Freshwater and Terrestrial Turtle Survey – Year Two

by Eric Munscher

This year, we, members of the TSA – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG), had a team of ten people fly down to trap turtles on the BFREE private reserve in southern Belize. If you have never been to Belize, I highly recommend it. The country is beautiful and the people are wonderful. Working with the people at the BFREE Field Station on this project has been so much fun.

This is our second year of a planned 10-year survey of freshwater and terrestrial turtle species on BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Last year, we identified several species range extensions and caught seven of nine freshwater and terrestrial species known in Belize. The survey is valuable information not only for the TSA, NAFTRG and BFREE, but for the country of Belize where very little data exists on many of these species.

During the first 12 days we caught 221 turtles representing 8 species. The holy grail capture of this trip was finding our first Narrow Bridged Musk Turtle (Claudius angustatus), which is a really cool and understudied species of musk turtle. One that is not known from southern Belize. We ended up catching a dozen including some juveniles and a hatchling indicating a viable breeding population.

Our team also helped kick off a new grad student project for Collin McAvinchey who will be staying in Belize for most of the month of July tracking Tabasco Mud turtles (Kinosternon acutum). Collin’s project started off slow due to weather conditions. Finding adult Tabasco Mud Turtles was more of a challenge this year than last year. Still the data he is gathering is surprising and amazing. As of yesterday, he is now tracking ten of these turtles all over the rainforest. For a mud turtle they seem to act more like box turtles….

I am really looking forward to generating our first manuscripts from this work and seeing Collin’s thesis come together. I’m also excited to return next year! A valuable and exciting part of this program was the opportunity for citizen scientists to contribute to a long-term dataset. There will be opportunities next year for additional participation.

Thanks to an amazing crew Arron Tuggle, Madeleine Morrison, Nicole Salvatico, Stephen Ross , Tabitha Barbree Hootman, Luke Pearson, Becca Rádio Cozad, Georgia Knauss, and Collin McAvinchey. Also to the BFREE team: Thomas Pop, Barney Hall, Jonathan Dubon, Heather Barrett, Jacob Marlin, and many others, thank you for all of your efforts and hospitality and making this project such an early success! Finally, thanks to Tyler Sanville for supporting our travel logistics and to Eddie Pop who kept us well fed and always ready to get back out into the field.

To read more about last year’s survey, read Under the Shade They Flourish: Beginning A 10-Year Study in Belize published by SWCA Environmental Consultants and TSA-NAFTRG Survey at BFREE.

Genetic Analysis of Dermatemys mawii

BFREE’s second Hicatee (Central American River Turtle) Health Assessment of 2022 took place on July 5 and 6. These dates were much earlier than normal because there was an opportunity to conduct a much-needed genetics study. Dr. Natalia Gallego Garcia traveled from Colombia to collect the samples that will be used for genetic analysis. With the help of Luke Pearson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand, she was able to collect 44 samples from the 46 adult captive turtles in residence at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). Collected samples will be stored at BFREE until export permits are received. The study is critical to the on-going work at the HCRC and for the Hicatee program in Belize.

Improving Captive Management

Using this genetics study, Natalia will implement a paternity analysis. Data collected will be used to assign all the clutches hatched at the HCRC to a mother (dame) and to potential fathers (sires). We will also gain an understanding of the reproductive output of the species by determining which captive adults are reproducing and how often. Results will be used to improve captive management protocols.

Supplementing Wild Populations

Further, the study will help us determine the genetic composition of wild populations and understand how to supplement those populations with captive animals if necessary. Dr. Gallego-Garcia will conduct a population genetics analysis that includes wild samples in Belize as well as Mexico and Guatemala.

In addition to the genetics study, morphometric data was collected on all adults as well as the majority of juveniles. Dr. Isabelle and her assistant performed ultrasounds on all adult females and identified follicles already forming in many of the turtles.

Finally, because a survey team from Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) was onsite, Natalia was able to collect samples from a subset of those turtles as well.

Hicatee Health Assessment participants

UCLA Shaffer Lab – Natalia Gallego-Garcia; TSA- NAFTRG turtle survey team members – Eric Munscher, Collin McAvinchey, Becca Cozad, Tabitha Hootman, Arron Tuggle, Georgia Knaus, Maddie Morrison, Nichole Salvatico, Luke Pearson, and Stephen Ross; TSA and BFREE Board Member – Tim Gregory; Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic – Isabelle Paquet Durand; BFREE – Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Barney Hall, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett

Natalia Gallego García received her Ph.D in 2019 at Universidad de los Andes. For her dissertation, she used landscape genomics to determine mechanisms affecting the functional connectivity in two endangered and endemic turtles in Colombia. She conducts work through UCLA’s Shaffer Lab as a postdoc, working on a range wide landscape genomic analysis of the red-footed tortoise across South America, with a particular emphasis on Colombian population differentiation.

BFREE Birding Club T-Shirts For Sale!

You asked, we answered! BFREE is partnering with Bonfire to create and sell t-shirts that support our conservation programs. Our first t-shirt design is in honor of the BFREE Birding Club and sports a beautiful Rufous-tailed jacamar. Anyone can join the BFREE Birding Club! The best part – you can pick from five different styles of shirts and nearly twenty different colors! Profits from each sale will directly support BFREE’s conservation programs. Shirts are mailed every 4-weeks directly from the Bonfire warehouse. If you have a question about shipping please do not hesitate to contact us!

Bird watching is the ultimate connector.

The BFREE Privately Protected Area is home to more than 80 species of migratory birds and hundreds of resident species. When we scour the branches for our feathered friends in Belize, we are reminded that some of them have migrated from your backyard to ours. Our location is critical for wildlife, and with your support, we can make a difference in protecting critical wild spaces for all of our furry, scaly, and feathered friends!

Spring Health Assessment 2020

Between February 28th and March 1st, a total of 341 turtles (45 adults in the breeding population and 296 captive hatched animals) 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, to look for follicles and eggs in breeding-size females and to PIT-tag animals.

Ultimately, we would like all turtles at the HCRC to be identified using a scute notching system and also a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag. A PIT tag is a small radio transponder that contains a specific code, which allows individual turtles to be assigned a unique 10 or 15 digit alphanumeric identification number. Unlike acoustic tags that actively send out a signal, they are “passive” and do not require a battery. Rather than the tag transmitting a signal, the tag scanner (or reader) sends out a radio frequency and when a tag is within range, it will relay the identification code back to the receiver. The lack of a battery is the greatest advantage of the PIT tag since it allows for the production of much smaller tags that can be used on smaller organisms, which should last the life of the turtle. 

As in past assessments, two days were dedicated to measuring, giving health checks and ultrasounds to adult and subadult turtles. A day and half was dedicated to PIT-tagging all of the captive born turtles in the 2018 cohort as well as the ones from the 2017 cohort that had yet to be tagged.  

We were thrilled to have a great group of return volunteers from last year’s spring assessment, as well as new participants from Jacksonville Zoo, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, and recent graduates of Independence Junior College in Belize. The team worked tirelessly over three days to ensure that every turtle received the attention it needed.

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 (BWRC); Glendy Delcid, BWRC; Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; Meredith Persky, Veterinarian, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; return volunteers, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory; and new volunteers, Jesse Rope, Jonathan Dubon and Ajay Williams 

We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their continued financial support spring health assessments at the HCRC and to the Turtle Survival Alliance for supplying the PIT tags and associated equipment. Finally, a special thanks is in order to Doris and Rod Dimmitt for supplying Tom Pop with new waders to keep him warm and safe from leeches!

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

Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

BFREE Receives Porras Conservation Award

  It’s not often international wildlife conferences hold their annual meeting so close to home. Fortunately, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) chose Belize City as the base for their 42nd gathering and we are so glad they did!    The International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) provides a forum for the dissemination of information and research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, captive management, and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to showcase the herpetological conservation taking place in Belize.    BFREE Staff, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, and Jaren Serano, attended the conference and presented on various topics. Dr. Marisa Tellez of the Crocodile Research Coalition also provided local perspective on conservation in Belize and several student presenters from southern Belize’s Independence Junior College highlighted research questions and projects pertaining to reptiles and amphibians in the country.    At the close of the conference, BFREE was given the Porras Conservation Award. This award is granted in recognition of lifelong achievements in and contributions to field biology. The award is presented to a speaker (or – in this case – an organization) who has demonstrated that their work represents exceptional accomplishments in the field that benefit herpetological conservation. We are pleased and honored to have our work recognized in this way.  

BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director, provided the keynote presentation. “The Herpetofauna of Belize, 30 Years of Observations, Myths, Facts and Hot Spots”  

Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director, presented “Awareness Messaging as a Tool for the survival of the world’s most endangered turtle family”  

Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow, presented “Turtle or Fish? Investigations into captive management and reproductive biology of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawaii), at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, Belize”    

Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 Wrap Up

Hicatee Awareness Month 2018

The Hicatee turtle, a national treasure for Belize, is seriously under threat due to over-hunting for human consumption. Listed as critically endangered, Belize offers the highest chance for its survival.

Because the Hicatee is in need of greater protection and innovative conservation actions, Turtle Survival Alliance and BFREE launched Hicateee Awareness Month, a country-wide awareness campaign in 2017.

The campaign commenced with the release of the natural history documentary “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” Partners supported the launch hosting community viewing parties of the film, a volunteer toolkit provided step by step instructions on how to get involved, and social media played a significant role in promoting the first ever month-long appreciation campaign for the species.
 
With helpful feedback and many lessons learned, we were prepared and excited to launch the Second Annual Hicatee Awareness Month in October 2018.

In 2018, Hicatee Awareness Month focused on formally establishing the Hicatee turtle as the National Reptile of Belize, to raise its public status and to set the stage of national pride for the rare and unique species.

The month of recognition began with BFREE’s largest outreach project to date. Curated packages of educational resources were mailed directly to 100 pre- and primary schools in Belize – targeting the Cayo District and Belize District. The materials were also made available online and emailed to nearly 500 principals and educators.

Our goal in sharing the materials is to inspire a future generation of leaders that recognize the significant cultural and historic value of the hicatee. The resources were created by educators, scientists, filmmakers, students, and passionate advocates for the use of teachers in their classrooms. They included the children’s book, The Adventures of Herbert the Hicatee, written by a preschool teacher in Belize City, Ms. Martinez, fact sheets, coloring pages, and a country-wide poster contest.
 
Our partners within Belize and in the US helped make the month a success by hosting events and fundraisers and giving presentations. Students from Sacred Heart Junior College, led by Ms. Ingrid Rodriguez, gave presentations to primary school classrooms in the Cayo District while the Jacksonville Zoo chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers hosted a Hicatee Day Event and Fundraiser at their zoo, raising funds to support the work of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Crocodile Research Coalition has featured the Hicatee turtle during all of their CROCtober outreach events.
 
Last week, we were contacted by a classroom from Hummingbird Elementary School in Belize City who were so inspired by the educational resources they received that they established their own Hicatee Committee.  The committee is spreading the message of conservation beyond their school to friends and family during an event on November 10th.

Now, more than ever, these words ring true, “the Hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it!”

Additional Information on Hicatee Awareness Month 2018: 

Links to TV and News Interviews for Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 can be found here: In the News

Photos of Hicatee Awareness Month 2017 and 2018 can be found in our album here: Hicatee Awareness Month on Flickr!

A fun compilation video of Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 activities can be viewed here: Highlights on YouTube

Hicatee Awareness Month in the News

Hicatee Awareness Month in the News!

Jaren Serano, Jules Vasquez and Nelly Cadle at the TV 7 News studio

HCRC Manager, Thomas Pop, Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle, and Science & Education Fellow, Jaren Serano had the distinct honor of being interviewed about BFREE, the HCRC, and all things Hicatee on news outlets thoughout Belize during October. We are thrilled that the media helped in bringing positive attention to work being done at the HCRC and the campaign to save the Hicatee. The preparation Tom, Nelly & Jaren did to present the awareness campaign on TV was commendable and they did a wonderful job representing BFREE.   

Talk Ah Di Town by PGTV News Network

Hicatee’s Survived The Dinosaurs But Not Modern Belize by 7 News Belize

October is Hicatee Awareness Month by Krem Television 

Belize Celebrates Hicatee Awareness Month by Love FM 

Belize Celebrates Hicatee Awareness Month by Ambergris Caye Forum 

Belize Celebrates Hicatee Awareness Month by Breaking Belize News

Professional Development for HCRC Staff

Tom had the opportunity to help with not only turtles, but also iguanas and crocodiles. 

Thomas Pop, Manager of the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center, visited the Cayo District for one week in September to receive training at the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic (BWRC).

BWRC offers free training for governmental and non-governmental partners in wildlife conservation issues, rescue and rehabilitation, wildlife husbandry, emergency response and more. Depending on needs they include some clinical applications as well as basic laboratory methods (with a special focus on parasitology, and fecal analysis which is so often needed in any captive or rescued wildlife species.)

The emphasis of Tom’s training was on microscopy and parasitology

While at the BWRC, Tom was exposed to veterinary techniques that will prove very useful for his work with Hicatee turtles. Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand described Tom as “an enthusiastic learner, with an interest in parasites!”

We are grateful to Dr. Isabelle and her team at the BWRC for hosting Tom and look forward to future opportunities and exchanges. We are also grateful to our partner, the Turtle Survival Alliance, for subsidizing travel costs.