2019 Fall Hicatee Health Assessment

Biannual health assessments continue to serve two important purposes. 1) They allow us to check the
general and reproductive health of all captive animals, and 2) they enable us to continue to gather
growth data which is added to our long-term dataset on the species.

Understanding whether or not our turtles and their environment are healthy is critical to the success of
the work at the HCRC. Therefore, we bring in veterinarians who specialize in reptiles and can address
immediate needs like injury or infection, as well as help diagnose other chronic issues that have to be
dealt with appropriately over the long-term. The veterinarians look for signs of aggression and check the
reproductive health of mature females and males to ensure that the conditions in this captive
environment are optimal for a productive breeding population of turtles. They also look for signs of
malnutrition and overcrowding in our captive born turtles. Because these animals are completely
herbivorous and they generally haven’t been raised successfully in captivity over long periods of time,
we have lots of questions about ensuring that their diet is enough for them.

Creating a long-term dataset on this population helps ensure that others working with the species can
benefit from the knowledge we have gained. Earlier this year, we published our first scientific note
describing the physical characteristics including size and weight of our captive-born population using
data collected immediately after hatching. Although the species dates back to the dinosaurs, this
information had not been collected or published prior to our note. In fact, there is very little information
published on Hicatee turtles, making these assessments an ideal time for visiting researchers to collect
other data in addition to growth metrics.

Our health assessments also benefit the humans who participate by creating opportunities for students,
scientists, zookeepers and veterinarians to expand their skills to the field and allowing them to work
with a rare and unique species – one which most people never have access to.

During this fall’s health assessment, we were once again lucky to bring together a great team and we
achieved all of our goals. The adult and subadults continue to be healthy and growing, and the same is
true for the captive-born turtles who are adjusting to their new home in the recently completed rearing
pond. A few of the youngest turtles were identified as not thriving so they traveled with Dr. Isabelle back
to the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic in Cayo to remain under her care until they are a bit stronger.

This year’s veterinarian team was comprised of Dr. Shane Boylan, lead veterinarian from the South Carolina Aquarium, Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, BWRC, and Dr. Sean Perry, DVM, is a PhD candidate specializing in reptiles at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. We are grateful to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their funding of the fall health assessment.


GUEST BLOG BY 2019 FALL HEALTH ASSESSMENT VOLUNTEER

My name is Stevie Cisek.  I am currently a Wildlife Educator at Ohio Wildlife Center, which is a non profit organization that is dedicated to fostering awareness and appreciation of Ohio’s native wildlife through rehabilitation, education and wildlife health studies. Prior to being an educator, I attended Otterbein University where I graduated with a degree in Zoo and Conservation Science. During my time as an Otterbein student I had the opportunity to travel to Belize to attend a field course at BFREE. This was where I first learned about  the Hicatee and the conservation efforts being done by the TSA and BFREE to save this critically endangered species. It was at this time that I learned that the HCRC was the only facility of its kind in Belize. The research being done there is providing vital knowledge about the behavior and biology of the Hicatee turtle, which little is known about. The information gained via these efforts will then be used to help make informed strategies and actions to help preserve this amazing species.  I had the opportunity to return to BFREE for my second time to help with the fall health assessments. I was excited to learn that their breeding program had been so successful in the last year. They now have so many hatchlings that they will begin working on the next phase of their conservation efforts. The reintroduction of individuals back into the areas where the Hicatee populations have either declined or have been extirpated from. With overharvesting for human consumption being the Hicatees greatest threat the team knows that during this phase, education is going to be critical.

TSA 2019 Symposium

17th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles

Each year since 2002, the Turtle Survival Alliance and IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group hold a symposium on the conservation and biology of tortoises and freshwater turtles.  BFREE staff have participated regularly ever since the inception of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center because it is the largest gathering of turtle biologists, zookeepers, husbandrists, and enthusiasts in the world – making it an amazing teaching, learning and networking opportunity.

This year, marked the 17th Annual Symposium and was truly special for the BFREE/HCRC staff, because the TSA offered travel grants and professional development funds to ensure that Thomas Pop, HCRC Manager, and Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow/ HCRC Assistant Manager, were able to attend. For Tom and Jaren, this trip was their first time to the U.S. and a once in a lifetime opportunity, so they made the most of every moment.

The meeting was held in Tucson, Arizona in the beautiful and posh Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. The four days were packed with informative sessions and included an inspirational Keynote Address by Shi Haitao who has spent his life and career advocating for the protection of turtles in China.

Tom Pop, Brett Bartek, Tabitha Hootman, and Jaren Serano

Special activities included a memorable field trip to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, many exciting morning and night hikes in search of local herps (and at least one broiling midday excursion in search of the elusive desert tortoise), and wonderful social gatherings that allowed old and new friends and colleagues from all over the world to come together and share stories of adventures and struggles in our endeared field of turtle conservation. 

Jaren Serano represented the BFREE/ TSA project zealously during his short but powerful talk, “Five Years of Reproduction: Raising Captive Born Central American River Turtles Dermatemys mawii in Belize.”  Later during the Closing Banquet, he was shocked and honored when was given the Student Award for Best Oral Presentation.

We were also proud of our research and education partners who presented their work on Hicatee turtles:

Ben Atkinson of Flagler College, St. Augustine, Florida gave an oral presentation on Flagler College Helping Hicatees: A Partnership with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education.

Nichole Bishop, University of Florida

Nichole Bishop of University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida presented the poster she co-authored with Dr. Raymond Carthy, A Comparison of the Gut Microbiome among Hatchlings, Juveniles, and Adults of the Herbivorous Dermatemys mawii: Next Generation Sequencing of a Novel System.

So many moments were touching and important, because our tiny team from Belize, traveled all the way to Arizona and met research partners, field course partners, and friends from all over the world. We were amazed when looking around to see how many of these friends and partners had visited BFREE, had held a Hicatee turtle, had shared in our love of all things wild (many of which are endangered), and suddenly, the world seemed much smaller and so full of hope and possibility.

Thank you, TSA, for always striving to make the world a little bit better and for bringing together people who care.

Herp Survey at BFREE

Researchers from L to R: Briana Sealey, Courtney Whitcher, Alison Davis Rabosky, Peter Cerda, Iris Holmes, Michael Grundler, John David Curlis, Erin Westeen, Maggie Grundler

Article by, Iris Holmes

This May, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, visited BFREE to do a survey of amphibians and reptiles. They worked for two weeks, both on the BFREE property and at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Between these places, they recorded 47 species. Two of those finds (one snake and one frog) were significant range extensions within Belize.

Iris Holmes, University of Michigan Researcher, measures a snake collected during the survey in the BFREE Lab.

In addition to a biodiversity survey, the researchers collected a variety of data on each animal. They recorded snake anti-predator displays and took high-quality photos to study snake and lizard anti-predator and social color displays. One project focused on how frogs fluoresce in the UV spectrum and found new accounts of biofluorescence in several species.

The researchers also took microbiome samples from frog skin and snake and lizard digestive tracts. These samples will be used to understand the parasites that infect these species, and the bacteria that might help protect their hosts against these parasites. Other researchers worked to test hypotheses the diets of snakes, lizards, and frogs. Understanding what animals eat is key to conserving them – animals can’t survive if they can’t get enough food! The team was happy to find such diversity and abundance in the amphibians and reptiles of Belize. It was a particularly special experience to be at BFREE as the hicatee turtles were hatching.  Watching animals emerge with the first rains of the wet season was a true privilege.

International Herpetological Symposium 2019 in Belize

Next June, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) will held at the Best Western Plus Belize Biltmore Plaza in Belize City.  The mission of the IHS is to provide a forum for the dissemination of information and results of such research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, and captive management and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. Each year the IHS is held in a different location and is hosted by a Zoological, Herpetological, or Herpetocultural institution.

BFREE staff are scheduled to give several presentations and to participate in the conference which will take place from June 19-22, 2019.

Recent BFREE Volunteer and Wildlife Enthusiast, Brett Bartek, on the Bladen River

The International Herpetological Symposium in partnership with the Belize Zoo and the Crocodile Research Coalition are offering scholarships for young, Belizean wildlife enthusiasts to attend. The application can be found here.

For attendees looking to explore more of Belize either before or after the Symposium, there are several opportunities. BFREE is offering a post-symposium volunteership to work alongside the critically endangered, Central American River Turtle at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. This immersive opportunity is from June 24 – June 28 (1-week) or June 24 – July 5 (2-weeks). Volunteers will assist in all aspects of animal care for the captive population of adult turtles, juveniles and hatchlings. Email, tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information. 

Prior to the workshop, there is an exciting wildlife-focused 8-day Field Trip which includes three nights at the BFREE Field Station. Activities will include an in-depth tour of the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center and lots of hikes (both day and night) to search for cool reptiles and amphibians!

BFREE Receives Porras Conservation Award

  It’s not often international wildlife conferences hold their annual meeting so close to home. Fortunately, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) chose Belize City as the base for their 42nd gathering and we are so glad they did!    The International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) provides a forum for the dissemination of information and research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, captive management, and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to showcase the herpetological conservation taking place in Belize.    BFREE Staff, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, and Jaren Serano, attended the conference and presented on various topics. Dr. Marisa Tellez of the Crocodile Research Coalition also provided local perspective on conservation in Belize and several student presenters from southern Belize’s Independence Junior College highlighted research questions and projects pertaining to reptiles and amphibians in the country.    At the close of the conference, BFREE was given the Porras Conservation Award. This award is granted in recognition of lifelong achievements in and contributions to field biology. The award is presented to a speaker (or – in this case – an organization) who has demonstrated that their work represents exceptional accomplishments in the field that benefit herpetological conservation. We are pleased and honored to have our work recognized in this way.  

BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director, provided the keynote presentation. “The Herpetofauna of Belize, 30 Years of Observations, Myths, Facts and Hot Spots”  

Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director, presented “Awareness Messaging as a Tool for the survival of the world’s most endangered turtle family”  

Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow, presented “Turtle or Fish? Investigations into captive management and reproductive biology of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawaii), at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, Belize”    

BFREE Receives Porras Conservation Award

 
It’s not often international wildlife conferences hold their annual meeting so close to home. Fortunately, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) chose Belize City as the base for their 42nd gathering and we are so glad they did! 
 
The International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) provides a forum for the dissemination of information and research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, captive management, and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to showcase the herpetological conservation taking place in Belize. 
 
BFREE Staff, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, and Jaren Serano, attended the conference and presented on various topics. Dr. Marisa Tellez of the Crocodile Research Coalition also provided local perspective on conservation in Belize and several student presenters from southern Belize’s Independence Junior College highlighted research questions and projects pertaining to reptiles and amphibians in the country. 
 
At the close of the conference, BFREE was given the Porras Conservation Award. This award is granted in recognition of lifelong achievements in and contributions to field biology. The award is presented to a speaker (or – in this case – an organization) who has demonstrated that their work represents exceptional accomplishments in the field that benefit herpetological conservation. We are pleased and honored to have our work recognized in this way.
 

BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director, provided the keynote presentation. “The Herpetofauna of Belize, 30 Years of Observations, Myths, Facts and Hot Spots”
 
Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director, presented “Awareness Messaging as a Tool for the survival of the world’s most endangered turtle family”
 
Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow, presented “Turtle or Fish? Investigations into captive management and reproductive biology of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawaii), at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, Belize”

 

 
 

 

Herp Survey at BFREE

 

Researchers from L to R: Briana Sealey, Courtney Whitcher, Alison Davis Rabosky, Peter Cerda, Iris Holmes, Michael Grundler, John David Curlis, Erin Westeen, Maggie Grundler

This May, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, visited BFREE to do a survey of amphibians and reptiles. They worked for two weeks, both on the BFREE property and at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Between these places, they recorded 47 species. Two of those finds (one snake and one frog) were significant range extensions within Belize.

Iris Holmes, University of Michigan Researcher, measures a snake collected during the survey in the BFREE Lab.

In addition to a biodiversity survey, the researchers collected a variety of data on each animal. They recorded snake anti-predator displays and took high-quality photos to study snake and lizard anti-predator and social color displays. One project focused on how frogs fluoresce in the UV spectrum and found new accounts of biofluorescence in several species.

The researchers also took microbiome samples from frog skin and snake and lizard digestive tracts. These samples will be used to understand the parasites that infect these species, and the bacteria that might help protect their hosts against these parasites. Other researchers worked to test hypotheses the diets of snakes, lizards, and frogs. Understanding what animals eat is key to conserving them – animals can’t survive if they can’t get enough food! The team was happy to find such diversity and abundance in the amphibians and reptiles of Belize. It was a particularly special experience to be at BFREE as the hicatee turtles were hatching.  Watching animals emerge with the first rains of the wet season was a true privilege.

Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 Wrap Up

Hicatee Awareness Month 2018

The Hicatee turtle, a national treasure for Belize, is seriously under threat due to over-hunting for human consumption. Listed as critically endangered, Belize offers the highest chance for its survival.

Because the Hicatee is in need of greater protection and innovative conservation actions, Turtle Survival Alliance and BFREE launched Hicateee Awareness Month, a country-wide awareness campaign in 2017.

The campaign commenced with the release of the natural history documentary “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” Partners supported the launch hosting community viewing parties of the film, a volunteer toolkit provided step by step instructions on how to get involved, and social media played a significant role in promoting the first ever month-long appreciation campaign for the species.
 
With helpful feedback and many lessons learned, we were prepared and excited to launch the Second Annual Hicatee Awareness Month in October 2018.

In 2018, Hicatee Awareness Month focused on formally establishing the Hicatee turtle as the National Reptile of Belize, to raise its public status and to set the stage of national pride for the rare and unique species.

The month of recognition began with BFREE’s largest outreach project to date. Curated packages of educational resources were mailed directly to 100 pre- and primary schools in Belize – targeting the Cayo District and Belize District. The materials were also made available online and emailed to nearly 500 principals and educators.

Our goal in sharing the materials is to inspire a future generation of leaders that recognize the significant cultural and historic value of the hicatee. The resources were created by educators, scientists, filmmakers, students, and passionate advocates for the use of teachers in their classrooms. They included the children’s book, The Adventures of Herbert the Hicatee, written by a preschool teacher in Belize City, Ms. Martinez, fact sheets, coloring pages, and a country-wide poster contest.
 
Our partners within Belize and in the US helped make the month a success by hosting events and fundraisers and giving presentations. Students from Sacred Heart Junior College, led by Ms. Ingrid Rodriguez, gave presentations to primary school classrooms in the Cayo District while the Jacksonville Zoo chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers hosted a Hicatee Day Event and Fundraiser at their zoo, raising funds to support the work of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Crocodile Research Coalition has featured the Hicatee turtle during all of their CROCtober outreach events.
 
Last week, we were contacted by a classroom from Hummingbird Elementary School in Belize City who were so inspired by the educational resources they received that they established their own Hicatee Committee.  The committee is spreading the message of conservation beyond their school to friends and family during an event on November 10th.

Now, more than ever, these words ring true, “the Hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it!”

Additional Information on Hicatee Awareness Month 2018: 

Links to TV and News Interviews for Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 can be found here: In the News

Photos of Hicatee Awareness Month 2017 and 2018 can be found in our album here: Hicatee Awareness Month on Flickr!

A fun compilation video of Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 activities can be viewed here: Highlights on YouTube