Introducing Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

BFREE is pleased to introduce our newest Science & Education Fellow, Jonathan Dubon. Jonathan grew up in Independence Village about 20 miles east of BFREE and has known from an early age that he wanted a career that would include his passions for field experience and outdoor adventures. This passion grows from visiting his Grandma’s farm near Punta Gorda as a child where he has many fond memories of exploring her land and being exposed to nature. Because of this childhood experience and influence from his brother who is also involved in conservation, Jonathan went on to study Natural Resource Management at Independence Junior College. He graduated with his Associate’s Degree in June 2019 and with the highest honors in his department.

Jonathan’s first visit to BFREE was on a school field trip with Independence Junior College in February 2019. Jonathan says, “I fell in love with the place and it’s environment – at that very moment I knew I wanted to come back. I like everything about being at BFREE including the friendly staff, the environment, everything is just very welcoming. This is exactly where I imagine my dream job.” He returned one year later as a volunteer in the Spring 2020 Hicatee Health Assessments where he assisted in the 5-day health check.

Jonathan, second from the left, back row, along with fellow classmates from IJC on a field course at BFREE in February 2019.

Now, in the second week of his fellowship, Jonathan shares, “It’s so exciting to be here at BFREE right now. I only know a little bit about the biology of Hicatee Turtles and I am overly excited that every day I now get to learn something new about them. It is thrilling to work with the hatchlings; I am also eager to learn about all the other animals found here at BFREE such as birds, snakes, and mammals. I also really enjoy hearing the birds singing early in the morning while working by the pond. “

Jonathan says, “my message to all Belizeans is that the Hicatee are especially important to our ecosystem, and it is critical that we protect them – Belize has the honor of being the final stronghold for these turtles, who are the last in their lineage. “

We are thankful to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their funding of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship. This is the second fellowship funded by the TSA; the first was awarded to Jaren Serano who served as the BFREE Science and Education Fellow from January 2018 – December 2019. The Science and Education Fellowship is assigned to support the operations in one of three areas at BFREE – the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center, the cacao agroforestry project or the protected areas program. It is a two-year immersive work training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college and college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined with a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources

Jonathan hands an adult hicatee turtle from the breeding pond to BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin during the Spring 2020 Hicatee Health Assessments.

HCRC Pond Cleaning

For the past two weeks, Tom Pop and Jaren Serano have had the challenging yet important task of cleaning each of the three turtle ponds at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. With large, deep, muddy pools, the work is labor-intensive but critical to the health of the nearly four hundred Hicatee turtles in residence here.

The ponds were tackled one at a time starting with Pond A. This pond is dedicated to Breeding adults, so all turtles had to be caught and placed in holding tanks where they stayed throughout the cleaning process. Additionally, other wildlife like swamp eels and red-eared slider turtles and some larger fish like Tuba were also caught and placed in nearby creeks. 

Jacob Marlin and “Mustang.”

The actual cleaning process involved using a Honda Trash Pump (fondly referred to as “Mustang” due to its amazing strength and speed) to remove huge volumes of water as well as leaves and muck that had been gathering at the bottom of the ponds over the past few years. This has been followed by filling the ponds with fresh water to rinse the pond liner and dilute the thick muck, and then, once again,  using the trash pump to remove more diluted muck and dirty water. This cycle repeats until the water in the ponds is clear and there is little to no detritus remaining at the bottom. Each pond has taken about seven days of hard labor. 

With Ponds A and B complete as of May 17, the team has started on the rearing pond. The first task has been to lower the water to about two feet in the center in order to catch the over 200 juveniles living there. The “muck” which includes turtle manure is drained into an area outside the fenced area of the HCRC. The material gathered there will rest and break down before being relocated and used as compost for trees in our cacao agroforest.

Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic Spotlight

Dr. Isabelle examines each 2019 hatched Hicatee before placing it in the bin to travel back to the HCRC.

Last week, BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, traveled to the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC) in the Cayo District of Western Belize to retrieve twelve of the HCRC captive-born Hicatee turtles. They had been cared for at the BWRC by Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, DVM, and her team and the turtles were in good health overall. While they could have stayed for longer observation and data collection on this unique species, Corona changed it all. The recent shutdown of tourism, which provided a large portion of the non-profit clinics income as well as hands-on assistance from interns was combined with being an essential business that continued to offer services. Then came the spread of dry season fires throughout Belize and the annual baby season (which is high season for wildlife orphan intakes)… and “anybody healthy had to make space for more critical cases”. Just like the human hospitals had to do for COVID patients, Dr. Isabelle, therefore, requested BFREE to retrieve our turtles to make room for those animals with more serious health conditions. 

Injuries to wildlife during a fire may include burns, injuries from falling out of trees, or having things fall onto them while escaping, or maybe less severe stresses that can still prove fatal if not addressed – like smoke inhalation and dehydration. Some animals just need access to water, food, or shelter, until their natural environment recovers. The BWRC received animals with all of these conditions. On the day that the Hicatee were retrieved, there were kinkajous, turtles, a howler monkey, squirrels, opossums, and snakes – escapees from the fire or orphans for unknown reasons. One kinkajou had fled the fire with minor burns only to climb an electrical pole where it grabbed a live wire and was electrocuted. 

The BWRC’s mission is to support wildlife conservation efforts; domestic animal health and welfare; and the veterinary profession in Belize through medical services, education, research, and collaboration. Their work is big and growing all the time but they try to stay focused on their mission. In addition to the fire victims in the clinic last week, there were also confiscated animals and animals that were neglected or abused by their owners. 

Jacob Marlin first met Dr. Isabelle in 2011 when the Hicatee Conservation Network was being formed and she first visited BFREE and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center in 2015. Because of her valuable insight and a keen interest in helping to conserve this amazing species, she was invited back to participate in all subsequent Hicatee Health Assessments and has been a strong partner ever since.

Dr. Isabelle along with Jaren Serano and Heather Barrett of BFREE provide an ultrasound to an adult female hicatee turtle during a health assessment at the HCRC. Photo by, Nichole Bishop

Dr. Isabelle has been the lead Belize veterinarian evaluating our captive population of Hicatee for over four years. She attends two Hicatee Health Assessments per year to determine the health and reproductive status of our growing population of turtles. Just like baby humans, our hatchling and juvenile turtles are especially vulnerable to sickness caused by temperature changes, nutritional deficiencies, or other stressors. For this reason, when our young turtles are failing to thrive, Dr. Isabelle takes them to the clinic for several months to give them the additional veterinary care that will help them recover. This also gives her the opportunity to monitor them in order to gain a better understanding of their needs over time.

In the four years that BFREE has partnered with the BWRC, we have been impressed by their commitment to wildlife like the Hicatee and to educating Belizeans and visitors from abroad. As their partner, we would like to advocate for their campaign to fundraise for operational expenses during this trying time.  With the halt of all veterinary trainees from abroad due to travel restrictions from Covid-19, the BWRC has lost a critical revenue stream. Like many organizations in Belize and worldwide, they are struggling to make ends meet but don’t want to furlough any of their small but critical staff when animals are still in need of daily care.

BWRC is thankful for any and all kind words, supplies or donations via PayPal to payment@belizewildlifeclinic.org.

Spring Health Assessment 2020

Between February 28th and March 1st, a total of 341 turtles (45 adults in the breeding population and 296 captive hatched animals) were assessed at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). The primary purpose of the spring health assessment was to perform a basic exam of the overall health of the captive population at the HCRC, to look for follicles and eggs in breeding-size females and to PIT-tag animals.

Ultimately, we would like all turtles at the HCRC to be identified using a scute notching system and also a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag. A PIT tag is a small radio transponder that contains a specific code, which allows individual turtles to be assigned a unique 10 or 15 digit alphanumeric identification number. Unlike acoustic tags that actively send out a signal, they are “passive” and do not require a battery. Rather than the tag transmitting a signal, the tag scanner (or reader) sends out a radio frequency and when a tag is within range, it will relay the identification code back to the receiver. The lack of a battery is the greatest advantage of the PIT tag since it allows for the production of much smaller tags that can be used on smaller organisms, which should last the life of the turtle. 

As in past assessments, two days were dedicated to measuring, giving health checks and ultrasounds to adult and subadult turtles. A day and half was dedicated to PIT-tagging all of the captive born turtles in the 2018 cohort as well as the ones from the 2017 cohort that had yet to be tagged.  

We were thrilled to have a great group of return volunteers from last year’s spring assessment, as well as new participants from Jacksonville Zoo, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, and recent graduates of Independence Junior College in Belize. The team worked tirelessly over three days to ensure that every turtle received the attention it needed.

We were grateful to receive support and assistance from the following participants in our spring health check: Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Veterinarian at Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC); Glendy Delcid, BWRC; Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; Meredith Persky, Veterinarian, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; return volunteers, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory; and new volunteers, Jesse Rope, Jonathan Dubon and Ajay Williams 

We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their continued financial support spring health assessments at the HCRC and to the Turtle Survival Alliance for supplying the PIT tags and associated equipment. Finally, a special thanks is in order to Doris and Rod Dimmitt for supplying Tom Pop with new waders to keep him warm and safe from leeches!

In Pursuit of Hicatee in Belize by Day Ligon

The Hicatee, as Dermatemys mawii is known in parts of its range, is truly a unique turtle.
Although fossil records indicate that closely related species once occurred across Central
America and Europe, Hicatee remain as the only living representatives of a formerly species-rich
family of turtles. It is a large turtle, sometimes exceeding 22 kilograms. Despite its large size, it
is streamlined and, thanks to huge webbed feet, is extremely fast in the water. On land, however,
Hicatee are out of their element. They struggle to elevate their heads against gravity, and even
short walks across dry ground may leave their shells abraded with small cuts and scuffs.
Historically, this large denizen of rivers, lagoons, and mangrove swamps was common in parts
of Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. In many communities throughout its range, Hicatee
are culturally important, not just as a frequently seen and admired inhabitant of the rivers along
which many communities have been built, but also as a culinary delicacy that is sought after for
holiday feasts and other celebrations. Unfortunately, its popularity at the dinner table is likely the
single greatest factor that is driving population declines. Today, few populations remain in
Mexico or Guatemala, and even those in the relative stronghold of Belize have declined
precipitously in recent decades.

Just how much have Hicatee populations declined? Everyone with experience with the
species seems to agree that declines are alarmingly great, but it’s also hard to put a number on.
Excellent research has been conducted that has generated insights about the species ecology,
reproduction, distribution and relative abundance, but since the 1980s efforts have been
intermittent and seldom generated more than a qualitative assessments of population sizes or
demographics. This isn’t for lack of interest or effort; animals that have the capacity to move
long distances and occupy open systems such as rivers are extremely challenging to count!

Fortunately, technological and analytical advances have made the solutions to this
problem more attainable. In spring 2019, members of the Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State
University teamed up with partners at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental
Education (BFREE) to determine the feasibility of generating population estimates. In five
weeks of field work, 193 Hicatee in three different populations were captured, weighed,
measured, and permanently marked for future identification. Additionally, a subset of turtles in a
closed lagoon system were equipped with GPS tags and sonic transmitters that will produce
information about their movements. These data will be especially interesting as the rainy season
commences, the lagoon reconnects to the Belize River, and turtles have the option of either
staying within the lagoon or venturing out into flooded forest or even to the river. This
information about the movement patterns of Hicatee will be put to use in 2020 when mark-
recapture efforts will be conducted to generate some of the first precise population estimates for
the species. These estimates, when generated in open rivers, become much more accurate when
typical movement patterns are known and can be included in population models.

In addition to calculating the size of populations of Hicatee in both open and closed
populations, as well as in hunted and protected areas, work in 2020 will benefit in other ways
from the preliminary research conducted in 2019. For instance, growth rates in captivity are
known thanks to research conducted at BFREE. However, little is known of growth rates in the
wild; by recapturing turtles that were first measured in 2019, not only will calculating growth rates across a range of size classes be possible, but so too will assessing the sexual maturity of
the many subadult turtles that were captured provide information about size at maturity.

All of this information is but a drop in the bucket in comparison to what remains to be
discovered about the fascinating Hicatee, but every new piece of life history data can help to
inform conservation efforts on the species’ behalf. And of course, field research efforts such as
were undertaken in 2019 require a tremendous network of support. Participants from the Turtle
Ecology Lab at Missouri State University included Denise Thompson, Donald McKnight
(currently at James Cook University), and Ethan Hollender. Thomas Pop and Jaren Serano joined
the effort from BFREE with tremendous support from Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett. Elyse
Ellsworth from the Siler Lab at University of Oklahoma and Hunter Howell from University of
Miami also put in many long hours in the field. Yamira Novelo (Wildlife Conservation Society)
helped both in the field and with some logistics. Albert Gill lent his assistance and knowledge of
the area during work at Spanish Creek. Additional assistance was provided by Felicia Cruz and
Gilberto Young in the Belize Fisheries Department, Jeff Robison and Roberto Flores at Yalbac
Ranch, and Alan Jeal at Gallon Jug Ranch. Finally, this conservation project would have gone
nowhere without assistance from Bart Harmsen and valuable advice from Thomas Rainwater and
John Polisar. Reversing the population declines Hicatee have experienced will require a
community effort, and work thus far has proved that a dedicated network of people with a
passion for saving this charismatic but critically endangered species already exists and is already
working toward this goal.

Photo Credits:  Day Ligon and Ethan Hollander

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.