Ant Foraging Behavior: A field exercise for student groups studying leaf cutter ant behavior at BFREE

Author, Amy Treonis, Department of Biology, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA

Introduction

Leaf cutter ants are unmissable denizens of the rainforest, and a visit to BFREE is not complete without spending some time observing their activities. Leaf cutter ants live in complex, agrarian societies. They harvest leaves, bring them back to their underground nests, which can host millions of ants, and feed the leaves to a cultivated, specialized fungus. The ants feed on the swollen tips of fungal hyphae, called gonglydia. The fungi live in obligate mutualism with the ants. Bacteria are also cultivated on the ants that produce antibiotics that help that keep foreign microbes out of the fungus culture.

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A field activity for student groups studying the Bladen River at BFREE and beyond

Author, Amy Treonis, Department of Biology, University of Richmond, Richmond, VA

Map of Monkey River Watershed, showing potential study sites

Introduction: The Bladen River is one of the most spectacular features of the BFREE field station, offering countless opportunities for ecological research.  The Upper Bladen watershed flows through the tropical broadleaf forest of the Bladen Nature Reserve, arriving at BFREE in a remarkably pristine state.  From there, the river flows downstream into the Monkey River and ultimately empties into the Caribbean Sea at Monkey River Town. The river flows through a landscape that is a mosaic of protected and agricultural lands, including cattle pastures, banana plantations and subsistence farms (i.e., milpa). Replacement of riparian vegetation with agriculture has destabilized soils in many places, resulting in increased erosion and sedimentation throughout the watershed. Ultimately, this impacts both wildlife and people that depend on the river’s health.  The river’s course has also been affected by natural events, such as Hurricane Earl in 2016.

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Field exercises for student groups studying small mammal communities at BFREE

Mouse opossum photo by Dan Dourson

As part of BFREE’s initiative to enhance field experiences for student groups, members of the education committee have designed field exercises focused on small mammals at BFREE. In January 2015, two permanent small mammal trapping grids were established in two habitats at BFREE: cacao agroforestry and tropical broadleaf forest. These permanent grids will facilitate the study of small mammals by student groups and will allow a better understanding of the differences in biodiversity between cacao and unmanaged forest habitats. Because this project is focused on the comparison of agroecosystems to natural habitats, it will also serve as a good example to students of the importance of integrating human needs and concerns in the disciplines of ecology and conservation biology.

Dr. Sara Ash and Audrey Ash weigh one of the small mammals trapped in the forest grid.

We recognize that instructors have limited time to invest in these field exercises. As such, we have written exercises that require varying levels of engagement, thus allowing for flexibility for instructors (Table 1). While all exercises focus on small mammal species living on BFREE’s property, the Gold exercise requires trapping on both grids, and the data collected from this exercise, when compiled with other groups, will have potential management implications.

Click here for links to further instruction including video demos.

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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

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.

Wild Cat Research is Alive and Well at BFREE!

Jungle Encounters owners, Debi and Ed Willoughby and their group pose in front of a ceiba tree at the BFREE Field Station.

By Debi Willoughby, owner of Jungle Encounters

Jungle Encounters is conducting a long term field research project at BFREE using trail cameras to gather information about the five species of wild cats native to Belize. The mission is to use this data to develop and maintain conservation practices throughout Belize that will benefit both the native wildlife as well as the local people. The owners of Jungle Encounters visit BFREE 2-3 times a year to maintain the trail cameras and meet with BFREE’s staff to discuss the progress of this project. BFREE’s head ranger, Sipriano Canti, is in charge of maintaining the cameras year-round and provides Jungle Encounters with critical information to keep the project moving forward.

Jungle Encounters recently invited a group of people to BFREE to help with the project. The trip began with an “initiation” into BFREE by hiking the 6 mile long trail that leads to BFREE’s compound. It was a long, rain-soaked walk that introduced the group to the different habitats surrounding BFREE. After a brief rest and time to dry off, the team had a course on trail cameras, how they work and how to use them. This allowed the team to prepare the trail cameras to be put out in the field. Early the next morning the team, guided by Sipriano Canti, hiked the jungle trails looking for locations to set out the cameras. As we hiked, Canti taught us about the flora and fauna of the jungle and pointed out wildlife that we came across. It was an enlightening hike!

A jaguar captured on a Jungle Encounters field cam at the BFREE Field Station.

After getting the cameras set up in the jungle, the team took a break from talking about wild cats to learn about the turtle conservation work BFREE is involved in. Jacob Marlin brought us to their Hicatee Conservation and Research Center to learn about the amazing work BFREE has been doing with the endangered Hicatee Turtle. It was a delight to learn how successful BFREE has been with this conservation work!

The team kept Canti busy with jungle night hikes and an early morning climb up the tower to watch the wild birds start their morning flight over the awaking jungle. We saw a kinkajou, family of howler monkeys, fer-de-lance, tayra, multiple birds and even heard a jaguar calling by the river!

The rest of the trip involved maintaining the trail cameras, reviewing camera data and learning how to analyze it; enjoying a refreshing swim in the Bladen River which is surrounded by jungle life; relaxing in hammocks in the compound and brainstorming on how to improve the wild cat project.

The team left with a greater understanding of our wild cat research, a new respect for Belize and it’s wildlife and unique lifelong memories that they will share forever!

Monkey River Watershed Association Annual Press Meeting

On Friday, February 1, the Monkey River Watershed Association hosted a community meeting in Monkey River Village. The purpose was to present the working document ‘A Road Map for the Restoration of the Monkey River, Its Watershed and Its Shore,”  to community members and the funding agency, the United Nations Development Programme/ Small Grants Programme.    Residents within the watershed have seen dramatic degradation of the river over their lifetimes. As a result, in 2016, the Monkey River Watershed Association (MRWA) was formed with the intention of saving the river and those communities that rely on the river’s health. This road map was created to help communicate the issues and guide the decisions of MRWA and its partners. The document describes the most likely causes of the river degradation and erosion problems and outlines a long-term vision for the restoration of the river and its watershed for the benefit of all of its users and downstream ecosystems.    The road map was produced by: The Monkey River Water Association Board of Directors, Dr. Peter Esselman, and Nilcia Xi. Additional support was provided by BFREE, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Protected Areas Conservation Trust (PACT), Fyffes Inc., Belize Hydrology Department, Toledo Institute for Development of Environment, Southern Environmental Association, and Ya’axche Conservation Trust.   Monkey River Watershed Board of Directors include: Mario Muschamp, President; Jacob Marlin, Chairman; Ornella Cadle, Secretary; Elroy Foreman, Board Member; and Audra Castellanos, Treasurer.  

Wild Cat Research is Alive and Well at BFREE!

Jungle Encounters owners, Debi and Ed Willoughby and their group pose in front of a ceiba tree at the BFREE Field Station.

By Debi Willoughby, owner of Jungle Encounters

Jungle Encounters is conducting a long term field research project at BFREE using trail cameras to gather information about the five species of wild cats native to Belize. The mission is to use this data to develop and maintain conservation practices throughout Belize that will benefit both the native wildlife as well as the local people. The owners of Jungle Encounters visit BFREE 2-3 times a year to maintain the trail cameras and meet with BFREE’s staff to discuss the progress of this project. BFREE’s head ranger, Sipriano Canti, is in charge of maintaining the cameras year-round and provides Jungle Encounters with critical information to keep the project moving forward.

Jungle Encounters recently invited a group of people to BFREE to help with the project. The trip began with an “initiation” into BFREE by hiking the 6 mile long trail that leads to BFREE’s compound. It was a long, rain-soaked walk that introduced the group to the different habitats surrounding BFREE. After a brief rest and time to dry off, the team had a course on trail cameras, how they work and how to use them. This allowed the team to prepare the trail cameras to be put out in the field. Early the next morning the team, guided by Sipriano Canti, hiked the jungle trails looking for locations to set out the cameras. As we hiked, Canti taught us about the flora and fauna of the jungle and pointed out wildlife that we came across. It was an enlightening hike!

A jaguar captured on a Jungle Encounters field cam at the BFREE Field Station.

After getting the cameras set up in the jungle, the team took a break from talking about wild cats to learn about the turtle conservation work BFREE is involved in. Jacob Marlin brought us to their Hicatee Conservation and Research Center to learn about the amazing work BFREE has been doing with the endangered Hicatee Turtle. It was a delight to learn how successful BFREE has been with this conservation work!

The team kept Canti busy with jungle night hikes and an early morning climb up the tower to watch the wild birds start their morning flight over the awaking jungle. We saw a kinkajou, family of howler monkeys, fer-de-lance, tayra, multiple birds and even heard a jaguar calling by the river!

The rest of the trip involved maintaining the trail cameras, reviewing camera data and learning how to analyze it; enjoying a refreshing swim in the Bladen River which is surrounded by jungle life; relaxing in hammocks in the compound and brainstorming on how to improve the wild cat project.

The team left with a greater understanding of our wild cat research, a new respect for Belize and it’s wildlife and unique lifelong memories that they will share forever!

BFREE Donation Needs

Thank you for choosing to donate to BFREE!

Due to our remoteness and the harsh tropical climate, obtaining and maintaining supplies can be a great challenge for BFREE staff. Please use this guide as a reference point for up-to-date needs at the BFREE Research Station. We can provide a letter acknowledging the dollar value of your donation at the time it is received. 

If you are visiting BFREE in person, please consider making a littler extra room in your bag when packing for your trip to bring any small donations you can carry such as batteries, headlamps, books or first aid supplies such as antihistamines, pain-relievers, antibiotic ointment, anti-itch creams, and band-aids.

If you are not visiting the BFREE Research Station in person and would like to donate any of the below items, please contact BFREE directly at: contact@bfreebz.org

ELECTRONICS: 

One of the many challenges BFREE faces operating in a tropical climate is the harsh impacts the weather has on our electronics. The BFREE staff heavily depend on access to electronics such as lap tops, cameras and GPS units to properly support our many ongoing activities and research endeavors. However, the extreme humidity and harsh rainforest climate causes these electronics to fail in a relatively short amount of time. We would greatly benefit from any donation of new or gently used electronics and supplies. 

Current needs consist of: 

  1. Batteries – AA and AAA batteries are a necessity at BFREE and are especially important in headlamps when our staff lead groups on night hikes. Unfortunately, batteries purchased in Belize are generally knock-off brands that don’t last through more than a few uses.
  2. Headlamps – Headlamps are essential to functioning at night at BFREE. Preferred headlamps are ones with a strong beam as well as with rechargeable batteries or that are able to be charged with a USB. Black Diamond and Petzel make great rechargeable lights with strong beams. 
  3. Laptops – New or Refurbished laptops to be used for email, photo upload and storage as well as word processing are greatly appreciated. Laptops with Microsoft Office already loaded is ideal.
  4. Digital Point and Shoot Cameras – Cameras have one of the shortest lifespans in tropical settings yet are one of the most important tools used. New or gently used point and shoot digital cameras are needed to document wildlife, people, research activities and are used by BFREE Rangers when encountering illegal activity on the property. Digital cameras that are waterproof and have rechargeable batteries are ideal. Some of the best brands we have used are Olympus Cybershot, Panasonic Lumix, and Nikon Coolpix. 
  5. Digital SLR Camera – New or gently used Digital SLR cameras with a good zoom lens is needed for avian techs to document birds while completing bird surveys around BFREE. 
  6. Solar Lights – There is no electricity available for our Rangers when they patrol our boundary line and camp at their Observation Post. Solar lights are very useful for our Park Rangers to use while patrolling at night to eliminate the need of continuously replacing batteries in headlamps. 

BOOKS: 

BFREE’s library is moving to a new location at the Cacao Discovery Center. With more space and a designated room; it is an exciting time to both replace bug-eaten, humidity drenched books and expand with additional resources.  We are interested in materials that help student, researchers, and staff better understand the habitat, wildlife and other aspects of tropical living. We would greatly appreciate any addition to our library.

Possible book and resource topics might include:

  1. Field Guides for the tropics (birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, plants, fish, etc)
  2. Laminated ID cards specific to the region
  3. Belize Travel Guides
  4. World Atlas and Maps (book form)
  5. Tropical Ecology
  6. Rainforest conservation
  7. Agroforestry
  8. Captive husbandry of reptiles (turtles in particulars)
  9. Protected Areas
  10. Watershed Ecology

VEHICLES: 

The BFREE Research Station is located off of a 10km/6 mile unpaved dirt road. The entrance road requires a lot of maintenance and diligent care to remain passable by our 4×4 truck. 

  1. Tractor – A tractor with a front end loader would be of great assistant in maintaining the entrance road. 
  2. Utility ATV – ATV’s are used by our Park Rangers to patrol the BFREE property as well as to transport gear around the field station’s 1,153 acres. 

ABOUT BFREE:

BFREE is a registered 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and conservation of the Maya Mountains Massif. BFREE’s mission is “to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.” As the only field station in this biologically significant area, BFREE seeks to achieve its mission by successfully integrating scientific research, environmental education and conservation, while also enhancing sustainable development and providing alternative livelihoods for local community members. We can provide a letter acknowledging the dollar value of your donation at the time it is received

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