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Introducing #CantiCam

Puma or Mountain Lion caught on BFREE Camera Traps 2021

This July, BFREE launched a new wildlife monitoring program with Panthera Wildlife Cameras. These cameras are designed to endure the wet, humid rainforest conditions and are perfect for the BFREE Privately Protected Area. Protected Areas Manager and Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, is tasked with managing the project. Canti states “With this monitoring program, we are playing an important role in identifying the wildlife that utilize the property. Not only for their homes but as a pass through to the neighboring protected areas.”

Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger, checking a wildlife camera in the young cacao agroforest

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, has identified three goals for the project. 1. Several cameras will be situated in the cacao agroforest and will look at the species utilizing the area and their abundance over time; 2. Monitor and observe the species found throughout different parts of the reserve; and 3. Contribute to a regional jaguar monitoring research program.

Fun with Social Media

The wildlife cameras are also giving us a great opportunity to share with our audience the many cool things that move around the property on a daily (and nightly) basis. Look out for regular updates under these themes and more! #TapirTuesday #WildcatWednesday #FurryFriday #CantiCam

Journal Article on Predation of Turkey Vulture at BFREE

A Turkey Vulture shortly after being captured by a Boa Constrictor at the field station of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education in Belize. Photo by Heather Barrett

Press Release #7: Reprinted from the Raptor Research Foundation

Journal of Raptor Research 55(3)

Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A new observation and review

Authors: Steven G. Platt, Heather A. Barrett, Leonardo Ash, Jacob A, Marlin, Shane Boylan, and Thomas R. Rainwater.

The Turkey Vulture is a relatively well-studied scavenging bird common throughout much of North America. However, certain aspects of its life history, especially predators and predation remain poorly known. In a recent study, an interdisciplinary group led by Steven G. Platt (Wildlife Conservation Society) described the predation of an adult Turkey Vulture by a large Boa Constrictor in Belize, Central America. The authors then analyzed the 11 previously published accounts of predation on Turkey Vultures. Most of these reports are equivocal, with identification of the predators based on forensic interpretation of carcass damage, tracks found at nests, and presence of nearby burrows inhabited by predators, rather than on direct observation of predation events.

The authors could find only three unequivocal reports of predation on Turkey Vultures, all of which involved large predatory birds. “Our results are surprising” says Platt. “You’d think that because Turkey Vultures are large, rather ungainly birds that are slow to take flight when gathered at a carcass, they’d be taken by predators more frequently, but that actually doesn’t appear to be the case.” Although the reason why Turkey Vultures are rarely killed by predators remains a mystery, the authors speculate that high levels of pathogenic bacteria present on their feathers, skin, and viscera render Turkey Vultures unpalatable or possibly even toxic to many predators. Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A New Observation and Review is available at http://www.bioone.org/toc/rapt/current

Boa Constrictor beginning to swallow Turkey Vulture. Photo by Lenardo Ash.

About the journal: The Journal of Raptor Research is a peer-reviewed, international journal dedicated to the dissemination of information about birds of prey, and is the official publication of the Raptor Research Foundation.

First BFREE Cacao Fellow Completes Program!

BFREE Staff celebrate Lenardo’s last day as the Cacao Fellow on Thursday, August 19th.

BFREE’s first Cacao Fellow, Lenardo “Leo” Ash, is graduating from his two-year work-training program this week. He will immediately begin studies at the University of Belize, where he will work toward his Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management. Lenardo began his Fellowship in July 2019 under the mentorship of Cacao Program Director, Erick Ac. He spent the remainder of that year “learning by doing” and was completely immersed in all things cacao agroforestry. By early 2020, Leo was well-versed enough on the topic that he was able to start co-presenting to BFREE’s visiting students and researchers.

In March 2020, the COVID-pandemic closed BFREE to visitors and a by-product was the uncertainty of the continued employment of all of BFREE staff. When land borders closed, Erick Ac was no longer able to travel from Guatemala to Belize to oversee the cacao program. Unfortunately, the academic components of Leo’s program fell to the wayside for a while as BFREE’s administrative staff focused energy on ensuring the safety of the BFREE staff and finding the financial means to keep as many people employed as possible.

In spite of the lost opportunities for his professional development including canceled travel plans, research projects, and conferences, Lenardo showed great determination in maintaining his path toward personal and professional growth. Lenardo began practicing Spanish during virtual weekly meetings with Erick, he birded with other BFREE staff, and he participated in Herpetology 101 learning the Scientific names of all the turtle and lizard species on the reserve. He asked for reading assignments to expand his knowledge on cacao and agroforestry and eagerly accepted any opportunities to give virtual presentations to BFREE audiences.

Because of his strong interest in photography, Lenardo began photographing birds and other wildlife around the property. Last July, he spotted a ten-foot boa constrictor attacking a turkey vulture and immediately ran to get a camera and to notify other staff. Images and videos that Leo took of the predation event helped provide details for a scientific article, which will be published in the September 2021 issue of the Journal of Raptor Research.

Earlier this year, Lenardo was invited to be a part of a research team hired by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. Along with researchers from all over the world, Lenardo spent nearly six months compiling a literature review that explored cacao genetics across the globe.

Lenardo has never given up his dream of continuing his education beyond his Associate’s Degree, so he applied to the University of Belize and was accepted for August 2021 admission. Although, we are sad to lose such a valuable team member, we are excited about Lenardo’s bright future and can’t wait to see where his journey will take him.

Platt, S.G., Barrett, H.A., Ash, L., Marlin, J.A., Boylan, S.M. and Rainwater, T.R. Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A New Observation and Review, Journal of Raptor Research. Vol. 55(3), September 2021. Pp. TBD

The Bladen Review 2018

The fifth edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research, conservation and education projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize. 

Highlights of the 2018 magazine include: a quick look back at the year, updates on the conservation and outreach programs associated with cacao agroforestry and the Hicatee turtle, and stories from new staff. Also, learn more about the unique eco-tour opportunities scheduled for 2019. 

Click here to download a PDF of The Bladen Review 2018.

Film Viewings

BFREE Summer Interns Manuel Balona (back row left) and Jaren Serano (seated center) at Esperanza Primary School in Cayo, Belize

October has been filled with exciting Hicatee events in Belize and in the U.S. We are grateful to our dedicated partners in conservation and education who work tirelessly to ensure that their communities learn the value of protecting Belize’s treasured wildlife.

Film viewing events serve audiences of all ages. Activities during events include an introduction to the hicatee turtle, questions to determine existing knowledge about the species, a viewing of the 16-minute film, post questions to determine knowledge learned with prizes for correct answers and an opportunity to take the Hicatee pledge. 

A young student signs the Hicatee banner.

Two Esperanza students hold a Save the Hicatee banner created by Manuel Balona

Featured Events:

September 28, 2017, Wilmington Art Hive Gallery & Studio, Wilmington, North Carolina. Hosts: Clean Energy Events and Art Hive

October 10, 2017, Esperanza Primary School, Cayo. Hosts: Sacred Heart Junior College and BFREE.

October 12, 2017, Placencia Village.  Hosts: Crocodile Research CoalitionSouthern Environmental Association and Fragments of Hope

October 13, 2017, Ocean Academy, Caye Caulker. Hosts: Crocodile Research Coalition, FAMRACC and Ocean Academy

October 13, 2017, Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society, Alta Vista. Host: T.R.E.E.S. 

October 17 – National Hicatee Day, The Environmental Research Institute at University of Belize is hosting a film event at noon in the Jaguar Auditorium.

October 17 – The South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina will do a special film viewing in their Turtle Recovery Theater.

Dates TBD  – Cayo Public Schools and Sacred Heart Junior College Campus. Hosts: Sacred Heart Junior College/ Environmental Assessment Class.

Dates TBD  – Independence Junior College Campus. Hosts: Independence Junior College. Natural Resource Management Class.

 

Hicatee Awareness Month FAQ

Hicatee Awareness Month is well underway with lots of exciting updates and opportunities to get involved. We’ve compiled a list of important links so that you don’t miss anything! 

‘Hope For Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle’

A 16-minute natural history documentary is now available to watch on YouTube. This film highlights the cultural significance of the hicatee in Belize, the environmental pressures propelling it toward extinction as well as the current work being done in Belize to save the species.

For a link to download the film, send an email request to: contact@bfreebz.org

Hicatee Toolkit 

The Toolkit was created to share various ways you can get involved in supporting Hicatee Awareness Month. Host a viewing party, take the pledge or fundraise to support the HCRC for a chance to adopt and name your own turtle. 

Hicatee Resources 

Hicatee Resources can be used to find facts about the turtles. Use them at your viewing party, in your classroom or just impress your friends with your new turtley awesome knowledge! 

Buy a T-Shirt from WildStuff!

Our friends at WildStuff Apparel have created a one of a kind National Hickatee Day T-Shirt. All proceeds will be donated to the HCRC!

Facebook Cover Images 

Check out our special Hicatee Facebook Profile Cover images. You can change your cover photo to show your support for Hicatee Awareness Month! 

Take the Hicatee Pledge

You can be a Hicatee Hero! Simply take the Hicatee Pledge and send us your #Shellfie! 

Meet Lauren Video

Lauren is a #HicateeHero and inspires all of us to continue working to #SaveTheHicatee.

Volunteer at the HCRC

We are looking for volunteers to support the ongoing work at the HCRC. Find out more by clicking on the link! 

What is the HCRC?

Find out more about the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center located at the BFREE Biological Field Station in southern Belize. 

Donate to the HCRC 

Here is your chance to adopt and name a turtle! We encourage you to get creative with fundraising or turn your viewing party into a fundraiser. With a $1,000 donation to the HCRC you can adopt and name a hicatee turtle. Your turtle’s chosen name will be engraved on a plaque at the HCRC. 

BFREE Summer Internship Reflection

BFREE Summer Internship Reflection

By: Jaren Serano

This summer I had the opportunity to be a part of something very special. I became immersed in a unique classroom with seemingly no boundaries. It all started on July 31st, 2017, this part of my internship I would like to refer to it simply as “the walk”.  I was excited about embarking on this journey, but little did I know what Mother Nature had in store for me prior to even reaching BFREE’s grounds.

From the Southern Highway, I hiked in some 8 miles. Now that may not seem like much but given that I did not pack light it seemed more like 80 miles.  While hiking I regretted several times packing so many stuff.  Although this internship took place during the summer, it was also the wet season, so saying the road was muddy would be an understatement. I had to trek through red clay mud that was at least knee deep.  After a couple hours, I eventually reached the BFREE research station looking as if I just ran the Boston Marathon.  The staff was very welcoming and helpful in getting me settled in. All in all, the walk in will forever be one of those memories that you might not appreciate in the moment but when looking back you will laugh and appreciate every footprint that was made in that red clay that day.

Turtle Conservation

The two week internship that I was blessed to be a part of consisted of daily caretaking of the hicatee turtles.  In the mornings, using a caliper, measurement of each hatchling’s carapace length was taken and recorded. Also, daily weight was taken and recorded using a digital gram scale. I was fascinated by the way how Tom Pop (HCRC Manager) showed such passion for his job. He treated each hatchling as if it was his own child. What I liked the most was in the afternoons when we would do some monitoring by the pond, it was like playing a game hide and go seek, only because the adult hicatees were the ones doing all the hiding! We were lucky if we got to see their heads popping up to the surface too quickly grab a breath of air.  When it came to feeding time I would go with Tom to the river banks where we would collect about two wheelbarrows filled with fig leaves.  The turtles would then greedily munch on the leaves which we gave them.

Jaren collects leaves to feed the hatchlings.

The hatchlings prefer much softer leaves such as the ones from young Cecropia trees. Two of the groups were offered feces (Yes, feces!) from the adults in order to inoculate them with the appropriate gut microflora. But before you get all grossed out – the presence of gut microflora is said to play an important role in the turtle’s ability to break down plant matter and absorb vital nutrients from their diet.  

I found this hands-on approach of learning very insightful because I got a chance to study close up the biological aspects of these Central American river turtles. I believe that just like humans, each hicatee has its own unique personality and special traits. They surely have a way of slowly working their way into your hearts!

While at BFREE I not only had the chance to work with the hicatees but I had the opportunity to pick Tom Pop’s mind about different wildlife around the area. BFREE is a nature lover’s playground. The diversity of flora and fauna is jaw-dropping; I soaked in every second of it all. I was very inquisitive and every day I wanted to know more because all of it was intriguing to me.  

Ranger for a Day

I also had a rare opportunity to be a ranger for the day with a fellow ranger, Mr. Sipriano Canti. This part of the internship could simply be described as “Rangers on the go!”  

Mr. Canti took Manuel Balona (another BFREE Intern ) and me to Observation Post 1 where we were educated about the purpose of the facility.  In short, it serves as a marker of the property boundary line for farmers and hunters using nearby land; this helps reduce illegal encroachment into the BFREE reserve. Along the boundary line road on the way to OP1, we noticed intensive farming of various crops such as corn, cilantro, and red kidney beans. To our surprise we also saw a huge portion of land set aside specifically for grazing and rearing of cattle, in close proximity to the reserve. A Forest Department established buffer zone separating the boundary line from the reserve helps prevent these types of agriculture from entering the reserve.

While at OP1 we took full advantage of what Mr. Canti would refer to as “the ranger lifestyle.” There we did different patrols all hours of the day and night. It was an experience that I will forever cherish.

Manuel Balona (left) and Jaren Serano (right), assist HCRC Manager, Tom Pop (center) at the HCRC.

All in all, the experience will definitely be one for the books.   Never in a million years did I believe I would be given such an opportunity to be a part of something this moving. It was great to be around people who share mutual feelings when it comes to conservation making two weeks go by too quickly. The rainforest is truly our classroom.

I will continue sharing the knowledge learned at BFREE among peers and anyone who is willing to lend an ear. I believe this internship brought me steps closer to my ultimate goal of someday becoming a zoologist and helping with various conservation efforts in my country. 

 

 

Hicatee Facts

One of the most critically endangered turtle species in the world, the hicatee turtle is facing extinction in Belize. Overhunting for human consumption is the greatest threat. It is crucial that we act now to preserve the hicatee, the last of its kind, for future generations.  

Use these resources created by Hicatee Conservation Network members to learn more about the hicatee turtle! They can be used to share with your friends and family at a viewing party of the film, ‘Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle’ in your classroom, if you are an educator, or simply impress your friends with your new found chelonian knowledge! 

HICATEE FACTS

Central American River Turtle / Dermatemys mawii / Hicatee turtle

STATUS: The Hicatee turtle is one of Belize’s few critically endangered animals. This means that the turtle is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild.

THREAT: Overhunting for human consumption is the greatest threat.  

EVOLUTION: The Hicatee is the lone surviving representative in a family of turtles dating back to the age of dinosaurs.

RANGE: Hicatees are found in southern Mexico, northern Guatemala, and Belize.

HABITAT: These fully aquatic turtles live in deep rivers, lagoons, and other freshwater bodies.  

DIET: Hicatees are completely herbivorous (vegetarian) from hatchling to adulthood. They feed on the shoreline and submerged vegetation including leaves, grasses, fruits, and flowers.

RESPIRATION: These turtles acquire oxygen from breathing through their nostrils and have a gill-like structure in their throat that allows them to absorb oxygen from the water.

NESTING: Nesting frequently occurs below the surface of the water in muddy banks.

EGGS: Eggs are laid in clutches of 8-14. Eggs undergo delayed development (called Embryonic Diapause) and can take up to 6 months to hatch.

HATCHLINGS: Hatchling turtles emerge from the egg by using a single sharp tooth to break through the shell. This action is called “pipping.” The egg tooth drops off a few weeks to months after hatching.

SEXUAL DIMORPHISM: Males and females are sexually dimorphic meaning that the males look different than females. Adult males have bright yellow heads and significantly larger tails.

TEMPERATURE REGULATION: Unlike most reptiles, Hicatees do not bask in the sun to regulate their body temperature.

LIFESPAN: Records indicate up to 45 years, but likely they live much longer.

RESEARCH: The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) located in the Toledo District is the only captive breeding facility in the world that conducts research on this turtle’s natural history and reproductive biology.

 

 

International Turtle Conservation and Biology Symposium

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) was featured in the 15th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Fresh Water Turtles.  The meeting, which is the largest gathering of non-marine turtle biologists in the world, was held in historic Charleston, South Carolina and attended by over 300 participants.

Heather Barrett and Peter Paul van Dijk at the Turtle Survival Center. Peter Paul was honored during the symposium with the John L. Behler Turtle Conservation Award

Turtle Survival Center Field Trip

Field trip participants visited enclosures throughout the Turtle Survival Center

The pre-symposium field trip to the new Turtle Survival Center was a highlight. The TSC is owned by Turtle Survival Alliance and represents a new and important direction for the organization. The Center is a captive setting for turtle and tortoise species that are critically endangered and that face an uncertain future in the wild. The TSC is dedicated to building up robust captive populations of these species. On Sunday, hundreds of participants were bused from the conference hotel to the TSC in order to tour the Center’s many facilities including the various complexes, the incubation room, and areas that are still being developed.

Hicatee Presentations

Symposium activities officially began on Monday. BFREE staff were honored to be invited to present the latest news and outcomes at the HCRC.  As part of the Captive Husbandry session, Jacob Marlin detailed the development of the HCRC as a facility and described what has been learned on site about the reproductive biology of the Hicatee.

Heather Barrett presented “Country-wide Efforts to Promote the Conservation of the Critically Endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) in Belize, Central America.” She outlined the recent history of conservation outreach for the hicatee including the formation of the Hicatee Conservation Network and the

Each TSA project country is featured in a poster at the Turtle Survival Center

production of a documentary film. Heather’s session was followed by a special film screening of “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” This was the first time the new documentary by Richard and Carol Foster was shown publicly. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee,” was well received by the audience who was eager to view rare underwater footage of the turtle and appreciated the breadth of information covered in the short film.

In addition to BFREE staff presenting HCRC findings at the conference, Nichole Bishop, Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Florida, described her research related to the 2017 hicatee hatchlings in her talk, “Is Coprophagy an Important Management Decision for the Captive Breeding of Herbivorous Turtles?”

The symposium offered many opportunities for conversations and brainstorming on issues relating to the hicatee and other endangered turtles and tortoises. The symposium was an uplifting and inspirational event and BFREE staff left feeling impressed by the countless individuals dedicating their lives to the conservation of turtle species around the globe.

 

Summer Intern Spotlight: Parr McQueen

Parr McQueen, an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond traveled to Belize with BFREE earlier this year along with thirteen other classmates. The Field Course led by Dr. Amy Treonis and Dr. Kristine Grayson was focused on using experiential field methods to learn how scientists study the natural world.

Inspired by his trip and what he learned during his semester-long course, Parr returned to BFREE this summer. For just over a month, Parr spent his time working in the field, collecting data to support his research examining cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. When he wasn’t busy taking soil samples, Parr explored the many trails around BFREE snapping incredible photos of the wildlife he discovered.

We are so fortunate to have hosted Parr for the second time this year. We can’t wait to see all of the great things he will accomplish!

My Summer Internship at BFREE

By: Parr McQueen 

Earlier this summer I had the fantastic opportunity to stay at the BFREE field station for five weeks as part of the summer internship program. As a current undergraduate student at the University of Richmond, this was a great educational opportunity for me. Doing anything from assisting with the care of the Hickatee turtles to working with school groups, I was able to experience the rainforest more than any week-long field course could offer. This was an incredible experience with too many good memories to write about and has certainly made me grow, providing a stepping stone for future career prospects. In addition to the internship program, I made use of my time in Belize to conduct my own research.

My research examines cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. In much of the developing world, forests are being cut down at increasing rates for traditional agriculture. Slash and burn farming is prevalent and it is occurring right up to protected area boundaries, reducing habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change. Deforestation in the tropics has been estimated to make up 29% of the total emissions from fossil fuels and other sources that cause global warming.

BFREE has an ongoing project to help promote cacao agroforestry, which is a much more sustainable farming method that still provides income for local farmers. This is a way of planting cacao, the raw product to make chocolate, within the established rainforest instead of in a traditional field. Rather than cutting the forest to the ground, smaller plants are thinned out and large trees are left in place. In many studies, this has been shown to preserve biodiversity by providing habitat for avian and mammalian species, but no work at all has been done examining how the microorganisms are affected. With the help of Dr. Amy Treonis, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond, I am attempting to answer this important question.

While in Belize, I sampled soil from replicate cacao agroforestry farms and the adjacent undisturbed rainforest. Currently, in Richmond, I am in the middle of processing the soils to extract microscopic nematode worms. Nematodes are a commonly studied microorganism and are a good indicator species of soil health. I will be looking at the makeup of the nematode communities present in the soils to get an idea of the health of the soil in the agroforestry systems compared to the health in the undisturbed rainforest. This research is important because we need to know if the cacao agroforestry is impacting the health and biodiversity within the soil. While we can see the colorful birds and cute mammals prospering, we have no idea if the microorganisms in the soil are thriving or not. Healthy soil microorganisms carry out critical nutrient cycling and decomposition processes that are essential to having a fully functioning ecosystem.

Overall I had a wonderful time at the BFREE field station and was able to learn a lot, by fully immersing myself in the day-to-day operations, while at the same time strengthening my own personal research program.