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.

Hatchling

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.
IMG_8638Belize-Mar-2014-DS-(2)-for-web
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.

NYCCT – Study Abroad blog

William Garcia discusses aging bats with NYCCT group

William Garcia discusses how to determine the  age of bats with NYCCT group

New York City College of Technology (NYCCT) student, Tasnuva Ahmed, created a blog (Study Abroad – Belize) of her 10-day field course with BFREE in January 2014.  Traveling with 4 other architecture students and her professor, Lia Dikigoropoulou, Tasnuva documented all aspects of the group’s experience in Belize with photo and video.

Tasnuva Ahmed videos the Bladen River

Tasnuva Ahmed videos the Bladen River

Notes from the Field Spring 2013

independence-college-forweb

Students from Independence Junior College in Belize.

New partnerships, bold new field courses and new additions to the BFREE experience along with annual/biannual courses punctuate BFREE’s 2013 field season.

Student from Nebraska Wesleyan University working with cohune.

Student from Nebraska Wesleyan University working with cohune.

In early January, Dr. Jerry Bricker and students from Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) participated in BFREE’s newly developed field course, “Field Study Methods in Tropical Ecology”. Designed to optimize BFREE’s premium location adjacent to 1.5 million acres of pristine rainforest, students spent the first few days observing and participating in field research methods presented by BFREE staff biologists. From bat netting to mist netting for birds to aquatic surveys and land mammal survey methods, students experienced authentic research in the tropical rainforest. Throughout these activities, observations were recorded, and mini research projects were developed with input from both professors and resident researchers. Research topics varied widely from ant behavior to bioluminescence. Students’ research results rounded out the week with one “Star Wars”-like presentation by a pair of students studying bioluminescence who made a grand entrance to a darkened dining room wielding the rotting fronds of a cohune palm glowing like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre!

Otterbein University returned once again in mid-January with a new twist to their multidisciplinary course combining Tropical Ecology and Cross Cultural Experiences. A senior research project in psychology and sociology compared the attitudes toward the environment and the natural world of school children from the U.S. and Belize. Conducted during a homestay in the village of San Felipe, the survey looked at the impact of television and other technologies on attitudes toward the environment. After completing their survey, Otterbein students spent time teaching the Belizean kids outdoor games like Red Rover and Duck, Duck, Goose!

Collaboration between BFREE and Ya’axche Conservation Trust has provided students the rare opportunity to experience Belize’s Crown Jewel of protected areas, the Bladen Nature Reserve. YCT rangers led hikes for most of the BFREE field courses along the Bladen River Trail in an area of the reserve that permits access for educational purposes. These guided hikes focused on the challenges of managing Belize’s highest protected area with limited staff and resources as well as how local people use forest resources in daily living practices fostering appreciation for the necessity to protect such pristine environments like the Bladen for future generations.

Students from Otterbein swimming in the river.

Students from Otterbein University swimming in the river.

Sterling College students and faculty were welcomed for the sixth year at the end of January. Aquatic specialists, instructors Farley Brown and Charlotte Rosenthal, returned to previous research sites near Blue Pool and along the Bladen River to survey the aquatic life and flow of the Bladen River. Students participated in a variety of activities presented by BFREE staff biologists; including snail survey work, bat netting, bird netting and a tour of BFREE’s Agroforestry project: a shade-grown, organic and bird-friendly cacao and coffee farm.

The month of February welcomed local community college students from Independence Junior College (pictured at top) and their professor Abigail Parham for another weekend of field activities lead by BFREE Avian Biologist, William Garcia and Avian Technician, Liberato Pop. We were pleased to be able to offer field experience FOR Belizeans LED BY Belizeans!!

The month of March indeed came in like a lion for BFREE as we hosted two courses simultaneously on site. Both courses featured bold new arenas for BFREE. Next month’s News from the Field will feature a closer look at University of Florida’s School of Environmental Law’s cutting edge masters level course as well as an exciting new focused field course from University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

BFREE Avian Technician Receives Prestigious Internship

gato in oregon

Gato in Oregon.

BFREE is proud to announce that Avian Technician, Liberato “Gato” Pop, started his international Bird Banding internship with Klamath Bird Observatory in Oregon, USA during early May 2013. With the support of BFREE staff members, Gato began working toward the internship in January and has navigated through the process of applying, interviewing, obtaining a 6-month travel Visa, and deciding to leave his home for half a year to pursue this goal!

Klamath Bird Observatory (KBO) Interns engage in a variety of bird monitoring and research methodologies (e.g., bird banding and nest searching) depending on annual project needs. Interns gain skills in bird identification by sight and sound, survey methodology, orienteering and general field biology skills, meticulous data collection, and data entry. Interns also contribute substantially to KBO’s research and monitoring efforts. Upon successful completion of the program, Gato will be eligible to pursue his bird banding certification by the North American Banding Council and additionally hopes to be certified as a banding trainer.

Experiences like this are ones that BFREE has worked hard to try to link Belizeans to. Gato lives in Bladen Village, a small community of approximately 300 people. His village is one of the six communities buffering Bladen Nature Reserve in which BFREE has focused outreach efforts over the past seven years. By offering educational programs in village schools and to community members and by training and employing locals to become parabiologists (and in this case, avian technicians), BFREE seeks to involve Belizean stake-holders in the pursuit of the organizational mission to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.

gato sushi

Gato making sushi.

At just 21 years old, Gato found BFREE five years ago when he was 16. His father, village leader of Bladen that year, saw BFREE employee William Garcia putting up posters advertising the opportunity to train and work as an avian technician. Gato eagerly applied and, a few weeks later, he officially joined BFREE’s avian research team. Since that time, Gato has become an integral part of the avian team and has shown a special affinity for his work with Belize’s wild Harpy eagles.

Gato is one of 13 individuals who have completed avian technician training with BFREE and is one of three who are currently employed by the non-profit. Avian Program Coordinator, William Garcia, has taken advantage of multiple opportunities to receive additional training abroad; he also participated in a KBO internship and has worked with Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc. in Kentucky, USA each summer for the past three years. Newest avian team member, Marlyn Cruz, will begin her first international internship with Copperhead Environmental Consulting this June.

BFREE would like to express sincere thanks to organizations like Klamath Bird Observatory and Copperhead Environmental Consulting, Inc. for providing once in a lifetime opportunities to motivated and talented individuals like Gato, William and Marlyn.

Creature Feature: Oropendola

oropendola 2Photo by John Swartz, birdpix.com

Arguably one of the most interesting birds in the Bladen Nature Reserve, in terms of its song, nest-building skills and appearance, is the Montezuma’s oropendola, locally known as yellow-tail. Just upstream from the BFREE crossing is a rookery of around 100 nests, hanging high above the tranquil Bladen River.

oropendola 1

Photo by John Swartz, birdpix.com

The extraordinary song of this outlandish-looking bird consists of eerie vocalization that begins with a few high-pitched thin notes followed by a sound like the crumpling of brittle paper, and ends with an explosive, rich, hollow gurgling that carries for a considerable distance. This distinctive song is produced while the bird falls forward, remaining attached to the limb in a flipping motion – a bizarre feat to behold!

Considered a signature species of the rainforest, the bird’s nest-building skills are legendary. The four-foot long nests are constructed from thin strips of palm leaves skillfully woven into safe and sound brooding baskets. Like many of the bat species in the Maya Mountains, the oropendola is a frugivore, eating a variety of wild figs, sapodilla fruits and mammay apples, and is therefore considered an important agent of seed dispersal in tropical rainforests. These incredible birds are just one of the over 350 species of birds documented at BFREE.