2017 BFREE Field Courses

BFREE 2017 Field Course Season wraps up this month with 172 students and instructors visiting the Field Station from as far as Scotland and Alaska. Eleven courses in total, including two junior colleges and one primary school from Belize, all traveled to our small slice of paradise off the Southern Highway.

BFREE field courses are each uniquely developed by the lead instructors and BFREE staff. Courses are created to reflect each school’s curriculum and goals. While each group is different, visitors to BFREE share many similar challenging and rewarding experiences.

Upon arrival to Belize, each group is welcomed at the airport by a BFREE Tour Guide. If you have the pleasure to be greeted by Nelly Cadle then you know you are in for a treat! Nelly’s experience, knowledge, and passion for her country and work are hard to match.

The hike from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station is a memory hard to forget. Traversing several distinct habitats, each with unique plants and animals, leads you to the Bladen River, towering cecropia trees, and your final destination — The BFREE Field Station.

While at BFREE, groups not only learn about the various ongoing program work but have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with first-hand experience supporting BFREE’s conservation initiatives. Students have the opportunity to visit the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a breeding and research facility for the critically endangered hicatee turtle as well as the 15-acre cacao and coffee agroforest, home to over 12,000 cacao trees.

Assigned by their instructors, many students are tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data while spending several days working on independent projects.

Students may choose to participate in various field experiments such as conducting river studies in the Bladen River, setting up small mammal traps for the Small Mammal Community Study or surveying selected plots in the Fruit Phenology Study.

In addition to the BFREE Field Station, many groups incorporate a marine component, learning about the second largest barrier reef system in the world, snorkeling from various islands around Belize.

There is nothing quite like traveling to a remote field station deep in a tropical rainforest to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

On behalf of all of us at BFREE, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the instructors, administrators, students, and parents that helped make the 2017 BFREE Field Season one of the best yet! We can’t wait to see you all again!

If you are interested in visiting BFREE, whether it be a student group, family vacation, solo adventure or interest in volunteering, we would be thrilled to have you! Contact BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville at tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information.


2017 BFREE Field Courses 


For even more Field Course information check out these links below: 

University of Richmond Story Map

Click the link above to visit the University of Richmond’s Story Map put together by the fourteen students that visited BFREE this year.

Vermont Commons School Video: Belize is Our Classroom!

Vermont Commons School creates a compelling video documenting their trip to BFREE, check it out on YouTube: Belize is Our Classroom! 

Volunteer with BFREE

BFREE is now looking for volunteers to work with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and the nearly 70 newly hatched hicatee turtles. Visit the link below for more info!

BFREE flickr Page

Find even more photos from the 2017 BFREE Field Course season on flickr!

Slideshow on Student Alumni Facebook Group

Watch all the group photos from 2017 in this slideshow on the BFREE Student Alumni Group Page. If you are a student alum, be sure to follow along!








Latest Hicatee turtle hatchlings for the HCRC


Hicatee hatchling by Carol Foster

Hicatee hatchling by Carol Farneti Foster

On May 6 and 7, four Hicatee turtles hatched under the watchful eyes of wildlife filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster, who documented the exciting events. They captured this amazing footage. The Fosters’ were contracted by the Turtle Survival Alliance and BFREE to produce a short documentary film in order to to improve local awareness and appreciation for the uniqueness and the plight of the Hicatee across its small range of southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize. The film will focus on the turtle’s status in Belize and will describe its rapid decline due to over-hunting (for the purpose of human consumption), and will highlight current conservation efforts.

Ten eggs were laid by an adult hicatee at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center on December 14, 2015. Seven were deemed viable and four were transferred to the Fosters’ residence outside of Belmopan for incubation at a constant temperature of 29 degrees celcius in hopes of producing females. The rest of the clutch remained at BFREE for incubation at ambient temperature. After 149 of incubation at the Fosters’ residence outside of Belmopan, four turtles emerged – tiny and healthy.  This was 44 days sooner than last year’s seven hatchlings, which emerged after 193 days of incubation at ambient temperature!  We are still waiting for the remaining two viable eggs from the December 14 clutch to hatch.

Initial funding for the film is being provided by the Columbus Zoo and the Houston Zoo.

The Bladen Review – 2015 Edition!

The third publication of BFREE’s annual magazine, The Bladen Review, is available online in an interactive format on Issuu! Get the latest news around the field station and learn about exciting research projects taking place in the rainforest of Belize.

Note: To view in full screen, click once in the middle of The Bladen Review.

To download a PDF version of The Bladen Review click here .

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!

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

Hicatee Turtle Confiscations Help Stock the HCRC

Belize Fisheries Officers with confiscated Hicatees.

Belize Fisheries Officers with confiscated Hicatees.

The new Hicatee Conservation Research Center (HCRC) in Belize is now open for business, which is a good thing for eight Central American River turtles, or Hicatee, Dermatemys mawii, that were confiscated recently. Spearheaded by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and created in partnership with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), the HCRC is a unique facility located in a private protected area at the foothills of the Maya Mountains.

Jacob Marlin places an identifying mark on a Hicatee turtle.

Jacob Marlin places an identifying mark on a Hicatee turtle.

TSA and BFREE already had a team on the ground in Belize when we learned that the Fisheries Department, acting on a tip, had pursued a group of Hicatee hunters in an area near Sandhill called Grace Bank, Belize District. The pursuit by canoe lasted over three hours and resulted in the officers’ discovery of ten nets set across the creek for trapping Hicatee, an illegal practice that fortunately led to the poacher’s camp. Though armed, two men were arrested without incident on 26 March and arraigned the following day in court and charged accordingly (See Belize news).

Many of the confiscated turtles were below the legal limit.

Many of the confiscated turtles were below the legal limit.

[and by Rick Hudson of the TSA]

Eight turtles were found in bags including an oversize female with a carapace length of 18.3 inches, 3 under-sized females with carapace lengths of less than 14 inches, 2 legal-sized females with carapace lengths of 16 inches, and 2 adult males each with a carapace length of 16 inches. Violations included exceeding the allowable number of turtles (3), using nets to trap turtles, and taking turtles outside the allowable size limits of 15.2 – 17.2 inches carapace length. More restrictive regulations for collecting Hicatee in Belize were proposed in 2012 but have not yet gone into effect.

On Thursday, 27 March, a news report on the radio notified the public of the arrest and reminded them of the laws pertaining to harvesting Hicatee from the wild. Upon learning that an arrest had been made, our team called Fisheries and requested that the turtles be transferred to BFREE for the breeding program. The following day, 28 March, permission was granted and Jacob Marlin, Executive Director of BFREE, picked up the turtles from Fisheries headquarters in Belize City. There are now 22 Hicatee residing at the HCRC.

Since arriving at the Center, the new turtles have settled in well and begun feeding on local figs and Paspalum, an emergent aquatic grass that has been found to comprise the majority of their wild diet by volume, and is being cultivated at BFREE as a food source.
The goal of the HCRC is to develop reliable artificial breeding methods that will permit the sustainable and large-scale captive management of this endangered and heavily hunted species. Research at the Center is designed to answer questions on the reproductive biology of this secretive and difficult- to-observe turtle such as preferred nesting habitat, environmental triggers for egg-laying and breeding and egg incubation. Other goals include the design of optimal captive environments, and determination of stocking densities and low-cost feeding regimes that will contribute to sustained breeding success. The Belize Fisheries Department has enthusiastically endorsed the HCRC and will continue to help us stock the Center with future Hicatee confiscations. More illegal seizures are anticipated soon, in the days leading up to Easter celebrations, a peak period for consumption of Hicatee throughout their range.

IMG_8635Belize-Mar-2014-DS-for-webThese confiscations – the first in a long time – bode well for the future of the Hicatee in Belize. The formation of the Hicatee Conservation Monitoring Network in 2010 is beginning to pay dividends and we are seeing increases in patrols, enforcement activity and community involvement. For the past three years a national awareness campaign – run by local NGOs YCT and TIDE – has highlighted the plight of the Hicatee and reminded people of protective regulations. Many groups and individuals are now coming together under a single banner and working to strengthen protection for this culturally important and iconic turtle.

The TSA and BFREE wish to thank the following people and organizations for their recent contributions to the Hicatee conservation program in Belize: Milena Oliva Mendez, Venetia Briggs-Gonzales, Thomas Rainwater, Dustin Smith, Howard Goldstein, Lex Thomas, Tom Pop, Eric Anderson, Rich Zerelli, Curtis Flowers, Richard and Carol Foster, Marcelino Pop, Fernandes Sho, Alfio Cal, Domingo Pop, Cheers Restaurant, Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Lamanai Field Research Center, Zoo Miami, Belize Aquaculture Limited, Gomez and Sons Sawmill, Maya King Limited, and the Belize Fisheries Department.

New Species of Rare Land Snail Officially Described from Belize!

maya drum snail 1
Found in the southern foothills of the Maya Mountains, the Mayan drum, Eucalodium belizensis was formally given scientific description by Dan Dourson, BFREE biologist and Fred Thompson, Florida Museum of Natural History in the journal, The Nautilus, Volume 127 in late 2013.

maya drum snail 2The new species was first discovered by Valentino Tzub, a Kek’chi Mayan from the village of San Jose´ who was trained as a malacological field as-sistant by Dan Dourson. Valentino has been collecting and cataloguing land snails near his village of San Jose for the past 5 years and has found other species of land snails that are likely new to science; these also waiting scientific description. Mr. Tzub works as a guide and research assistant for other scientific expeditions and research projects in Belize.

The subgenus Eucalodium is known from foothills in a rather small area of Belize, Guatemala, and part of Mexico (northern Chiapas and Tabasco.) Drums are seldom encountered, and they are not common where they are found; several species known only from the type locality as is the case for the Maya drum. This is the first species of the genus and the subgenus reported from Belize. The Mayan drum was found under leaf litter near Cretaceous limestone outcrops.

The landform surrounding the type locality includes hilly karst topography, containing sinkholes and multiple cave formations. The type locality is entirely forested with a tropical wet broadleaf evergreen forest with cohune palms and occasional emergent Ceiba trees and an understory layer dominated with shrubs, pteridophytes, and Araceae (Brewer pers. comm.). Farming activity from San Jose is encroaching into the near-by forest and threatens the future of this extremely rare and endangered gastropod. Above are the only images ever taken of a live Mayan drum.

maya drum snail shell

A Rapid Multi-Taxa Assessment of “Oak Ridge”

Oak Tree

Quercus lancifolia, an oak tree species endemic to the upper elevations of Central America, exchanging leaves as dry season sets in.

In March of 2012, an expedition team took a snapshot of the vegetation, bat and land snail diversity in the moisture-laden forests of the highest elevations in the Maya Mountains (Bladen Nature Reserve).

Together this team, created the document “A RAPID MULTI-TAXA ASSESSMENT OF “OAK RIDGE” AN UNUSUAL RIDGE SYSTEM IN THE NORTH-CENTRAL BLADEN NATURE RESERVE” prepared by Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc. for the Belize Forest Department, Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment and Ya’axche Conservation Trust.

This assessment, first circulated in December 2013 and authored by Steven W. Brewer, Plant Diversity & Vegetation; Price Sewell, Josh Adams and Mark Gumbert, Bats; and Daniel C. Dourson, Snails, is rich with information and photographs, and is available on Ya’axche’s website at this link.