Saying goodbye to 55 Hicatee turtles

No, more like saying see you later!

By Jonathan Dubon

Watching your children grow up and eventually moving on may be hard for some, but it is something that takes place by nature. Although I am not talking about real children, it still feels the same when I release Hicatee turtles that I have helped to take care of over the past 2 years. The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is a multi-pronged conservation effort for Hicatee, with one of the tasks being head-start rewilding.

On April 1st, I along with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, loaded 55 juveniles and hatchlings from the HCRC at BFREE, to be taken to a creek in north central Belize – roughly 4-hours’ drive. Upon our arrival, we met with the Feste Films crew and locals from the nearby community to conduct our releases. There was a turnout of around 15 community members, including adults and children. Feste Films documented our release as a part of their upcoming four-part series ‘Belize Uncovered’ to be available online later this year. The well-known local chef, Sean Kuylen, and International Journalist, Gelareh Darabi, were the interviewers for the film and so participated in all the day’s activities.

Community participation

Before the actual release of the turtles, we gathered and talked about why we are releasing turtles and how important they are to the environment and to the culture. I asked the children “why do you think releasing juvenile Hicatee turtles is important?” I got responses such as: “because they are getting scarce”, “it is better for the wild environment” and the one that stood out the most to me was “because they are critically endangered”. We visited this village in August of 2020 and did a much smaller release, and many of the children who attended then, also attended this time around. To know that information shared a couple years ago is reiterated and remembered means that we are on the right track.

I also mentioned to the community that we are not just releasing turtles to say we do, but we are releasing them to be a part of a long-term studying and monitoring project since this is an active study site for us. All our turtles that were released have unique identification codes, which are placed by scute notching and inserting PIT tags (a microchip inserted under the skin of the turtles). This will allow us to accurately collect data for each turtle and monitor their growth rate, age and so forth.

When it was time to place the turtles in the water, we let every child who attended release a turtle. Hopefully, this will spark a love and passion in them for protecting this species. We only released 10 of the 55 at the creek’s bank where everyone was gathered. After which, Tom and I got into 2 canoes and went up stream to release the remaining 45.

Reflecting on the day

Tom was asked, “How do you feel to release these turtles? Are you sad that you are saying goodbye?” He replied, “I am happy and excited to release these turtles. Even though they have been under my watch and care since being hatched, and I have tried my best to raise these turtles, there is no better caretaker than mother nature herself. I believe with the help of the community and everyone else, we can help them to grow and reproduce on their own. Then we can say we have successfully reintroduced Hicatee turtles into the wild.”

Overall, it was a wonderful and amazing experience that not many can say they have gotten the chance to be involved in. When we were driving off, the mood of everyone was so cheerful and bright, not because we were leaving, but because we accomplished something so important and unique. I look forward to more releases in the future and spreading information with people who may not know.

Returning Volunteers are key to the success of bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessments

A team of biologists, veterinarians, and turtle lovers gathered at BFREE in early March for our 14th bi-annual health assessment of the Central American River Turtle locally named Hicatee. We’ve learned so much since our first Hicatee health assessment in September 2014. The act of weighing, measuring, and reviewing the health of hundreds of turtles over the years, has allowed us to refine our methods and be much more focused and efficient than in those early days. 

Returning volunteers also help with our improved efficiency during the health assessments. Instead of training a new team on the various protocols, volunteers arrive armed with experience and enthusiasm. We are thrilled that the Dimmitt and Gregory family team have consistently participated in the February/ March Health Assessments since 2019. Their involvement means that BFREE staff along with Wildlife Veterinarian, Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, can jump into the required activities with the knowledge that we have competent volunteers managing each of their assigned roles. 

Of her participation in the assessment, Doris Dimmitt stated “We look forward to this every year and are always happy to help in any way that we can.” And help they do. When the Dimmitts and Gregorys arrive, they are always equipped with donated supplies for BFREE and for local schools, and they show up ready for any task. Doris and her husband Rod, whose last visit was late February 2020 just prior to COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic, especially enjoy the time in nature at BFREE and describe their annual trip as a much-needed reboot for their spirit and sense of hope for the world.  


Participants: Zoo New England Staff: Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder; Visiting Veterinarian: Elliott Jacobson, Professor Emeritus, University of Florida, Visiting Biologist: Dave Rostal, Southern Georgia University, Local Veterinarian: Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Visiting Volunteers: Doris Dimmitt, Rod Dimmit, Emily Gregory, Tim Gregory, and Alexi Dart. BFREE staff: Thomas Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, Elmer Tzalam, Jacob Marlin, and Heather Barrett. BFREE Team Hicatee chef: Edwardo Pop.

Thanks to Zoo New England for their support of this health assessment as well as for their on-going support.


Additional Blog Posts About the March 2022 Hicatee Health Assessment:

Introducing the Dermatemys Program Coordinator

By Jacob Marlin

After 12 years of raising awareness and developing a strong Hicatee conservation program, BFREE in partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is pleased to announce the creation of the new position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator within the BFREE organization. We have contracted Dr. Ed Boles, a naturalized Belizean who brings more than three decades of experience and leadership from a freshwater ecological perspective, along with strong relationships with government, NGO’s, and local community members. Dr. Boles will help foster the necessary collaborations needed to create a holistic regional program to ensure the Hicatee has the best chance of survival into the future.

Dr. Boles began his new role on February 1st, 2022. The two of us are already working closely together along with other BFREE and TSA staff and local community members to become fully acquainted with the many activities, accomplishments, challenges and stakeholders involved in the conservation and sustainable use of the species. In the coming months, we will be advertising for an “Assistant Dermatemys Program Coordinator” position to be filled on July 1st, with the intention that the assistant position will slide into the coordinator role after Dr. Boles completes his one-year contract. 

We have ambitious goals for 2022, and we are excited to keep you posted on our efforts to advance the conservation of this unique and culturally important species.

Feste Film Crew Visits the HCRC

In collaboration with the European Nature Trust, The Feste Film crew has been traveling throughout Belize, documenting the country’s many important conservation initiatives since January.


This week, the crew stopped at BFREE to learn about our work to preserve the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee. They are interviewing BFREE staff at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) and learning about our captive breeding program and rewilding goals for this critically endangered species.

The Feste Film crew beats the heat with BFREE bandanas!

A New Species of Coccidia Described in D. mawii

We are pleased to announce a recent publication in the Journal of Parasitology that describes a new coccidian protozoan, Eimeria grayi. Named after the biologist who described Dermatemys mawii, this is the first description of a coccidian in the Central American River Turtle. The discovery of this bacteria advances our understanding of this under-studied and monotypic species of turtle. This coccidian was identified in captive turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. We do not know if this coccidian exists in wild turtles. 

The publication was a team effort and we are especially grateful to Dr. Elliott Jacobson who took the lead on this important effort.

Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti Illustrates Passion for Wildlife

BFREE Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, continues to shine in various disciplines at BFREE. In his first year of the two-year Cacao Fellowship program, Mark has proven to be talented in cacao grafting and data collection. Though his focus is primarily on cacao, Mark has expressed that his interests are more than just agroforestry and that he is particularly fascinated and inspired by the wildlife that surrounds him while working at BFREE.

This week, Mark continued to illustrate his passion for wildlife, working through the weekend to support BFREE’s bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessment. Last year he participated in an online Wildlife Veterinary course offered by Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), and now he put some of the skills he learned from Dr. Isabelle to the test.

The 2022 Hicatee Health Assessments’ purpose is to determine the sex ratio of the captive-born turtles as well as collect growth data and review the overall health of a subset of turtles. Additionally, ultrasounds were performed on adult female turtles.

Donning his Hicatee Hero t-shirt, Mark fit right in with Team Hicatee and was an invaluable addition to the team. In addition to shadowing the veterinarians performing necropsies and endoscopies, Mark has helped with data collection, photographing the various activities, and supporting all of the other important aspects of the health assessment.

Zoo New England Staff Use Morphometric Imagery to Determine Sex of Hicatee Turtles at BFREE

Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder from Zoo New England join the BFREE Team to support the Bi-Annual Hicatee Health Assessment at the BFREE Biological Field Station in southern Belize. The March 2022 Health Assessments of the critically endangered Hicatee Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, focused on determining the sax ratios of the captive-bred Hicatee.

In this video, Emilie Wilder and Bryan Windmiller share how they are taking morphometric photos of each turtle to see if it is possible to use image analysis to determine if the turtle is male or female by the shape of its plastron.

A special thanks to both Emilie and Bryan for their invaluable help this week and to Zoo New England for their continued support of our Hicatee conservation program.

Determining sex ratios on captive-born Hicatee

The March bi-annual health assessment for Dermatemys mawii began on Saturday, March 5, and will wrap up on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. This is the first health assessment since March 2020 that we’ve been able to invite participants from abroad.

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center has experienced successful breeding of our captive population of turtles since 2014. Since then, hundreds of turtles have been hatched at the facility. However, because there is little research on the species to date, we have not been able to distinguish male hatchlings from female hatchlings. To ensure a successful re-wilding program, we must verify the ratio of males to females. And, if the ratios are not correct, then we will use that information to modify our incubation methods. This health assessment is dedicated to determining our sex ratios at the HCRC.

Research shows that if a turtle’s eggs incubate below 81.86 Fahrenheit, the turtle hatchlings will be male. If the eggs incubate above 87.8° Fahrenheit, however, the hatchlings will be female. Temperatures that fluctuate between the two extremes will produce a mix of male and female baby turtles.

Turtle biologist, Dave Rostal, and Veterinarians, Elliott Jacobson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand are performing endoscopies to determine the sex of our hatchlings. Simultaneously, Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder from Zoo New England are taking morphometric photos of each turtle to see if their plastron shape can help determine the sex of the turtles.

We are also collecting typical growth data on a subset of turtles as well as reviewing their overall health and performing ultrasounds on adult females.

Participants: Zoo New England Staff: Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder; Visiting Veterinarian: Elliott Jacobson, Professor Emeritus, University of Florida, Visiting Biologist: Dave Rostal, Southern Georgia University, Local Veterinarian: Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Visiting Volunteers: Doris Dimmitt, Rod Dimmit, Emily Gregory, Tim Gregory, and Alexi Dart-Padover, BFREE staff: Thomas Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, Elmer Tzalam, Jacob Marlin, and Heather Barrett. BFREE Team Hicatee chef: Edwardo Pop.

Thanks to Zoo New England for their support of this health assessment as well as for their ongoing support for the program.

BFREE TURTLES

LONG TERM TURTLE SURVEY IN THE JUNGLE

Join the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) and the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG) to participate in a long-term population monitoring project for freshwater and terrestrial turtle species located within BFREE’s Privately Protected Area in southern Belize. The BFREE Privately Protected Area is a 1,153-acre reserve that adjoins the largest tract of rainforest north of the Amazon. It’s an incredible hotspot for biodiversity where tapirs, howler monkeys, jaguars, and harpy eagles are often spotted and is the last stronghold for many endangered species.

Participants will be supporting researchers in the second annual survey of a 10-year long-term monitoring project to provide basic demographic and population information. Turtles will be captured using various methods, including hand capture and baited traps, and will be given unique identification marks and injected with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags for future identification. You’ll be joined by herpetologists and experts in the field from both the US and Belize. In 2021, the BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Team marked, measured, and safely released 272 turtles. Turtles found included White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, Furrowed Wood Turtle, and the Meso-American Slider – representing seven of Belize’s nine freshwater turtles.

We look forward to you joining us in Belize for the July 2022 BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey in the jungle!


DATES

Choose between one of the two group dates to participate in the 2022 Turtle Survey at BFREE.

Group One: July 1 – 10, 2022 – FILLED

Group Two: July 13 – 22, 2022 – LIMITED SPACE LEFT

Participants are required to book their own transportation to BFREE, including international airfare to the Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) and domestic airfare to Savannah (INB).

REQUIREMENTS

  • Able to hike 5 + miles a day in 90-degree weather with 100% humidity.
  • Able to lift and carry 40 lbs. for periods of time.
  • Willingness to get dirty and to put long days in.
  • All participants are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

CONTACT

Questions, please contact Eric Munscher, Director of the Turtle Survival Alliance’s – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG) at

emunscher@turtlesurvival.org

ITINERARY

  • Day One: Arrive at BZE by 1:30 PM, fly to INB at 3:30 PM. Transportation provided from INB to the BFREE Field Station. Settle into rooms and unpack before dinner.
  • Day Two: Tour the BFREE Facility and familiarize yourself with the various trails and facilities. Free time to relax and swim in the crystal-clear water of the Bladen River or explore one of BFREE’s many conservation initiatives, including the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a captive breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, locally known in Belize as the Hicatee.
  • Day Three – Nine: Turtle surveys throughout BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve
  • Day Ten: Breakfast followed by transportation to INB for a domestic flight back to BZE.

COSTS

The costs are $1,450 per participant.

Cost Includes:

  • Double occupancy in BFREE’s newest accommodation, the Hammock, which features an open-air veranda connecting six private rooms. Linens, pillows, and blankets provided.
  • Three chef-prepared meals per day.
  • Guided night hikes and tours of BFREE’s conservation programs
  • Round-trip 4×4 transportation from Savannah Airport (INB) to the BFREE Field Station and back on the day of departure.
  • Fees paid to this program not only support your participation in critical turtle research for Belize but also have a direct impact on the country’s next generation of conservation leaders. Funding from this TSA-NAFTRG-BFREE research program will employ the next Belizean participant in BFREE’s two-year work training Science and Education Fellowship program.

REGISTER

Space is limited for this incredible opportunity; make your deposit today to secure your spot. Deposits are due by April 30, 2022. The final payment is due by May 1st for Group One and May 13th for Group Two. To register for this program, read the Booking Terms and Conditions on the next page.



BOOKING TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Participants must agree to all terms and conditions of booking before registering for this program. This program is coordinated by the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE).

Covered Costs.

Participation in the 2022 Turtle Survey at BFREE is $1,450 per person. These covered costs per person include accommodations, meals, and guided tours of BFREE. Program Fees Do Not include the following: international airfare to BZE, roundtrip domestic airfare with Maya Island Air to Savannah (INB), soft drinks and beers, COVID-19 Tests required for arrival or departure, gratuities/souvenirs – at your discretion.

Deposit and Final Payment.

A $500 USD Non-Refundable initial deposit will secure your spot on the trip, or you may choose to pay in full. The remaining balance is due 60-days before the retreat start date. Failure to make payment by the applicable due date may forfeit your booking on the trip and be treated as a cancellation. If a booking is made less than 60-days before the trip start date, the full amount must be paid at the time of booking.

Payment Schedule.

The $500 deposit is due for all participants by March 11, 2022. Final payment for Participants in Group One is due by May 1, 2022, and for Group two, by May 13, 2022. Payments should be made at www.givebutter.com/turtletour

Cancellations.

Cancellations made by participants should include a formal refund request sent by email to contact@bfreebz.org. According to the outline below, approved refunds by BFREE will be returned to the participant.

  • Refund requests more than 60-days before the program start date will receive a full refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests more than 30-days before the program start date will receive a 50% refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests less than 30-days before the program start date are non-refundable.
  • Cancellations 30-days or less to the program start date due to events directly relating to COVID-19, specifically international travel restrictions and border closings, will receive a 50% refund minus the deposit.

BFREE is not liable for additional costs incurred due to cancellation, including flights, lodgings, activities, meals, etc. BFREE strongly recommends that all participants purchase travel insurance (medical, COVID-19 coverage, and trip cancellation) to protect you in case of any unforeseen emergencies. BFREE shall, in its sole discretion, have the right, upon written notice to the participant and without further liability, to terminate a program. Participants will be refunded following the Cancellation policy outlined above. BFREE is not liable for any loss or damage suffered by you, including but not limited to the loss of the Deposit and/or Full Payment, as a result of a Force Majeure Event and/or the cancellation of a Program due to a Force Majeure Event.

Travel to BFREE.

International flights should arrive at the Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) no later than 1:30 PM on the first day of the program. On the program’s final day, international departure flights should not depart BZE before noon. Roundtrip domestic flights should be booked by emailing Maya Island Air at info@mayaislandair.com and requesting the 3:30 PM BFREE GROUP FLIGHT from BZE to Savannah (INB) and the BFREE GROUP FLIGHT at 8:30 AM from INB to BZE on the final day of the program.

COVID-19 Policy.

All guests must adhere to the Government of Belize’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols at the time of their visit to Belize, as well as those from the departure destination. All travelers entering Belize will be required to present a negative Covid-19 PCR test taken within 96 hours of travel or a negative result from any approved Antigen Rapid Test taken within 48 hours of travel. ALL US air travelers returning to the US need a negative Covid-19 test taken within ONE day of their departing flight. All visitors to BFREE are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Documenting Dermatemys mawii courtship, breeding, and nesting

by Thomas Pop and Jonathan Dubon

Last year, HCRC Manager, Thomas Pop, and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon, separately witnessed two amazing events during their daily work at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Tom observed captive Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee turtle) exhibiting courtship behavior and mating and later Jonathan recorded a female Hicatee laying eggs. Both events were firsts for the staff of the HCRC. Tom and Jonathan describe their individual sightings below.

Tom’s Account of D. mawii mating:  

During the 3-4th week of October 2021, I observed the following events:

Searching: I noticed that several males were following a single female and thought it might have been to initiate a courtship ritual. I saw the males searching both in the mornings and in the evenings on some days. This caught my attention because Hicatee rarely come to the surface of the water and generally only poke their nostrils out to breathe. I did not see any females searching for a male partner to mate with, but we cannot discard this idea as we do not have enough evidence.

Pre-copulation: Several activities were noted before copulation during this time. I saw that the males would try to get behind the female as if they were trying to pick up on a scent or hormone. The male turtles would then try to bite the female’s tail, as well as her marginal scutes and face. Males were observed shaking their heads from side to side while in front of the female, thereafter, trying to bite the female’s face. Again, I witnessed these activities sometimes in the mornings and evenings. There has not been any evidence of individuals being territorial or aggressive towards each other at the HCRC, including male to male, until this recent observation. The only aggression noticed was between dominant males and a female that may have been ready to mate.

Copulation: I noticed that one of the male turtles would try to jump onto the female turtle when they were a little deeper in the water and hook on. The female would then walk into the shallow water around the edge, so the male’s carapace was out of the water a bit.  I used this time to take some photos and videos. I also noticed that before mating, the male would try to drag the female a little deeper into the water as opposed to the shallow edge. Being that this activity happened around the edge of the pond, the turtles made the water very murky by disturbing the dirt present. During this time, I only observed the mating twice. I also noticed that the female involved in the copulation did not seem to want to go deeper in the water. She somewhat preferred to stay around the edge of the pond and seemed stressed.

Jonathan’s account of D. mawii laying eggs:

On December 22nd, 2021, around 7:30 am, I opened the gate to the HCRC and checked around the breeding ponds for nests that might have been deposited overnight. I was stopped in my tracks when I noticed a female Hicatee on land, digging a nest hole with her hind legs. I stood still and remained quiet so as not scare the turtle. She also remained still, and after about a minute or two, she continued to clear out the nest hole. I carefully snuck up behind her and took out my phone to document the occasion. 

At first, I was stooping down but my knees started to ache, so I sat down. After a little while, I laid down a few feet behind her so that I could get some great angles of the event. She continued to remove dirt from the nest hole for 15-20 more minutes. She then laid the first of a total six (6) eggs at around 8:05 am. I noticed that she would place one of her hind legs in the hole when she was laying, to hold and gently lower the egg into the hole. After placing the egg down, she would use her hind legs, switching between the two, to move the egg around and gently set it in place. She repeated these actions in the same way for all six eggs. By 8:30 am, approximately 25 minutes later, she was finished laying. 

After setting the final egg in place, she then began to pull dirt with her hind legs from around the hole to cover it. It took her around seven minutes to cover the nest with dirt while slightly compacting it. After covering up the nest, she slowly turned around and made her way back into the water, at the 8:37 am mark. 

To my surprise, she did not seem bothered by my presence. I do know that some sea turtles allow you to observe and even touch them while they are laying eggs, but I was not sure if Hicatee turtles would do the same. I did not want to risk scaring her, so I played it safe and tried to remain invisible and quiet throughout the activity. 

Why these observations are important:

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, was very impressed by the incredible observation and documentation skills of Tom and Jonathan. He stated, “The documentation of courtship, breeding and nesting demonstrates one of the many benefits of developing the HCRC. This species has very secretive habits and barely comes out of the water, even to nest. These events have never been documented in the wild and without the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center and its dedicated staff, this incredible behavior would likely continue to elude science.”

Watch a short video of the events described by Tom and Jonathan at the HCRC.

About the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center:

BFREE is home to the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC), a captive breeding facility for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, locally known in Belize as the Hicatee. The Hicatee is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List and is listed in the report, “Turtles in Trouble:  The World’s 25 Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles – 2018,” by the Turtle Conservation Coalition. The HCRC was established along with the support of the Turtle Survival Alliance in 2011. Over the last ten years, the team has grown to include several additional partners working together to study reproductive biology, nesting ecology, and the feasibility of breeding Hicatee in captivity. To learn more about BFREE’s work in protecting the Hicatee, visit www.bfreebz.org/research/#hicatee

Photography and Videos by Thomas Pop and Jonathan Dubon. Video compilation by Jonathan Dubon.