more excited to see me. In California, I could get away with just an occasional spritz of Skin So Soft oil to keep away what little mosquitoes might be around during the summer, however in Belize I would happily dip myself in DEET multiple times a day only to still feel the black flies gnawing chunks out of my legs. The encouraging note here is that this thankfully didn’t last forever, while my first few months here were spent with what felt like hundreds of mosquito bites covering my body, these bites became much less frequent and were not 1/10th as itchy as they had been before. When I first moved here I was always on edge, watching out for venomous fer-de-lance snakes as I walked through tall grasses, waking up throughout the night feeling cockroaches crawl all over my face and body, or going to do my dishes and finding scorpions in the sink. This was all just stuff I wasn’t used to. However, after living here for last 5 months I’ve honestly grown accustomed to it all. Yes, sometimes you need to shake out your shoes for tarantulas, but I’ve also seen the beauty that accompanies this. If you know me well, then you know my love for glitter is strong and I must say, there nothing quite like walking around in the dead of night and seeing your flashlight reflect the eyes of the thousands of spiders that result from a healthy arachnid population. That is the by far the best form of glitter I’ve seen here in Belize.

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What morphological data do researcher’s take?

Through working for the Crocodile Research Coalition, I have had so many opportunities in such a short amount of time that I wouldn’t have had with any one else. Personally, I have a debatably twisted love for cutting open and seeing exactly what lives in animals. While most people wouldn’t necessarily think of how interesting it could be to see the thousands of parasites that live in manatees or crocodiles; I am not most people. The best week I had in Belize by far was the week that I performed necropsies on BOTH an Antillean manatee and a Morelet’s crocodile. This was also the first time I performed necropsies outside in the heat and humidity so it was interesting to see how much doing things in the field can differ from controlled laboratory settings.

These past few months have made me grow an incredible amount of respect for the way field scientists gather their data because it does challenge you. Now when I read scientific articles talking about field ecology I will actually be able to understand what it may have taken to gather that data because I have been that research covered in mud at the dead of night after days of no sleep. While my position at the CRC didn’t even include any of the top 100 most intense field moments that the Co-Director Dr. Marisa Tellez or Research Coordinator Miriam Boucher have experienced, I still saw far more than I ever saw from my 3 years of working in a lab. From stepping off a kayak in the middle of the night onto what I had the unfortunate privilege of discovering a 5ft deep patch of mud where I expected to find solid ground, to getting thrown into a coughing spell from breathing in who knows how many moths that where attracted to my headlamp at night. Normal moments like these were something I had not really anticipated when I thought of the life of a field biologist. Working here has given me a deeper understanding for science and how much work goes into everything I had read about in research papers.

It’s amazing to me how the drive of the CRC never seems to slow down. Even though the

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Kayaking for biodiversity surveys

aim of the CRC is very research focused, there is still such a high priority placed on ensuring a well-rounded effort between global impact and local education. Through working here however, I’ve also seen that the two are far more connected than I thought. My final month here was coined CROCtober because of the emphasis on outreach that has dominated the month of October. While educational outreach has been a frequent part of every month that I’ve spent here, October is when we really kick it up a notch. In these past 5 months I’ve measured I don’t even know how many crocs, and while to me it’s become just apart of our analysis, there was recently an outreach at a local school where we had kids dress up in mosquito netting and measure an inflatable crocodile. These kids were so excited to tell me how long each leg was, or how long the tail was compared to the head. Because of the education from the CRC, these kids wont grow up terrified of the crocodile in their backyard but instead they’ll call us in excitement and assist in our conservation efforts.

While I still don’t yet know what my future as a zoology researcher will look like right now, I do know that what I’ve learned from the CRC will undoubtedly carry into whatever I end up doing. Here, I’ve seen the importance of spreading what you learn with local communities, as well as the focus that is placed on ensuring a high degree of quality in research for publication. I’ve done and seen so much here that I know it will be reflected in everything I do in my life moving forward.

Sandor Clegane