Hendrix Professors and Students Study Coral Reefs in Belize

After commencement, Hendrix biology faculty members Dr. Jenn Dearolf and Dr. Adam Schneider traveled with 16 students from Dearolf’s Marine Biology class on a 10-day trip to San Pedro, Belize, on the island of Ambergris Caye.

The group spent eight days on the water, snorkeling various sites on the Belize Barrier Reef, the longest barrier reef in the Caribbean. 

Because of the pandemic, very few people had visited the reef for more than a year. As a result, Dearolf, Schneider, and the students saw an abundance of animals, including three manatees and a pod of seven dolphins, which hung out with them for over 30 minutes.

Sadly, they also observed the skeletons of pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindricus), a unique type of coral. There were two large stands of this coral directly in front of San Pedro. Both stands were thriving in March 2020, when the directors of Belize Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC), the facility at which Dr. Dearolf’s group stayed, had to leave the island because of covid-19. When they returned this May and visited the site with her group, the coral was dead. Currently, it is unclear why this coral died, but it has been struggling throughout the Caribbean and on the Florida reefs.

To help preserve corals, Dr. Dearolf and her students are studying environmental conditions conducive to the growth of elkhorn coral (Acropora palmata), another important coral species in the Caribbean. Elkhorn and staghorn coral (A. cervicornis) are the major reef builders in this region. 

For their study, Dr. Dearolf’s students measured the height and width of coral stands at sites where this coral is abundant and where it is not. They also recorded environmental parameters (e.g., light levels, current speeds, and water temperature) and collected water samples. The water samples are analyzed for the concentrations of ions that are important for the growth of the coral.

Each of the students in the Marine Biology class will write up the results of their experiment in the form of a scientific journal article and submit it to complete their work for the class. In addition, a subset of the students who traveled to Belize will also earn Global Awareness (GA) Odyssey credit by writing a paper reflecting on their experiences in Belize and snorkeling on the barrier reef.