Cacao-based Agroforestry Handbook

Now in its 3rd year, the Belize Cacao-based Agroforestry Project (BCARP) is on the path to broadening its reach by producing an illustrated guidebook to be distributed around the country.  The BCARP seeks to expand habitat for over-wintering neotropical migratory birds and other wildlife by converting environments such as farmland and secondary growth forest to wildlife-friendly agroforests with cacao as the dominant understory.

Cacao grows under the shade of the forest at BFREE.

Cacao grows under the shade of the forest at BFREE – pic by Heather Barrett

To date, this BFREE project has helped farmers in the nearby agricultural community of Trio Village to plant over 20,000 trees. Support has been offered in the form of training, labor, materials, and extension services. From the very beginnings of the project, interest in cacao and organic farming far surpassed BFREE’s expectations, in spite of the great desire to continue to expand by adding more farmers to the project, it also exceeded the financial and human resources dedicated to the project.

Always up for a challenge, BFREE decided a handbook illustrating specific methods could be one valuable component of a larger effort to address the ever-growing interest in cacao. Working with Dr. Jamie Rotenberg, BFREE board member and professor, BFREE engaged students at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington to help with the development and design of the handbook.

Nine graduate students in Dr. Rotenberg’s class, EVS: 530 “Graduate Tropical Environmental Ecology,” embraced the opportunity to produce something lasting and useful to farmers. Over the fall semester, the team worked to vet and compile resources for the handbook content. The clear priority was to design a guide specific to Belize that was thorough and complete yet simple to understand and illustration-based rather than text-heavy to account for varying levels of literacy and language.

cover art

The handbook will be filled with simple and clear illustrations to supplement and enhance written material.

In December, the team presented their final products to BFREE. Both students and staff were thrilled with the results; the handbook was attractive, comprehensive, clear, and included both English and Spanish translations. Unanimously, the group agreed the handbook was a great beginning and the next step was fine tuning.

Elmer Tzalam, BFREE Cacao Farm Manager, and Gentry Mander, recent University of Florida graduate and long-time BFREE collaborator, along with other BFREE staff, edited the handbook content and compiled recommendations for a final version. Those edits were given to some of the former EVS:530 students – Sara Marriott, Katherine Weeks, Danielle Frank, and Carmen Johnson – who eagerly accepted the opportunity to work with BFREE to complete the project. We anticipate publication of the handbook this autumn, and distribution in Belize immediately following.

We are most grateful to Dr. Jamie Rotenberg and his students: Karissa Bearer, Johanna Colburn, Lindsey Cole, Danielle Frank, Evan Gruetter, Carmen Johnson, Bretton Little, Sara Marriott, and Katherine Weeks. Their investment of time, energy, ideas and enthusiasm helped to spur on this meaningful project. 

Partial funding for BCARP is provided by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, along with co-trustees from the State of Massachusetts and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

First captive bred Hicatee Turtles hatch at HCRC

Seven eggs successfully hatched between June 14 and June 18.

Seven eggs successfully hatched between June 14 and June 18- pic by Heather Barrett

Six months after a clutch of eight Hicatee eggs was found buried at the waters’ edge at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) in December of 2014, hatchlings began to emerge from their eggs.  These are the first hatchlings in the captive breeding program established by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and BFREE at the HCRC located at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. Locally known as Hicatee, Dermatemys  mawii, is the only living representative of a formerly widespread group of turtles in the family Dermatemydidae.  D. mawii is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, which identifies it as “the most endangered species, genus, and family of turtles in Mexico and possibly elsewhere in its limited range.” D. mawii’s range extends only from southern Mexico, into northern Guatemala and Belize.

Of the eight eggs deposited in the nest, seven were determined fertile, and of the seven, all hatched. With an incubation period of over six months, this is an unusually long period for most turtle eggs. This is partially due to the delayed development that occurs during the initial stages of incubation, called embryonic diapause, a term that describes a period of time when virtually no development of the embryo takes place. With Hicatee, this evolutionary trait likely occurs because Hicatee deposit their eggs at the rivers’ edge during the rainy season when water levels fluctuate greatly, and nests are often partially or completely submerged from days to weeks at a time, and temperatures are cooler.  These environmental factors, as well as others, are being studied at the HCRC.


Dermatemys mawii is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List – pic by Nichole Bishop

Jacob Marlin of BFREE is thrilled about the new additions to the HCRC.

“There are so many questions and opportunities for discovery concerning the biology and reproductive ecology of this rare and little known species. I feel honored and excited for BFREE to play such an important role in the long term conservation of Hicatee turtles.” 

Starting on June 14th, the seven hatchlings were all born within 5 days of each other. After first breaking through the egg shell, called “pipping”, the baby turtles tended to wait to fully emerge from the shell for an average of two days.  Hatchlings were then carefully weighed, measured, and permanently marked for identification. Each was set up individually in small containers so they could be closely monitored. The hatchlings’ average weight was about 35 grams – large for a freshwater turtle. They all began to feed almost immediately and showed no signs of any health problems or abnormalities.

Nearly three weeks old, the hatchlings are adapting well to their new world. They have been moved into larger enclosures, approximately 36”L X 18”W X 8”H, and are living in two groups – four in one container and three another.  These herbivores receive daily feedings of Paspalum paniculatum, which is a native grass of Belize and the preferred food for Hicatee. In addition to p-grass, both groups are also feeding readily on a variety of leaves including fig, banana, sweet potato, Cecropia, and Cocoyam.Fruits have been offered including papaya and mango, though the hatchlings have not seemed particularly interested. Some meat items have been introduced such as fish, but have not been taken by the turtles.

One of the groups was offered feces from the adults in order to inoculate them with the appropriate gut microflora. The presence of gut microflora likely plays an important role in the ability of the turtles to break down plant matter and absorb critical nutrients from their diet. The second group will wait to be inoculated for one month after hatching, in order to compare growth rates between the two groups. Feces of both groups are being collected twice per week, and will be analyzed for gut microflora by Nichole Bishop, a PhD student at the University of Florida, who is focusing her studies on the ecology of gut microflora and the role it plays in the growth rates of Hicatee.

UF grad student, Nichole Bishop, and HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, collect weight and measurements

UF grad student, Nichole Bishop, and HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, collect weight and measurement data on the one-week old turtles – pic by Mark Mummaw

The turtles are being observed daily, and are feeding both day and night, though they seem to be more active foragers during nighttime hours.  Weight and other measurements are taken on a weekly basis and their two-week checkup showed considerable growth. Some individuals gained as much as 27% in weight!

We anticipate watching them grow and thrive in coming months and as rainy season is upon us – we look forward to more eggs followed by more hatchlings in 2016!

Hicatee - Dermatemys mawaii. Pic by Heather Barrett

Hicatee Turtle – Dermatemys mawii – pic by Heather Barrett



2015 Field Courses – Part I

BFREE was proud to host 147 students and instructors through our field courses this season. Groups came from the United States and from within Belize to engage in topics ranging from Architecture to Agriculture to Protected Areas to Biology.  Rainforest experiences lasted anywhere from a day to a week, while the entire time spent in country averaged ten days.

While at BFREE, students were introduced to on-going conservation projects at the field station like the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center and the cacao and coffee agroforest. Many spent an afternoon volunteering with one of the projects. They also participated in hikes and river walks to get a feel for the rainforest. For those who stayed long enough, instructors assigned independent projects in which students were tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data – often presenting results on their last evening at BFREE.

When exploring other parts of Belize, students visited banana plantations, participated in cultural homestays, snorkeled at the Belize Barrier Reef, and saw wildlife up close at the Belize Zoo. Though time moves slowly in Belize, the departure day always seemed to come too soon.

January Field Courses

  • “Architecture Study Abroad,” led by Lia Dikigoropoulou of New York City College of Technology

    New York City of Technology visits the Spice Farm (Ken Hopper – left – joined the group)

NYCCT get to see a fer-de-lance up close

Jacob Marlin gives a presentation on the fer-de-lance for NYCCT students

  • “Tropical Biology,” led by Jerry Bricker of Nebraska Wesleyan University
    Nebraska Weselyan University

    Nebraska Wesleyan University

    Nebraska Wesleyan spend time birding with Nelly Cadle

    Nebraska Wesleyan spend time birding with Nelly Cadle

  • “Eat Locally: Think Globally,” led by Elizabeth Ransom and Amy Treonis of University of Richmond, Virginia
University of Richmond

University of Richmond

University of Richmond students check out a termite mound

University of Richmond students check out a termite mound

February Field Courses

  • “Protected Areas Management,” led by Abigail Parham-Garbutt and Godfrey Arzu of Independence Junior College, Belize

    Independence Junior College

    Independence Junior College

Independence Junior College students learn about bird research from Lucy Welsh

Independence Junior College students learn about current bird research from Smithsonian Avian Technician, Lucy Welsh

March Field Courses

  • “International Field Experience in Environmental Studies,” led by Jamie Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson of University of North Carolina, Wilmington
University of North Carolina - Wilmington

University of North Carolina – Wilmington

UNCW students waiting for their snorkle trip to Laughing Bird Caye

UNCW students waiting for their snorkle trip to Laughing Bird Caye

  • “Tropical Field Biology,” led by Sean Werle, Nuno Goncalves, Adam Porter, Steve McCormick, Paul Sievert, Tristram Seidler , and Frank Carellini of University of Massachusetts, Amherst
    University of Massachusetts - Amherst

    University of Massachusetts – Amherst

    UMass students work on independent projects - pic by Sean Werle

    UMass students work on independent projects – pic by Sean Werle

    Stay tuned for our next issue which will include pics of the second half of the field season!

BAL Shrimp & the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center

bal shrimp 2On Saturday, April 11, a team of 4 staff members from Belize Aquaculture Limited (BAL Shrimp) spent a good portion of the day doing some much needed work at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). Both ponds had multiple slow leaks in the thick black liners. With 22 Hicatee turtles in residence in the ponds, BFREE recognized the importance of acting quickly to make both ponds fully functional.

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, and BFREE HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, joined the BAL Shrimp team in prepping the ponds for the repairs and also assisted in sealing the leaks. We are grateful to BAL Shrimp for their continued support of the HCRC.

Bal shrimp 1

Oecologia article considers the winter ecology of Wood Thrushes

Emily McKinnon spent significant time at BFREE studying Wood Thrushes in their overwintering grounds.

Emily McKinnon spent time at BFREE studying Wood Thrushes in their overwintering grounds.

Emily McKinnon, bird biologist and Research Affiliate in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, conducted a significant portion of her doctoral field research at the BFREE field station. In her May 27 blog post, “Jungle life is not always easy for Wood Thrushes,”  McKinnon summarized her research and announced the resulting Oecologia article.

McKinnon, E.A., Rotenberg, J. A., and B.J. M. Stutchbury. 2015. Seasonal change in tropical habitat quality and body condition for a declining migratory songbird. Oecologia Early Online. 10.1007/s00442-015-3343-1