2nd Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop

“Progress toward long-term conservation of Dermatemys mawii, Hicatee turtle” 

On February 25 and 26, BFREE in collaboration with Turtle Survival Alliance, the Belize Fisheries Department, and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens will host the 2nd Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop at the BFREE Field Station.  The forum will bring together members of the scientific community, government officials, NGOs and community-based organizations to share findings and information on the status of the hicatee turtle (Dermatemys mawii) throughout its range and to evaluate the success of ongoing conservation initiatives. Participants will travel from Guatemala, Mexico, the USA and from within Belize to attend the two-day program.



Hicatee Forum Agenda 2016

Hicatee Forum Abstracts 2016


Dr. Rotenberg presents Bird Research at Canadian Conference

This July, Dr. James Rotenberg of University of North Carolina, Wilmington presented his research at The Association of Field Ornithologists, the Society of Canadian Ornithologists / Société des ornithologistes du Canada, and the Wilson Ornithological Society joint annual meetings at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. His presentation “Passive point counts of wintering Neotropical migratory songbirds in Belize yield high abundance and low availability – What does this mean for conservation?,” was co-authored by Evan M. Adams, Biodiversity Research Institute, Portland, Maine. Rotenberg and Olson plan to publish this research in the near future.

Dr. Jamie Rotenberg and his wife Dr. Vibeke Olson during his Field Course to Belize in March.

Dr. Jamie Rotenberg and his wife, Dr. Vibeke Olson, during his Field Course to Belize in March.


In the non-breeding season, birds are often less vocal and territoriality can often be non-existent.  Less is known about songbirds during the winter because of the lack of a consistent and reliable population monitoring effort during this life stage. To understand how effective survey techniques designed primarily for breeding ground use at the non-breeding grounds, we used two years of passive point count monitoring data to determine the number of Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) in southern Belize. Using package ‘unmarked’ in the R Statistical Computing Environment, we used a removal model to estimate the abundance (superpopulation), availability and detectability of Wood Thrushes.  Habitat data at different scales (50m, 1000m, 5000m and 25000m) were used to explore the scale at which bird abundance was correlated with habitat. Using an AIC model selection, we found that birds mostly responded to habitat at the 50m scale with birds negatively correlated with alluvial evergreen habitat (-0.71) and positively correlated with riparian shrubland (0.67) thus suggesting that Wood Thrush winter in greater abundance at sites with alluvial evergreen cover at a small spatial scale. We also found that availability was low for this species, which caused our estimates of abundance to be high. Still, Wood Thrush was the most common species at three of our sites, and separate banding data show that birds were not recaptured between locations of between 2-5km distance. Taken together, these data suggest that Wood Thrush maybe highly mobile during the wintering period with strong intra- and inter-seasonal variation in abundance. For the non-breeding grounds, passive point counts designed for territorial species are mismatched to use with such mobile populations.  From a conservation perspective, these results suggest that large tracts of land could be even more valuable than we have previously realized due to the spatial requirements of non-breeding migratory songbirds.

Hicatee Hatchlings – Three months old & Growing!!

This Hicatee hatchling has is changing since birth - it has lost its egg tooth, the carapace is flattening, and the spots are fading.

At 7 weeks, this Hicatee hatchling  has lost its egg tooth, the carapace is flattening, and its spots are fading.

The seven Hicatee hatchlings (Dermatemys mawii) born to the HCRC in June 2015 are extremely healthy and growing rapidly. In just three short months each has more than doubled their size and weight.

During this period, Thomas Pop, HCRC Manager, has been conducting feeding trials to determine preferred diet and activity periods. Food items offered have included leaves and grasses – wild fig leaf, cecropia leaf, Paspalum grass, banana leaf, bri bri leaf, mango leaf, mangrove leaf and fruits – fig, mango, hogplum, and papaya. Most items are taken by the tiny turtles with fervor. Additionally, fish was attempted on one occasion but the hatchlings showed no interest.  We will continue to offer new food items in the coming weeks and months, focused exclusively on native wild plants found in natural Hicatee habitat. Feeding occurs most intensely at night although they also eat during the day.

Rick Hudson of TSA and Dr. Shane Boylan, DVM, performed health checks during their August visit.

Rick Hudson of TSA and Dr. Shane Boylan, DVM, performed health checks during their August visit.

The hatchlings have been housed in clear plastic tubs with screened-locking lids during their first months. They will be moved to a larger, custom-built, and more permanent enclosure in the coming weeks.

Recent health exams of the adults including ultrasounds implemented by Dr. Shane Boylan, DVM, showed that at least one female is with follicles, verifying reproductive activity. Hopefully, additional clutches will be arriving in the near future. Stay tuned!

Dr. Shane Boylan performed ultrasounds on the turtles to determine health of organs and reproductive activity.

Dr. Shane Boylan of South Carolina Aquarium performed ultrasounds on the turtles to determine health of organs and reproductive status.

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