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

Monkey River Watershed Association by Peter Essleman

Over 30 feet of beach has been renewed naturally since the installation of geotubes in Monkey River Village preventing this house and others from falling into the sea.

BFREE is located in the headwaters of the Bladen Branch of the Monkey River, a large tropical river that
discharges to the Caribbean Sea south of Placencia. Despite the pristine character of the headwaters
the Monkey River watershed has been home to Belize’s banana industry for nearly 100 years, with
particularly intensive cultivation since the early 1980’s. The banana industry brought clearing, roads,
laborer settlements, squatters, intensive gravel mining, fish and wildlife harvest, deforestation and
introduction of non-native species. One of the most striking outcomes of 40 years of watershed
exploitation was the disruption of sand delivery to the mouth of the Monkey River, which resulted in
partial destruction of one of Belize’s great historical villages, Monkey River Village, to beach erosion.
The crisis at the river mouth is a reflection of degradation along the entire river continuum, with nine
other communities suffering from reduced river flow, toxic pollution, depleted fish and game, and poor
water quality.

In response to the crisis, BFREE partnered with all communities in the watershed to form the Monkey
River Watershed Association. MRWA is a community-based organization working to conserve and
restore the integrity of the entire Monkey River Watershed and ensure that it continues to provide a
multitude of benefits to watershed residents and the coastal ecosystem. MRWA’s first success after
registering in 2017 was to secure a US$50,000 grant from the United Nations Development Programme.
The funds were used to pilot test inexpensive beach protection structures in front of Monkey River
Village and write a “roadmap” for restoration of the Monkey River watershed. One hundred and sixty
feet of sand filled “geotubes” have since been installed in front of the most threatened properties,
leading to 30 feet of beach growth for the first time in decades. The roadmap itself was completed in
April 2019. In addition to identifying reduced sand delivery to the coast from upriver—not sea level
rise—as the likely main cause of the beach erosion problem, the roadmap also defines restoration goals
and actions needed to achieve the desired states of the river and the shoreline. BFREE will continue to
support MRWA with fundraising in the months and years ahead, and remains committed to protection
of the Bladen Nature Reserve and connected protected areas which provide water and sand to all
downstream areas.

Members of the Monkey River Watershed Association including BFREE ED, Jacob Marlin present at a community meeting in Monkey River on February 1, 2019.

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.

Spring ’19 Hicatee Health Assessments

Team Hicatee Spring 2019

During the early March Hicatee Health Assessment, a total of 214 turtles 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. Because oviposition takes place between the months of November and February, it was also relevant to check for the presence of additional eggs. 

Prior to the Health Assessments beginning, a small team of volunteers arrived to help prepare the site. The team cleaned hatchling tanks and moved the 140 hatchlings from the 2018 cohort from the soft release cage where they had been housed since December. They were placed there during the coldest months of the year because the water in Pond A maintained higher temperatures than in the smaller, above-ground tanks where they live during warmer months. Hatchlings were counted and given a quick check before being transferred back to the tanks where they acclimated until their assessments a few days later.

The three day processing started off with adult turtles being netted from the pond A, then placed in their respective holding area awaiting assessment. On day two, Adult turtles from Pond B was then netted and assessed. Day 3 commenced with a scanning of both pond perimeters for nest cavities which showed signs of eggs. Followed by the assessment of hatchlings from the 2018 cohort. Results from this year’s spring health check are still under analysis.

Cayle Pearson and Sarah Cristoff of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens isolated several adult male turtles to collect additional data that will help them troubleshoot issues relating to the Hicatee turtles held in captivity at their facility.

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, Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and Sarah Cristoff, Veterinary Technician, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Heather Alford, Missy Belmer, Laurie Haven, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory. We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their financial support for this spring’s Hicatee health assessment.

The Hicatee Conservation & Research Center is a joint protect between BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance. The bi-annual Assessments help ensure the health of captive animals at the HCRC and also contribute to our ongoing research of these critically endangered turtles. #savethehicatee

Land Snail Workshop at BFREE

Dan and Judy Dourson led a two-day workshop in the new BFREE classroom

The first workshop on the Land Snails of Belize was led by biologists, Dan and Judy Dourson, and took place at the BFREE field station in late February. The workshop’s goal was to give participants an understanding of which snails can be found in southern Belize and to train them to identify land snails with the help of  the materials that the Dourson’s created. These materials include the newly published book “Land Snails of Belize: A Remarkable Chronicle of Diversity and Function” and the associated Field Identification card.  

Students used Field ID cards to begin to identify snails

The course was designed for tour guides and educators and therefore focused on the importance of land snails in the environment, described why they matter in Belize, and also provided great examples of how to use snails in short lessons. During this hands-on workshop, the group searched for, collected, and learned to identify and sort snails.

Participants included NGO representatives, tour guides and interested members of the public. These included: Morgan Lucot, Sipriano Canti, Christian Bech, Jaren Serano, Marten Ack, Andres Chen, Rousana Romero, Marleni Coy Emillian, Joaquin Obando, Andrew Choco, and Leanne Knox.

Special thanks to Leanne Knox for providing transportation to the BFREE Field Station for workshop participants.

Due to the interest in this course, BFREE and the Dourson’s plan to partner to create future workshops on Belize’s lesser known creatures in coming years. Stay tuned!

Land Snails of Belize: A Remarkable Chronicle of Diversity and Function,” is available on Amazon. Don’t forget to use Amazon Smile to support BFREE while shopping online. The associated Land Snail Field Identification Cards are available for sale at the Belize Zoo and the BFREE field station.

Identifying Land Snails 
Searching through leaf litter to find and collect snails
Land Snails that were previously collected
Participants of the 2019 Land Snail Workshop at BFREE

New Rearing Pond at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center

Designed to study the reproductive biology and to determine if the Central American River turtle could be bred in captivity, the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center opened in 2014 and was met with immediate success when, in the summer of 2015, the first seven hatchlings emerged. This was followed by five hatchlings in 2016, 84 hatchlings in 2017, and 179 in 2018.

The extrusion welder was used to join hard plastic pond liner

The HCRC originally included two large breeding ponds, an overflow pond and several rearing tanks. The small rearing tanks at the center quickly reached capacity and HCRC staff identified an urgent need to provide the necessary space and improved environment for the 2018 hatchlings and the soon to arrive 2019 cohort. After much discussion, it was determined that converting the overflow pond into a large rearing pond for hatchlings and juveniles was the most cost effective and quickest solution to housing all the expected hatchlings now and in the foreseeable future.

We secured funding from Oklahoma City’s Zoo’s Care Grant Program and from Zoo New England to begin pond modifications. Additional support was provided through funding for supplies offered by Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2018 and the purchase of a very important piece of machinery was made possible thanks to proceeds from the Turtle Survival Alliance’s 2018 fundraising auction.

Pond modification was slow to get underway due a very wet rainy season. However, during February and March construction took place and 140 turtles were placed in their new home in April. The rearing pond (Pond C) is forty-feet in diameter and approximately six-feet deep at the center. A six-foot perimeter fence will encircle the pond and fresh water is provided by solar powered pumps which were already in place at the facility. We will modify Pond C in the coming months to include a floating island and the planting of food trees and grasses as has been done in Ponds A and B. Our hope is that the facility will offer a healthy environment for all hatchlings produced at the HCRC until they are ready for release into the wild.  

Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their continued partnership on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Thanks also to project sponsors: Oklahoma City Zoo, Zoo New England and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.