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Hicatee Awareness Month Outreach Programs

The start of this October marked the beginning of the 7th annual Hicatee Awareness Month campaign. Kicking off this initiative, Barney Hall and I embarked on a journey to the western part of Belize, focusing our efforts on regions notorious for the harvesting of Hicatee turtles for consumption. Our initial step involved seeking permission from these schools to conduct our classroom visits.

Our primary goal was to raise awareness through educational outreach, and we did so with the help of an interactive PowerPoint presentation. Throughout our visit, we emphasized key facets of Hicatee conservation. This included promoting the recognition of the Hicatee turtle and its status, highlighting the laws designed to safeguard this species, and showcasing the ongoing conservation efforts taking place in Belize. Most importantly, we aimed to leave a lasting impact on the students, with the hope of sparking a sense of motivation within them to become the next generation of dedicated conservationists.

Our educational journey spanned across several locations, encompassing schools in Belmopan City, Roaring Creek Village, Teakettle Village, Spanish Lookout Community, Valley of Peace Village, Blackman Eddy Village, Ontario Village, Georgeville Village, Santa Elena Town, and El Progresso Village. In the span of just five days, we had the privilege of visiting 14 schools and reaching a total of 581 students.

The response to our presentation was nothing short of heartwarming. Both students and teachers expressed their eagerness to learn more about this remarkable turtle and called for stronger enforcement of the laws established to protect and ensure the long-term survival of this critically endangered species. Here are some of the encouraging comments we received:

“The entire presentation was engaging and informative. I liked the interaction throughout the session.” – Valley of Peace Community School

“Enforce the laws that are set in place to protect the Hicatee turtles.” – St. Martin de Porres R.C School

“Excellent job! Come more often.” – Our Lady of Guadeloupe High School

Very good job! Keep up the good work.” – Eden S.D.A High School

As we journey onward in our outreach campaign, we are firmly committed to fostering a nationwide recognition of this unique turtle that is literally being eaten to extinction. To contribute meaningfully to the preservation of the Hicatee turtles, we recognize the importance of engaging community members of all ages, backgrounds, and professions in our conservation and research initiatives. This collaborative approach holds the key to advancing the conservation efforts for the Hicatee and securing its future in Belize and throughout its geographic range.

New Collaboration between BFREE, Penn State University, and University of Tennessee Knoxville

BFREE is excited to announce a new innovative collaboration among faculty and students from Penn State University, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and BFREE. The overall goal is to build on BFREE’s cacao agroforestry program by initiating science-based projects that both develop and enhance our understanding of the novel cacao-based agroforestry systems at BFREE and, more broadly, for Belize and Central America. Our hope is this new program will support sustainable development goals while conserving tropical rainforest.

Three projects have been awarded seed grants totaling almost $150,000 as part of the Penn State-BFREE Research and Education Initiative. Funding for this initiative was provided by Penn State Cacao and Chocolate Research Network (CCRN), the Hershey Company, Penn State Global, Penn State Huck Institutes of Life Sciences, Ag Sciences Global in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, and a private donor affiliated with BFREE.

One project seeks to identify a range of woody plant species in Belize, which incorporated into future cacao agroforestry systems could bolster biodiversity, enhance ecosystem services, and increase climate resilience. An outcome of this effort will be the creation of a comprehensive resource — the “Belize Agroforestry Manual.” Designed to be practical and accessible and provide information to BFREE staff and Belizean farmers and landholders on suitable woody plant species, their uses, benefits, various practices, and adoption guidance.

A second collaboration revolves around the ancient criollo cacao varieties at BFREE. The cacao trees will be studied with the goal of developing distinctive agroforestry systems that combat deforestation and empower local communities. The project will delve into the adaptability of criollo cacao across diverse environments and its potential to preserve biodiversity.

A third project includes the expertise of Penn State, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and international specialists in cacao fermentation. Together, they aim to unravel the mysteries behind the flavors of wild criollo cacao. This research includes sensory evaluations and a comprehensive examination of economically vital attributes like flavor and lipids. The goal is to craft fermentation and roasting guidelines that maximize flavor. Furthermore, genetic information will be connected to important commercial traits of wild criollo cacao, opening new horizons in chocolate production, which can provide insights for BFREE’s up and coming chocolate company, Crioco, as it embarks on its business venture in the near future.  

UTK PhD candidate Holly Brabazon’s research is focused on the genetics of the wild cacao trees found at BFREE. Based on previous sequencing performed by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and the
Cocoa Research Center at the University of West Indies in Trinidad, these trees were identified as pure Criollo. Criollo cacao is highly valued for its fine flavor qualities but is extremely rare in cultivation
partly because of susceptibility to modern cacao pathogens, relatively low productivity, and a long history of interbreeding with other varieties. The overall objective of her project is to provide a robust,
sustainable framework for Belizean farmers to grow this high-value, shade-tolerant, locally adapted Criollo cacao variety. 
 
The first step will be to understand the population structure of the Criollo cacao trees at BFREE by partially sequencing the genomes of the 300 standing trees. Analyses of the sequence data will allow us to
answer several important questions regarding mating biology, pollen dispersal, breeding patterns within and among the different phenotypic variants, and recent history of Criollo cacao at BFREE. These data
will provide a foundation for a second planned study analyzing parentage of seeds to determine patterns of pollen flow throughout this population and for future genomic studies aimed at understanding or
improving various Criollo phenotypic traits of interest.

Motus Wildlife Tracking System Background: What is Motus?

Part I in a five-part series

Motus is a relatively recent program in Belize. But what is Motus? What is it used for? Who uses Motus, and how is it beneficial? These are possibly just a few questions which may come to anyone’s mind upon hearing the word for the first time. There is a lot to learn about Motus – how highly beneficial it is to the scientific community, to private landowners and managers, to stewards and caretakers of protected areas, to forest and nature reserve managers, to educators and students, and even to the local populace. It is a tool which provides meaningful data on current and future migratory ecological wildlife studies.  Such data can be utilized by decision makers, especially in government circles, to help prioritize areas for wildlife protection. In general, Motus (the Latin word for movement), is an international collaborative network of researchers that use automated radio telemetry to simultaneously track and study the migratory movements of birds, bats, and large insects at local, regional, and hemispheric scales. Therefore, this article aims to look at Motus in a bit more detail.

Motus was developed by Bird Studies Canada in 2014. Funding and support was provided by Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant, in partnership with Acadia University, (Nova Scotia), Western University (Ontario), the University of Guelph (Ontario), and other collaborating researchers and organizations. 

In March 2023, BFREE became a part of this international network by installing two antennas to the 145′ radio tower at BFREE adjacent to the dining room (Lat. 16.5551o Lon. 88.7065o). Prior to the BFREE installation, only one Motus Tower existed in Belize and this tower was installed at Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (TREES) on May 2022 in Central Belize (Lat. 17.0526o Lon. 88.5654o). Following the BFREE installation, another Motus Tower was installed at the Lamanai Field Research Station in Northern Belize (Lat. 17.7521o Lon. 88.6538o). The other two closest Motus Towers to Belize are in neighboring Guatemala. The yellow dots indicate where Motus towers have been installed and activated in Belize and Guatemala.  (Figs. 1 & 2).

Motus continues to expand globally. For example, in the USA along the Pacific Coast flyways, Motus towers are being installed along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. The towers in these areas are collecting data on shore-bird movements such as Western Sandpiper, Sanderling, Semipalmated Plover, and Dunlin. Interestingly, all four species except for the Dunlin, are regular winter visitors along Belize’s shoreline and Cayes, while the Dunlin is considered a “transient” species but also uses the coastline and Cayes as stopover sites while migrating to countries further south. Such data continues to provide valuable information on migratory pathways, stopover sites, breeding, and wintering habitats of these birds. Researchers, scientists, and biologists working in this region are also working with partners in Mexico on Birds of Conservation Concern such as the Pacific Red Knot, one of the longest distance flyers of any shorebird. Interestingly, Belize has very few records of this species along the northern coastline.

Western Sandpiper is a shore-bird sometimes spotted in the Bladen River and is one that Motus technology is tracking. Image courtesy of Cornell Lab Photo Library of Birds

Data collected from the Motus Towers detects the different estuaries where the Pacific Red Knot migrates, how they’re using estuaries, and how long they stay there. In 2022, several Motus stations were installed in Puerto Rico in partnership with Birds Caribbean. The Caribbean Motus Collaboration (CMC) was formed to expand the Motus network in the Caribbean as part of the Landbird Monitoring Project. Recently, through the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) grant program, the international collaboration expanded and funded additional Motus station installations and research across the Americas, including the first Motus bird monitoring network in Mexico.

During its first three years, Motus expanded to include more than 120 independent research projects, and comprised over 325 active receiver stations across 11 countries and 3 continents. This rich and comprehensive data set included detections of individuals during all phases of the annual cycle (breeding, migration, and non-breeding).

According to a recent article written by Rosalie Wetzel and published in May 2023, Motus has grown to include more than 1,200 stations across 31 countries. Again, the yellow dots indicate Motus stations throughout the world. Motus is indeed the largest international collaborative research network that brings together organizations and individuals to facilitate research and education on the ecology and conservation of flying migratory species.

Most of the information and graphics used in this article were obtained from the following sources:

  • Birds Canada. 2019. Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Port Rowan, Ontario. Available: http://www.motus.org. Accessed: October 2, 2023.
  • Taylor, et.al. 2017. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System: a collaborative research network to enhance the understanding of wildlife movement. Accessed: October 4, 2023.
  • Rosalie Wetzel. May 31, 2023. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Motus Stations: Tracking Migrations from Coast to Coast. Accessed: October 5, 2023.
  • Michael Rogers summary of BFREE Motus Tower. October 2023.

Stay tuned for Series Article Part II: How does Motus work?

Celebrating Seven Years of Hicatee Awareness Month

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we are waiting for. We are the change we seek.” Barack Obama

Hicatee Awareness Month was born out of a need – as are many things. The Hicatee turtle was on the brink of extinction. Belize was identified as the stronghold for the species throughout its small range. Yet, how do you get an entire country to care about saving one species of turtle? And even more challenging – a turtle that is entirely aquatic and seldom seen, so is most recognized as a delightful and celebratory meal?

With baby steps as well as trial and error. 

In 2015, I designed a t-shirt with the Mountain Printing Company in the states. The shirt displayed a photo of the first Hicatee hatchling to the HCRC (Freckles) with #SaveTheHicatee written underneath. The turtle was perfectly adorable and a hit with kids. I was excited that this was the first significant material I had created for the purpose of conservation. 

Soon after the shirts were delivered to Belize, Jacob Marlin wore his on the Hokey Pokey to travel from Mango Creek to Placencia. He ran into an old friend from the village, who said to him, “Your shirt is making me hungry!” 

Jacob later told me the story and it stuck with me. Not as a failure but as a lesson and an opportunity. We had to do more and we had to think differently.

Richard and Carol Foster were finishing a documentary film that described the plight of the Hicatee in Belize. BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance needed to share it with audiences in Belize who could care about the species and do something about it. 

As a result, Hicatee Awareness Month was born in October 2017 as a national campaign to save the species. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” documentary was the centerpiece and schools and NGO partners throughout Belize partnered in ensuring that film viewings and events happened throughout the month. We featured a different #HicateeHero every day in October and shared knowledge about how cool it is to be a teacher or researcher or student or biologist and told stories about everyday heroes. We reached hundreds of students and community members in person throughout Belize and thousands online.

When October 31st rolled around in 2017, I was proud and relieved to have made it through. I also thought that would be the end of Hicatee Awareness Month, because I had only envisioned it as a one-time event. However, I started to get emails and requests about what next year’s celebration would look like. And so, it continued….


In 2018, we hosted a national poster contest and had wonderful entries from all over the country. We were thrilled when the Standard IV class at Hummingbird Elementary in Belize City formed their own Hicatee Committee and used materials we sent to teach kids throughout their entire school.

In 2019, we produced a calendar with the winning poster entries from 2018. Those calendars were included as one of the new materials in the 100 packets that were distributed that year.


Then, there was the 2020 pandemic. And the small BFREE team was running short on new ideas for the month, so we decided to form a committee and invite members from other districts in Belize to contribute a fresh perspective to the annual celebration. The results were beyond our expectations! Soon, the team created a new mascot, Mr. Hicatee, as well as activities including a new sing-a-long song and Hicatee Hero video. Packets were delivered by committee members to schools in the districts where they lived. This was incredibly important that year because teachers were required to send materials home with students.


In 2021, new materials included a poster and bumper sticker to target older audiences. These materials were distributed throughout Belize on buses and cars, in grocery stores and other locations.


In 2022, Committee membership expanded and so did our reach. This year, we continued to focus on adult audiences, creating tote bags and even a billboard asking Belizeans to Follow the laws of Belize to protect all wildlife including the Hicatee. We shifted our language to talk about the importance of protecting the watersheds that Hicatee inhabit.

This year, we continue our quest to see the Hicatee become the National Reptile and to ultimately save a species from extinction. I couldn’t be more excited and proud of what we (a growing community of people who care about Belize’s wildlife and wildlands) have accomplished. Our next steps will be to put a research team together who will go into the field to learn about Hicatee in the wild and to collaborate with the communities who share the waters with these special turtles.

The Hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it. 


Since 2017, Hicatee Awareness Month milestones include: 

  1. More than 2,000 pages of printed educational materials, including fact sheets, coloring pages, writing prompts, and more, have been delivered to educators across Belize. 
  2. Those same educational materials are made available for free online in our Online Toolkit and emailed to more than 500 principals and teachers each year. 
  3. We have distributed Hicatee-themed items including: 500 t-shirts, 5,000 stickers, 200 posters, 160 “Herbert the Hicatee” books, 100 tote bags, and 100 “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” DVD’s.
  4. Hicatee Hero volunteers hosted over 50 public events and classroom visits.
  5. More than 25 features on radio, TV, and in printed magazines and newspapers.
  6. Created “Mr. Hicatee,” a catchy sing-along video and song.
  7. Featured two roadside billboards in strategic locations in Belize.
  8. Over – local and international visitors to BFREE have taken the Hicatee pledge and signed the Save the Hicatee banner!

Thanks to 2023 Committee Members: Ornella Cadle (2023 Committee Chair), Colleen Joseph, Jessie Young, Claudia Matzdorf, Barney Hall, Abigail Parham-Garbutt, Jonathan Dubon, Ingrid Rodriguez, Jaren Serano, and Heather Barrett.

Thanks to past Committee members: Robynn Philips (2022 Committee Chair), Tyler Sanville, Marcia Itza, Belizario Gian Carballo, Monique Vernon, Celina Gongora, Gianni Martinez, Ed Boles, and Elvera Xi.

We are also grateful to our local and international partners who have supported Hicatee Awareness Month over the years: Turtle Survival Alliance, Independence Junior College, University of Belize, the Belize Zoo, Crocodile Research Coalition, Sacred Heart Junior College, Hummingbird Elementary, Zoo Miami, South Carolina Aquarium, Disney Conservation Fund, and Zoo New England.  

The Importance of Involving Local Communities in Conservation

I vividly recall my first time on the Belize River, navigating a canoe while assisting in population surveys for a Hicatee assessment. Despite my Belizean upbringing, my familiarity was primarily inland, leaving the fishing communities’ way of life somewhat foreign to me. Engaging in river-based research marked my initial exposure to the intricate relationship between these communities and the waterway.

The river serves not only as a food source but also as a gathering place for families, where they bond through storytelling and laughter on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. This is a place where elders pass on swimming and life lessons to their grandchildren, while youngsters test their aquatic stamina through diving games. Apart from fishing, the river holds multiple significant meanings to the communities who consider it their backyard.

“Save the Hicatee” banners have been created and signed by community members (young and old) across Belize who share the concern for this critically endangered species and who want to take action.

By observing fishing communities seamlessly blend into their environment, I started to see that, even though we all live in the same country, different communities have their own special ways of connecting with the environment we all share. This recognition as well as my recent experience studying abroad has helped me to realize that integrating local knowledge in the work that we do allows for the development of conservation strategies that are culturally appropriate and tailored to the specific needs of the area.

In Belize, Hicatee turtles have historically been harvested as a traditional and celebratory food source, resulting in a significant decline in their population. The consumption of Hicatee meat holds deep -roots within the Belizean population. I believe it is our responsibility as conservationists with a scientific perspective to consider how we can address this cultural tradition while also preserving the integrity of the species. Local perspectives can help us identify potential conflicts between Hicatee conservation efforts and local needs.

Incorporating these communities in our work can also improve the effectiveness of our research. For example, by communicating with local fishers we can identify areas where Hicatee turtles are in abundance but are being heavily harvested; this information can help us make informed decisions about areas to protect. Hiring dedicated locals as riverkeepers of these protected areas also offers the opportunity to create sustainable livelihoods within target communities. By involving communities in conservation efforts, we hope to foster a sense of ownership and responsibility. When people are valued and engaged, they are more likely to actively participate in protecting their environment as well as the biodiversity that inhabits it. 

To effectively contribute to the preservation of the Hicatee turtles, it’s crucial to involve community members of all ages, backgrounds and professions in our conservation and research endeavors. Some examples include the involvement of community leaders, local fisherfolks who know every twist and turn of the rivers, the popular food vendors down the street who help to keep the community fed, farmers who provide us with local produce and the dedicated educators who are shaping young minds. In closing, Biodiversity in ecosystems contributes to resilience and adaptability. Similarly, diversity in conservation teams enhances adaptability to changing circumstances and challenges.

Rocento Pau joins BFREE as Administrative Assistant

My Name is Rocento Pau. I was born and raised in Sunday Wood Village, which is in the southern district of Toledo. I am a Ketchi maya. I grew up working in the forest with my father for a living. I am a person who takes each opportunity as a learning experience. I love nature. At the age of 17, I graduated from Toledo Community College High School with a diploma majoring in the Business Department.

I then proceeded to look for a job and was employed as a Data Entry Clerk by Aqua Mar Belize Limited, a shrimp farm, in December 2013. During my 9 years at Aqua Mar, I had the opportunity to work in various areas. I was promoted to Office Supervisor, then to Human Resource Assistant. Later, I was transferred to Field Supervisor and then last to be the Head of Department until closure of Aqua Mar in December 2022. Aqua Mar was obligated to ensure and maintain no negative and disturbances of the ecological and biodiversity in the savannahs of Independence. This was my first introduction to biodiversity conservation as I was the person responsible for ensuring the process was followed.

After Aqua Mar closed, I was employed by TexBel Agriculture Investments, Limited for a short period from January to May of this year as a Data Entry and Store Clerk and as a fuel pump attendant. It was a short but good experience. I resigned from the post because of feasibility reasons – the location was far from my home in Sunday Wood. The distance and expense associated with travel to and from work made continuing there not possible.

When I saw the post for Administrative Assistant at BFREE and read a little about the organization and the work that BFREE does in biodiversity conservation, I was amazed. I was so thrilled at the photos and the possibility that I didn’t have any second thought to apply. I was persistent in my application. My first ride to BFREE was an amazing adventure for me. When I reached at the pristine and spectacular river, it was an amazing view. I stood there in awe.  I saw a tapir while going back.

What I love about BFREE is the flourishing rainforest is still intact and rich in biodiversity. I believe it is one of mother’s nature best kept secrets here in southern Belize. I am pleased to be a part of BFREE’s family and I wish to contribute in any way that I can. I am also interested to learn more and to be a part of the work that BFREE is doing in preserving and conserving biodiversity.

Having been here for a month, The reserve opens a door of panoramic experience for me. The rainforest is paradise to many animals, birds, reptiles, plants, and mushrooms of all species that I am yet to learn more about. 

Every morning I wake up to the alarm of the howler monkeys right in my ears, walking to the office to begin the day, there is always something that captures the picture of the day – be it ferns, monkeys or the beautiful chirping birds. One morning while going to the kitchen, these photos captured my attention.

This frog is comfortably and confidently resting in its own world. Our life is connected to nature. The heart shape with the morning dew is so exciting for me. It really connects me to mother nature. In my childhood days, my father would normally tell us to wash our heads with the morning dew so that we can begin our day calm and cool because the dew is refreshing and cool in the early dawn.

The river at BFREE is so amazing; it is said that where there is water, there is life. There are not enough adjectives to describe its natural beauty.

I love and appreciate the beauty of mother nature here at this reserve. The beginning of my journey at BFREE is an exciting one. I want to begin my journey with this quote: “Mother nature is always speaking. She speaks in a language understood within the peaceful mind of the sincere observer.”

Jaren Serano returns to BFREE as Dermatemys Program Coordinator

By Jaren Serano

During my first stint at BFREE, I had the privilege of witnessing the positive impact that organizations like this have on land conservation, wildlife protection, and the conservation efforts among the local communities in Belize. When I joined as BFREE’s first Science and Education Fellow in 2017, I was immediately drawn to their ongoing Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee) captive breeding program. At the time, this was still a relatively new collaboration between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance, and we were experiencing our second year of hatching success.

My desire to contribute to the conservation efforts and help safeguard this species motivated me to be a part of this program. Through my active engagement and with guidance provided by Thomas Pop, the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center Manager, I acquired priceless firsthand experience working closely with the Hicatee turtles, both in controlled environments and their natural habitats. At the captive breeding facility, my daily responsibilities involved caring for and handling the turtles, which allowed me to develop skills in husbandry and effective management practices.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job was assisting in the care and rearing of hatchlings and juveniles. Being responsible for the well-being of over a hundred critically endangered Hicatee hatchlings instilled in me a profound sense of purpose and pride. Additionally, as a fellow, I had the privilege to gain insights from and work alongside various biologists, including Dr. Donald McKnight, Dr. Day Ligon and Denise Thompson. Together, we conducted population assessments for the Hicatee turtle within river systems in Belize. This not only enabled me to observe wild Hicatees for the first time but also provided a platform to engage with local anglers and raise awareness about the species’ conservation status.

After graduating from the fellowship program at BFREE, I traveled to the states to complete my bachelor’s degree in Sustainability at Jacksonville University (JU) under the advisement of Dr. John Enz. Being part of this program gave me a deeper understanding of the requirements needed to make a significant impact in today’s conservation field. Additionally, it offered me the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of like-minded individuals, some of whom have since become lifelong friends.

Following my accomplishments at JU, I then applied to and was accepted at the University of Florida (UF) for my master’s degree program. Throughout this period, I collaborated closely with Dr. Ray Carthy, Dr. Nichole Bishop, and Dr. Todd Osborne. My main focus was directed towards researching aspects of the reproductive ecology of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). While at UF, I worked as a graduate research assistant at the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, which allowed me to further develop as a student of nature and has provided me with a solid scientific foundation. This dynamic environment has sharpened my analytical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and aptitude for effectively communicating scientific information and wildlife management programs to my peers in the sciences as well as the general public.

Now, as the Dermatemys Program Coordinator, I am incredibly enthusiastic about my new role. I am confident that my educational background, ever-expanding knowledge of the Hicatee turtle, and experience in wildlife conservation management will allow me to make immediate contributions to the ongoing efforts to prevent further decline of this critically endangered species.

Amidst a world challenged by increasing anthropogenic pressures, Belize is blessed to still possess approximately 55 percent of forest cover and a vibrant array of wildlife. As a proud Belizean, I derive immense satisfaction from actively participating in conservation initiatives within our country, striving to maintain the integrity of our diverse ecosystems. Over time, I have developed a profound respect for the ecological and cultural importance of D. mawii in Belize. This has fueled my determination to assist in implementing effective management practices that can strengthen this unique relationship and collaborate towards the restoration of declining and extirpated populations of D. mawii throughout its entire range.

My goal is to help promote governmental recognition of the Hicatee, with the hope that existing regulations can better align with the long-term sustainability of the species. Additionally, I aim to actively engage the community and foster a nationwide appreciation for D. mawii as a crucial member of Belize’s riparian ecosystems, rather than solely viewing it as a food resource. I firmly believe that by working together and actively collaborating, we can save the Hicatee from the brink of extinction.

With Thanks

Special Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) for their continuous support of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program. Also, thanks to TSA and the Disney Conservation Fund for their financial support to launch the position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator.

BFREE staff at Jaguar Lanes Bowling Alley in Maya Beach. This was for our 2018 Staff Retreat.

The Fascinating Characteristics of Sundew

By Mark Canti

The astonishing characteristics of sundews are unbelievable to me. During two research trips with Dr. Rob Naczi of NY Botanical Garden, I learned a lot about plants, especially sedges. I was introduced to carnivorous plants and found them fascinating. I was shocked to learn that while walking around, we have been stepping on a lot of different species of exciting plants!

The Sundew was one of the common plants I saw in the field and it caught my attention because of the uniqueness of its survival skills. It is a variable perennial plant (meaning the plant can adapt to any environment and that the plant will grow, die out and grow again). I learned a lot of the basics of this plant in the field and, because of my interest, I continued my research after returning from my most recent research trip.

According to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, Sundews are generally about 4 cm in diameter. An individual leaf is about 5 mm long and 4 mm wide with erected scapes from the center of the plant about 8 cm long. The sepals have hairy glands that secrete sundew glue and the plant colouration ranges from pale green to deep red. It has approximately six pink or white small flowers that are constantly self-pollinating. Sundews have almost 200 different species making it one of the most diverse of all carnivorous plants.

Sundews capture their prey from glistening drops of dew at the tips of the hairy-like tentacles on their leaves. A healthy plant can have a hundred dew drops which makes it look gorgeously dainty and beautiful, but it is a sticky death trap for small insects. They have the ability to move or bend their tentacles in contact to respond to their edible prey. When an insect is trapped, it either succumbs to death through exhaustion or through suffocation as the fluid from the plant releases encloses, and blocks the opening of the insect exoskeletons. Death usually occurs within 15 minutes. (Photo credit left: internet image)

Meanwhile, the plant has trapped its prey, the plant secretes enzymes that will dissolve the insects which will free the nutrients that are trapped within its body. Eventually, the nutrient mixture is then absorbed through the leaf surfaces to be used by the rest of the plant.

Antique botany illustration: Drosera rotundifolia, round-leaved sundew

This is a plant that is common throughout the country of Belize and can be found in wet pine savannas. Discovering Sundews made me realize that many of us in Belize have no idea how extraordinary nature can be. This experience made me curious to learn about the multiple thousands of plant species that exist in this country.

As the Cacao Fellow for BFREE’s agroforestry program, I have gained a deep appreciation and understanding of nature. As someone who loves Belize, I’m dedicated to protecting our beautiful environment by understanding and appreciating the natural world around us. This research has taught me about the significance of each organism’s existence and its essential role in maintaining the environment.

Brittnacher, J. (2017, July). Drosera spatulata Species Complex. International Carnivorous Plant Society. https://www.carnivorousplants.org/cp/taxonomy/Droseraspatulata

Collaborative Cacao Research Project

By Roxanna Chen

BFREE in collaboration with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) facilitated a cacao research project at the BFREE’s Field Station in May 2023. The primary objective of the collaboration was to co-design and enhance post-harvest practices and methods for Criollo Cacao which is intercropped and shade-grown in several experimental plots within the property. Criollo is a Spanish term that means “of local origin” or native. Criollo beans are usually white to pale pink in color, and it is a pure cacao variety.

The four-day project was made feasible by several participants including the Crioco staff, myself as BFREE’s Advanced Cacao Fellow, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville student researchers and professors. The project involved a variety of activities that ranged from harvesting ripe criollo pods to pod-cracking and bean extraction, to fermenting and data collection. The collaboration commenced with the Crioco staff playing an instrumental role in the cacao field specifically in teaching the students how to appropriately harvest pods. This activity is considered a crucial first step for good quality and fermentation because the pod must be mature, healthy, and not damaged. Good quality also means good chocolate!

Thereafter, I taught the students our recommended methods for pod cracking and bean extraction, as well as fermentation set-up and preparation. The students were very hands-on and did not hesitate to share useful ideas and information regarding data collection during fermentation and the application and usage of instruments. The exchange between both partners was mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

The student researchers received many first-hand experiences; these include the ability to differentiate the four criollo phenotypes grown at BFREE, harvesting and extraction of cacao beans from pods and most importantly getting practical during fermentation. Additionally, as the advanced cacao fellow, I became more knowledgeable about fermentation chemistry and terminologies and was exposed to multiple lectures on basic food components relating to Food Science and its applications to cacao. 

Special Thanks

Thank you to everyone from UTK who participated in making the project a success. Professors: Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker, Dr. Denita Hadziabdic-Guerry, and Dr. Kevin Moulton Student Researchers: Holly Brabazon, Celeste Chadwick, Amber Gunter, Laura Whaley, and Madison Fomich.

Naming Opportunity for a New Species of Beaksedge

By Dr. Robert Naczi and Heather Barrett

Through his research to document the diversity and conservation status of Belizean sedges, Dr. Robert Naczi of New York Botanical Garden recently discovered a species of beaksedge previously unknown to science. In Belize, the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae) is one of the five largest (most species-rich) plant families. Beaksedges (genus Rhynchospora) are a diverse and ecologically important group of flowering plants, especially in the tropics. Beaksedges constitute the largest genus of plants in Belize, with 53 species.

When a scientist formally publishes a new species in order to make it known to the world, the new scientific name is one of the most exciting parts of the publication. This name becomes the means of communicating about the species throughout the world. Because this name will be permanent and must be unique, its formation is very important and provides an opportunity to be creative.

The fact the new species of beaksedge is unnamed presents an opportunity. Dr. Naczi has generously offered to donate the naming rights to BFREE to support our spring fundraising. Therefore, from Earth Day until Arbor Day (donations made in response to this eNews will also be included), any donation of $100.00 or more will be entered into a raffle to win the opportunity to name the beaksedge. The minimum value of this naming opportunity has been set by Dr. Naczi at $15,000.00 with all proceeds going towards BFREE’s conservation programs. For every $100.00 you donate, your name is entered into the raffle one time. The more you donate, the more chances you have to win! To donate today, click here.

Note: The fundraiser must reach its minimum goal of $15,000 for the raffle to occur.    

The new species is remarkable in several ways. It is known only from Belize, and increases the number of known plant species restricted to Belize to 42, highlighting the importance of Belize as a biodiversity hotspot. Also, this new species belongs to a group of species most diverse in the eastern U.S.A. In fact, this new species is the only member of this group that is restricted to the tropics. Its occurrence in Belize is completely unexpected, but Belize is full of surprises!

Botanical drawing of the newly identified Beaksedge – Copyright Bobbi Angell