Sixth form/ High School
Honduras – School Expeditions
The forests of Central America are some of the most species diverse forests in the World partly because they are the meeting point of two great faunas – those from North America and those from South America which have both evolved separately. Many of these forests have now been badly damaged but there is a proposal to join currently discontinuous areas of forest into a continuous Meso American Forest Corridor running from the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico (where there are other Opwall teams) to the forests of Panama. Part of this corridor will be the cloud forests of the Cusuco National Park in Honduras which, sadly, has suffered significant deforestation. The Opwall survey teams have been working in Cusuco Park since 2003 and the data produced has resulted in the park being listed in the top 100 most irreplaceable forest sites in the world from a review of 173,000 protected areas worldwide. All the data collected by the Opwall teams have been summarised into a report using the Natural Forest Standard guidelines. This report will then be independently verified and once this is completed, Carbon Natural Forest Credits can be issued and sold by the Honduras Forestry Department to multinational companies wishing to offset their carbon emissions and simultaneously helping biodiversity. Funding raised in this way is then used to manage and protect the park.
In the Caribbean there are a number of core issues that have been affecting the biodiversity of the reefs – including the decline of sea urchins that allowed algal colonisation of reef areas, lionfish (an unregulated invasive species) spreading across the Caribbean that acts as a predator of reef fish and overfishing of reef fish by local communities. Opwall has monitoring sites in Cuba, Dominica, Mexico and Honduras, thus achieving a good representation of the Caribbean. One of the Honduran sites is on the island of Utila and the second on the island of Roatan. Research efforts at these sites aim to address key conservation concerns for the wider Caribbean in order to build our understanding of how best to improve the health of Caribbean coral reefs throughout the region.
Structure of the expedition
The Honduras expedition is run in the endemic rich cloud forests of the Cusuco National Park. The students spend their first week in a forest camp and will be on site with an international team of academics collecting data on the carbon, biodiversity and community benefits of the forest.
The second week will operate from one of two marine research sites run by Operation Wallacea – Utila or Roatan. The main research objective at these sites is to complete annual monitoring of the coral and reef fish communities so the effectiveness of the management strategies at the two sites can be assessed. These efforts are run alongside educational programs designed to give students a foundation in coral reef ecology.
The expedition can be structured so that both weeks are marine only.
Forest and marine expeditions
Students will spend their first week between two remote forest camps in the montane cloud forests of Cusuco National Park, and will travel to one of the Bay Islands for their second week which will be focussed on dive training or completing a reef ecology course.
Week 1: Cusuco National Park
Students’ time will be split between two research camps. Over the course of the week the groups will participate in the many surveys and activities running at the different camps, including the following:
- Jungle skills training: Students will learn to work safely in a forest research site and about the survey techniques being used. In addition the students can partake in a short optional course on learning how to ascend into the canopy. Canopy access training costs US$170 or £110 extra for this additional course.
- Forest measurements: Students will be working in teams each completing measurements of 20m x 20m quadrats to collect data on the diameter at breast height of all woody species, canopy height, quantity of vegetation at different heights from a touch pole, light penetration to forest floor using a canopy scope, evidence of disturbance and sapling density.
- Invertebrate surveys: A light trap is being run at each camp to monitor nocturnal invertebrates such as moths and jewel scarab beetles. Pitfall traps baited with dung need checking and emptying regularly as do other traps used to survey the genetic diversity of the invertebrate communities in the park. Other projects include the diversity of aquatic invertebrates in bromeliads and use of freshwater invertebrates to assess water quality.
- Bird surveys: The students will be helping the survey teams with assessing bird communities from point counts and mist net surveys where the students will learn how to identify birds in the hand and take morphometric measurements.
- Herpetofauna surveys: The reptile and amphibian communities will be assessed from standard search time surveys and pitfall trapping. Species are identified and GPS coordinates taken. The Cusuco Park is particularly important for amphibians and these small and unique populations are suffering from chytrid fungal infections which in most cases is fatal. The survey teams are collecting swab samples from all captured amphibians to check for the presence of the fungus using the on-site genetics lab.
- Mammal surveys: This survey involves checking previously baited traps for small mammals, identifying any individuals caught and marking them before release (mark-release-recapture). Tissue samples are also taken, for stable isotope analysis, providing useful information on food web dynamics. In addition camera traps are being used to describe large mammal communities.
- Bat surveys: Students will be shown how mist netting for bats can be used to monitor changes in bat community structure and/or abundance over time. Captured bats are removed, handled, identified and morphometric measurements recorded.
In addition to the above practicals the students will also complete a course (in camp) on Neotropical ecology including: rainforest structure and biodiversity, adaptations and co-evolution, amphibians and reptiles, cloud forest birds, cloud forest mammals and conservation synthesis.
Week 2: Marine week on Utila Island or Roatan
During their marine week the groups will be based at either the Coral View Research Centre on Utila or Ecodivers in West End, Roatan, depending on availability. At both sites the students will be completing one of the following options:
- A full PADI Open Water dive training course
- combining theory lessons, confined water dives and open water dives to gain an official scuba diving qualification
- Completion of a Caribbean coral reef ecology course
- teaching identification of common genera and species of coral and other macro-invertebrates, identification of the major reef-associated fish families and common species and introduces a variety of methods and practices used for scientific research in the marine environment
Marine only expedition
These expeditions are split between the two marine sites, Utila and Roatan, and give students an opportunity to spend some of their time working towards a more in-depth research project.
Week 1: Training week
PADI Open Water dive training course or a Caribbean coral reef ecology course (as per the forest and marine expeditions above).
Week 2: Research experience week
In this week the students will be able to complete mini research investigations involving one or more of the following data collection methods:
- Stereo video surveys: Students will have the opportunity to have the survey technique demonstrated and will then work with the fish specialist back at the lab identifying and measuring fish from the video data.
- Line intercept video surveys: Students will have the opportunity to collect line intercept video data and then back in the lab with the coral specialist will be helping to measure coral cover and coral community structure data from the video data.
- Macro-invertebrate surveys: Students will be helping with an underwater belt transect to complete surveys of the keystone urchin species Diadema antillarum.
Half of the time in the forest will be spent either in Base Camp or the mountain village of Buenos Aires whilst the other part will be spent in one of the more remote forest camps at Guanales or Cantiles. At Base Camp students will be in tents and there are toilets and showers. For those staying in Buenos Aires accommodation is in local houses. From Base Camp it is approximately a 3-4 hour trek to your satellite camp where accommodation is in hammocks or tents (depending on availability) and with the river as the shower facility.
The teams are based at the Coral View Research Centre, a one-hour ferry crossing from the mainland. Accommodation is in shared rooms with fans. The hotel is situated beside the island’s fringing coral reef and its largest mangrove lagoon.
At Ecodivers, a 90 minute ferry crossing from the mainland, accommodation is in shared cabins with fans, located on a small peninsula surrounded by pristine coral reefs.
Scuba diving at both sites is a combination of shore and boat diving.