Introducing Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

BFREE is pleased to introduce our newest Science & Education Fellow, Jonathan Dubon. Jonathan grew up in Independence Village about 20 miles east of BFREE and has known from an early age that he wanted a career that would include his passions for field experience and outdoor adventures. This passion grows from visiting his Grandma’s farm near Punta Gorda as a child where he has many fond memories of exploring her land and being exposed to nature. Because of this childhood experience and influence from his brother who is also involved in conservation, Jonathan went on to study Natural Resource Management at Independence Junior College. He graduated with his Associate’s Degree in June 2019 and with the highest honors in his department.

Jonathan’s first visit to BFREE was on a school field trip with Independence Junior College in February 2019. Jonathan says, “I fell in love with the place and it’s environment – at that very moment I knew I wanted to come back. I like everything about being at BFREE including the friendly staff, the environment, everything is just very welcoming. This is exactly where I imagine my dream job.” He returned one year later as a volunteer in the Spring 2020 Hicatee Health Assessments where he assisted in the 5-day health check.

Jonathan, second from the left, back row, along with fellow classmates from IJC on a field course at BFREE in February 2019.

Now, in the second week of his fellowship, Jonathan shares, “It’s so exciting to be here at BFREE right now. I only know a little bit about the biology of Hicatee Turtles and I am overly excited that every day I now get to learn something new about them. It is thrilling to work with the hatchlings; I am also eager to learn about all the other animals found here at BFREE such as birds, snakes, and mammals. I also really enjoy hearing the birds singing early in the morning while working by the pond. “

Jonathan says, “my message to all Belizeans is that the Hicatee are especially important to our ecosystem, and it is critical that we protect them – Belize has the honor of being the final stronghold for these turtles, who are the last in their lineage. “

We are thankful to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their funding of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship. This is the second fellowship funded by the TSA; the first was awarded to Jaren Serano who served as the BFREE Science and Education Fellow from January 2018 – December 2019. The Science and Education Fellowship is assigned to support the operations in one of three areas at BFREE – the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center, the cacao agroforestry project or the protected areas program. It is a two-year immersive work training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college and college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined with a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources

Jonathan hands an adult hicatee turtle from the breeding pond to BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin during the Spring 2020 Hicatee Health Assessments.

HCRC Pond Cleaning

For the past two weeks, Tom Pop and Jaren Serano have had the challenging yet important task of cleaning each of the three turtle ponds at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. With large, deep, muddy pools, the work is labor-intensive but critical to the health of the nearly four hundred Hicatee turtles in residence here.

The ponds were tackled one at a time starting with Pond A. This pond is dedicated to Breeding adults, so all turtles had to be caught and placed in holding tanks where they stayed throughout the cleaning process. Additionally, other wildlife like swamp eels and red-eared slider turtles and some larger fish like Tuba were also caught and placed in nearby creeks. 

Jacob Marlin and “Mustang.”

The actual cleaning process involved using a Honda Trash Pump (fondly referred to as “Mustang” due to its amazing strength and speed) to remove huge volumes of water as well as leaves and muck that had been gathering at the bottom of the ponds over the past few years. This has been followed by filling the ponds with fresh water to rinse the pond liner and dilute the thick muck, and then, once again,  using the trash pump to remove more diluted muck and dirty water. This cycle repeats until the water in the ponds is clear and there is little to no detritus remaining at the bottom. Each pond has taken about seven days of hard labor. 

With Ponds A and B complete as of May 17, the team has started on the rearing pond. The first task has been to lower the water to about two feet in the center in order to catch the over 200 juveniles living there. The “muck” which includes turtle manure is drained into an area outside the fenced area of the HCRC. The material gathered there will rest and break down before being relocated and used as compost for trees in our cacao agroforest.

Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic Spotlight

Dr. Isabelle examines each 2019 hatched Hicatee before placing it in the bin to travel back to the HCRC.

Last week, BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, traveled to the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC) in the Cayo District of Western Belize to retrieve twelve of the HCRC captive-born Hicatee turtles. They had been cared for at the BWRC by Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, DVM, and her team and the turtles were in good health overall. While they could have stayed for longer observation and data collection on this unique species, Corona changed it all. The recent shutdown of tourism, which provided a large portion of the non-profit clinics income as well as hands-on assistance from interns was combined with being an essential business that continued to offer services. Then came the spread of dry season fires throughout Belize and the annual baby season (which is high season for wildlife orphan intakes)… and “anybody healthy had to make space for more critical cases”. Just like the human hospitals had to do for COVID patients, Dr. Isabelle, therefore, requested BFREE to retrieve our turtles to make room for those animals with more serious health conditions. 

Injuries to wildlife during a fire may include burns, injuries from falling out of trees, or having things fall onto them while escaping, or maybe less severe stresses that can still prove fatal if not addressed – like smoke inhalation and dehydration. Some animals just need access to water, food, or shelter, until their natural environment recovers. The BWRC received animals with all of these conditions. On the day that the Hicatee were retrieved, there were kinkajous, turtles, a howler monkey, squirrels, opossums, and snakes – escapees from the fire or orphans for unknown reasons. One kinkajou had fled the fire with minor burns only to climb an electrical pole where it grabbed a live wire and was electrocuted. 

The BWRC’s mission is to support wildlife conservation efforts; domestic animal health and welfare; and the veterinary profession in Belize through medical services, education, research, and collaboration. Their work is big and growing all the time but they try to stay focused on their mission. In addition to the fire victims in the clinic last week, there were also confiscated animals and animals that were neglected or abused by their owners. 

Jacob Marlin first met Dr. Isabelle in 2011 when the Hicatee Conservation Network was being formed and she first visited BFREE and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center in 2015. Because of her valuable insight and a keen interest in helping to conserve this amazing species, she was invited back to participate in all subsequent Hicatee Health Assessments and has been a strong partner ever since.

Dr. Isabelle along with Jaren Serano and Heather Barrett of BFREE provide an ultrasound to an adult female hicatee turtle during a health assessment at the HCRC. Photo by, Nichole Bishop

Dr. Isabelle has been the lead Belize veterinarian evaluating our captive population of Hicatee for over four years. She attends two Hicatee Health Assessments per year to determine the health and reproductive status of our growing population of turtles. Just like baby humans, our hatchling and juvenile turtles are especially vulnerable to sickness caused by temperature changes, nutritional deficiencies, or other stressors. For this reason, when our young turtles are failing to thrive, Dr. Isabelle takes them to the clinic for several months to give them the additional veterinary care that will help them recover. This also gives her the opportunity to monitor them in order to gain a better understanding of their needs over time.

In the four years that BFREE has partnered with the BWRC, we have been impressed by their commitment to wildlife like the Hicatee and to educating Belizeans and visitors from abroad. As their partner, we would like to advocate for their campaign to fundraise for operational expenses during this trying time.  With the halt of all veterinary trainees from abroad due to travel restrictions from Covid-19, the BWRC has lost a critical revenue stream. Like many organizations in Belize and worldwide, they are struggling to make ends meet but don’t want to furlough any of their small but critical staff when animals are still in need of daily care.

BWRC is thankful for any and all kind words, supplies or donations via PayPal to payment@belizewildlifeclinic.org.

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!

In Pursuit of Hicatee in Belize by Day Ligon

The Hicatee, as Dermatemys mawii is known in parts of its range, is truly a unique turtle.
Although fossil records indicate that closely related species once occurred across Central
America and Europe, Hicatee remain as the only living representatives of a formerly species-rich
family of turtles. It is a large turtle, sometimes exceeding 22 kilograms. Despite its large size, it
is streamlined and, thanks to huge webbed feet, is extremely fast in the water. On land, however,
Hicatee are out of their element. They struggle to elevate their heads against gravity, and even
short walks across dry ground may leave their shells abraded with small cuts and scuffs.
Historically, this large denizen of rivers, lagoons, and mangrove swamps was common in parts
of Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. In many communities throughout its range, Hicatee
are culturally important, not just as a frequently seen and admired inhabitant of the rivers along
which many communities have been built, but also as a culinary delicacy that is sought after for
holiday feasts and other celebrations. Unfortunately, its popularity at the dinner table is likely the
single greatest factor that is driving population declines. Today, few populations remain in
Mexico or Guatemala, and even those in the relative stronghold of Belize have declined
precipitously in recent decades.

Just how much have Hicatee populations declined? Everyone with experience with the
species seems to agree that declines are alarmingly great, but it’s also hard to put a number on.
Excellent research has been conducted that has generated insights about the species ecology,
reproduction, distribution and relative abundance, but since the 1980s efforts have been
intermittent and seldom generated more than a qualitative assessments of population sizes or
demographics. This isn’t for lack of interest or effort; animals that have the capacity to move
long distances and occupy open systems such as rivers are extremely challenging to count!

Fortunately, technological and analytical advances have made the solutions to this
problem more attainable. In spring 2019, members of the Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State
University teamed up with partners at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental
Education (BFREE) to determine the feasibility of generating population estimates. In five
weeks of field work, 193 Hicatee in three different populations were captured, weighed,
measured, and permanently marked for future identification. Additionally, a subset of turtles in a
closed lagoon system were equipped with GPS tags and sonic transmitters that will produce
information about their movements. These data will be especially interesting as the rainy season
commences, the lagoon reconnects to the Belize River, and turtles have the option of either
staying within the lagoon or venturing out into flooded forest or even to the river. This
information about the movement patterns of Hicatee will be put to use in 2020 when mark-
recapture efforts will be conducted to generate some of the first precise population estimates for
the species. These estimates, when generated in open rivers, become much more accurate when
typical movement patterns are known and can be included in population models.

In addition to calculating the size of populations of Hicatee in both open and closed
populations, as well as in hunted and protected areas, work in 2020 will benefit in other ways
from the preliminary research conducted in 2019. For instance, growth rates in captivity are
known thanks to research conducted at BFREE. However, little is known of growth rates in the
wild; by recapturing turtles that were first measured in 2019, not only will calculating growth rates across a range of size classes be possible, but so too will assessing the sexual maturity of
the many subadult turtles that were captured provide information about size at maturity.

All of this information is but a drop in the bucket in comparison to what remains to be
discovered about the fascinating Hicatee, but every new piece of life history data can help to
inform conservation efforts on the species’ behalf. And of course, field research efforts such as
were undertaken in 2019 require a tremendous network of support. Participants from the Turtle
Ecology Lab at Missouri State University included Denise Thompson, Donald McKnight
(currently at James Cook University), and Ethan Hollender. Thomas Pop and Jaren Serano joined
the effort from BFREE with tremendous support from Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett. Elyse
Ellsworth from the Siler Lab at University of Oklahoma and Hunter Howell from University of
Miami also put in many long hours in the field. Yamira Novelo (Wildlife Conservation Society)
helped both in the field and with some logistics. Albert Gill lent his assistance and knowledge of
the area during work at Spanish Creek. Additional assistance was provided by Felicia Cruz and
Gilberto Young in the Belize Fisheries Department, Jeff Robison and Roberto Flores at Yalbac
Ranch, and Alan Jeal at Gallon Jug Ranch. Finally, this conservation project would have gone
nowhere without assistance from Bart Harmsen and valuable advice from Thomas Rainwater and
John Polisar. Reversing the population declines Hicatee have experienced will require a
community effort, and work thus far has proved that a dedicated network of people with a
passion for saving this charismatic but critically endangered species already exists and is already
working toward this goal.

Photo Credits:  Day Ligon and Ethan Hollander

Spring ’19 Hicatee Health Assessments

Team Hicatee Spring 2019

During the early March Hicatee Health Assessment, a total of 214 turtles 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. Because oviposition takes place between the months of November and February, it was also relevant to check for the presence of additional eggs. 

Prior to the Health Assessments beginning, a small team of volunteers arrived to help prepare the site. The team cleaned hatchling tanks and moved the 140 hatchlings from the 2018 cohort from the soft release cage where they had been housed since December. They were placed there during the coldest months of the year because the water in Pond A maintained higher temperatures than in the smaller, above-ground tanks where they live during warmer months. Hatchlings were counted and given a quick check before being transferred back to the tanks where they acclimated until their assessments a few days later.

The three day processing started off with adult turtles being netted from the pond A, then placed in their respective holding area awaiting assessment. On day two, Adult turtles from Pond B was then netted and assessed. Day 3 commenced with a scanning of both pond perimeters for nest cavities which showed signs of eggs. Followed by the assessment of hatchlings from the 2018 cohort. Results from this year’s spring health check are still under analysis.

Cayle Pearson and Sarah Cristoff of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens isolated several adult male turtles to collect additional data that will help them troubleshoot issues relating to the Hicatee turtles held in captivity at their facility.

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, Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and Sarah Cristoff, Veterinary Technician, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Heather Alford, Missy Belmer, Laurie Haven, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory. We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their financial support for this spring’s Hicatee health assessment.

The Hicatee Conservation & Research Center is a joint protect between BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance. The bi-annual Assessments help ensure the health of captive animals at the HCRC and also contribute to our ongoing research of these critically endangered turtles. #savethehicatee

New Rearing Pond at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center

Designed to study the reproductive biology and to determine if the Central American River turtle could be bred in captivity, the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center opened in 2014 and was met with immediate success when, in the summer of 2015, the first seven hatchlings emerged. This was followed by five hatchlings in 2016, 84 hatchlings in 2017, and 179 in 2018.

The extrusion welder was used to join hard plastic pond liner

The HCRC originally included two large breeding ponds, an overflow pond and several rearing tanks. The small rearing tanks at the center quickly reached capacity and HCRC staff identified an urgent need to provide the necessary space and improved environment for the 2018 hatchlings and the soon to arrive 2019 cohort. After much discussion, it was determined that converting the overflow pond into a large rearing pond for hatchlings and juveniles was the most cost effective and quickest solution to housing all the expected hatchlings now and in the foreseeable future.

We secured funding from Oklahoma City’s Zoo’s Care Grant Program and from Zoo New England to begin pond modifications. Additional support was provided through funding for supplies offered by Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2018 and the purchase of a very important piece of machinery was made possible thanks to proceeds from the Turtle Survival Alliance’s 2018 fundraising auction.

Pond modification was slow to get underway due a very wet rainy season. However, during February and March construction took place and 140 turtles were placed in their new home in April. The rearing pond (Pond C) is forty-feet in diameter and approximately six-feet deep at the center. A six-foot perimeter fence will encircle the pond and fresh water is provided by solar powered pumps which were already in place at the facility. We will modify Pond C in the coming months to include a floating island and the planting of food trees and grasses as has been done in Ponds A and B. Our hope is that the facility will offer a healthy environment for all hatchlings produced at the HCRC until they are ready for release into the wild.  

Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their continued partnership on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Thanks also to project sponsors: Oklahoma City Zoo, Zoo New England and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

Herp Survey at BFREE

Researchers from L to R: Briana Sealey, Courtney Whitcher, Alison Davis Rabosky, Peter Cerda, Iris Holmes, Michael Grundler, John David Curlis, Erin Westeen, Maggie Grundler

Article by, Iris Holmes

This May, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, visited BFREE to do a survey of amphibians and reptiles. They worked for two weeks, both on the BFREE property and at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Between these places, they recorded 47 species. Two of those finds (one snake and one frog) were significant range extensions within Belize.

Iris Holmes, University of Michigan Researcher, measures a snake collected during the survey in the BFREE Lab.

In addition to a biodiversity survey, the researchers collected a variety of data on each animal. They recorded snake anti-predator displays and took high-quality photos to study snake and lizard anti-predator and social color displays. One project focused on how frogs fluoresce in the UV spectrum and found new accounts of biofluorescence in several species.

The researchers also took microbiome samples from frog skin and snake and lizard digestive tracts. These samples will be used to understand the parasites that infect these species, and the bacteria that might help protect their hosts against these parasites. Other researchers worked to test hypotheses the diets of snakes, lizards, and frogs. Understanding what animals eat is key to conserving them – animals can’t survive if they can’t get enough food! The team was happy to find such diversity and abundance in the amphibians and reptiles of Belize. It was a particularly special experience to be at BFREE as the hicatee turtles were hatching.  Watching animals emerge with the first rains of the wet season was a true privilege.

International Herpetological Symposium 2019 in Belize

Next June, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) will held at the Best Western Plus Belize Biltmore Plaza in Belize City.  The mission of the IHS is to provide a forum for the dissemination of information and results of such research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, and captive management and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. Each year the IHS is held in a different location and is hosted by a Zoological, Herpetological, or Herpetocultural institution.

BFREE staff are scheduled to give several presentations and to participate in the conference which will take place from June 19-22, 2019.

Recent BFREE Volunteer and Wildlife Enthusiast, Brett Bartek, on the Bladen River

The International Herpetological Symposium in partnership with the Belize Zoo and the Crocodile Research Coalition are offering scholarships for young, Belizean wildlife enthusiasts to attend. The application can be found here.

For attendees looking to explore more of Belize either before or after the Symposium, there are several opportunities. BFREE is offering a post-symposium volunteership to work alongside the critically endangered, Central American River Turtle at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. This immersive opportunity is from June 24 – June 28 (1-week) or June 24 – July 5 (2-weeks). Volunteers will assist in all aspects of animal care for the captive population of adult turtles, juveniles and hatchlings. Email, tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information. 

Prior to the workshop, there is an exciting wildlife-focused 8-day Field Trip which includes three nights at the BFREE Field Station. Activities will include an in-depth tour of the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center and lots of hikes (both day and night) to search for cool reptiles and amphibians!

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”