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Genetic Analysis of Dermatemys mawii

BFREE’s second Hicatee (Central American River Turtle) Health Assessment of 2022 took place on July 5 and 6. These dates were much earlier than normal because there was an opportunity to conduct a much-needed genetics study. Dr. Natalia Gallego Garcia traveled from Colombia to collect the samples that will be used for genetic analysis. With the help of Luke Pearson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand, she was able to collect 44 samples from the 46 adult captive turtles in residence at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). Collected samples will be stored at BFREE until export permits are received. The study is critical to the on-going work at the HCRC and for the Hicatee program in Belize.

Improving Captive Management

Using this genetics study, Natalia will implement a paternity analysis. Data collected will be used to assign all the clutches hatched at the HCRC to a mother (dame) and to potential fathers (sires). We will also gain an understanding of the reproductive output of the species by determining which captive adults are reproducing and how often. Results will be used to improve captive management protocols.

Supplementing Wild Populations

Further, the study will help us determine the genetic composition of wild populations and understand how to supplement those populations with captive animals if necessary. Dr. Gallego-Garcia will conduct a population genetics analysis that includes wild samples in Belize as well as Mexico and Guatemala.

In addition to the genetics study, morphometric data was collected on all adults as well as the majority of juveniles. Dr. Isabelle and her assistant performed ultrasounds on all adult females and identified follicles already forming in many of the turtles.

Finally, because a survey team from Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) was onsite, Natalia was able to collect samples from a subset of those turtles as well.

Hicatee Health Assessment participants

UCLA Shaffer Lab – Natalia Gallego-Garcia; TSA- NAFTRG turtle survey team members – Eric Munscher, Collin McAvinchey, Becca Cozad, Tabitha Hootman, Arron Tuggle, Georgia Knaus, Maddie Morrison, Nichole Salvatico, Luke Pearson, and Stephen Ross; TSA and BFREE Board Member – Tim Gregory; Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic – Isabelle Paquet Durand; BFREE – Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Barney Hall, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett

Natalia Gallego García received her Ph.D in 2019 at Universidad de los Andes. For her dissertation, she used landscape genomics to determine mechanisms affecting the functional connectivity in two endangered and endemic turtles in Colombia. She conducts work through UCLA’s Shaffer Lab as a postdoc, working on a range wide landscape genomic analysis of the red-footed tortoise across South America, with a particular emphasis on Colombian population differentiation.

Saying goodbye to 55 Hicatee turtles

No, more like saying see you later!

By Jonathan Dubon

Watching your children grow up and eventually moving on may be hard for some, but it is something that takes place by nature. Although I am not talking about real children, it still feels the same when I release Hicatee turtles that I have helped to take care of over the past 2 years. The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is a multi-pronged conservation effort for Hicatee, with one of the tasks being head-start rewilding.

On April 1st, I along with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, loaded 55 juveniles and hatchlings from the HCRC at BFREE, to be taken to a creek in north central Belize – roughly 4-hours’ drive. Upon our arrival, we met with the Feste Films crew and locals from the nearby community to conduct our releases. There was a turnout of around 15 community members, including adults and children. Feste Films documented our release as a part of their upcoming four-part series ‘Belize Uncovered’ to be available online later this year. The well-known local chef, Sean Kuylen, and International Journalist, Gelareh Darabi, were the interviewers for the film and so participated in all the day’s activities.

Community participation

Before the actual release of the turtles, we gathered and talked about why we are releasing turtles and how important they are to the environment and to the culture. I asked the children “why do you think releasing juvenile Hicatee turtles is important?” I got responses such as: “because they are getting scarce”, “it is better for the wild environment” and the one that stood out the most to me was “because they are critically endangered”. We visited this village in August of 2020 and did a much smaller release, and many of the children who attended then, also attended this time around. To know that information shared a couple years ago is reiterated and remembered means that we are on the right track.

I also mentioned to the community that we are not just releasing turtles to say we do, but we are releasing them to be a part of a long-term studying and monitoring project since this is an active study site for us. All our turtles that were released have unique identification codes, which are placed by scute notching and inserting PIT tags (a microchip inserted under the skin of the turtles). This will allow us to accurately collect data for each turtle and monitor their growth rate, age and so forth.

When it was time to place the turtles in the water, we let every child who attended release a turtle. Hopefully, this will spark a love and passion in them for protecting this species. We only released 10 of the 55 at the creek’s bank where everyone was gathered. After which, Tom and I got into 2 canoes and went up stream to release the remaining 45.

Reflecting on the day

Tom was asked, “How do you feel to release these turtles? Are you sad that you are saying goodbye?” He replied, “I am happy and excited to release these turtles. Even though they have been under my watch and care since being hatched, and I have tried my best to raise these turtles, there is no better caretaker than mother nature herself. I believe with the help of the community and everyone else, we can help them to grow and reproduce on their own. Then we can say we have successfully reintroduced Hicatee turtles into the wild.”

Overall, it was a wonderful and amazing experience that not many can say they have gotten the chance to be involved in. When we were driving off, the mood of everyone was so cheerful and bright, not because we were leaving, but because we accomplished something so important and unique. I look forward to more releases in the future and spreading information with people who may not know.

Introducing the Dermatemys Program Coordinator

By Jacob Marlin

After 12 years of raising awareness and developing a strong Hicatee conservation program, BFREE in partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is pleased to announce the creation of the new position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator within the BFREE organization. We have contracted Dr. Ed Boles, a naturalized Belizean who brings more than three decades of experience and leadership from a freshwater ecological perspective, along with strong relationships with government, NGO’s, and local community members. Dr. Boles will help foster the necessary collaborations needed to create a holistic regional program to ensure the Hicatee has the best chance of survival into the future.

Dr. Boles began his new role on February 1st, 2022. The two of us are already working closely together along with other BFREE and TSA staff and local community members to become fully acquainted with the many activities, accomplishments, challenges and stakeholders involved in the conservation and sustainable use of the species. In the coming months, we will be advertising for an “Assistant Dermatemys Program Coordinator” position to be filled on July 1st, with the intention that the assistant position will slide into the coordinator role after Dr. Boles completes his one-year contract. 

We have ambitious goals for 2022, and we are excited to keep you posted on our efforts to advance the conservation of this unique and culturally important species.

Feste Film Crew Visits the HCRC

In collaboration with the European Nature Trust, The Feste Film crew has been traveling throughout Belize, documenting the country’s many important conservation initiatives since January.


This week, the crew stopped at BFREE to learn about our work to preserve the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee. They are interviewing BFREE staff at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) and learning about our captive breeding program and rewilding goals for this critically endangered species.

The Feste Film crew beats the heat with BFREE bandanas!

A New Species of Coccidia Described in D. mawii

We are pleased to announce a recent publication in the Journal of Parasitology that describes a new coccidian protozoan, Eimeria grayi. Named after the biologist who described Dermatemys mawii, this is the first description of a coccidian in the Central American River Turtle. The discovery of this bacteria advances our understanding of this under-studied and monotypic species of turtle. This coccidian was identified in captive turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. We do not know if this coccidian exists in wild turtles. 

The publication was a team effort and we are especially grateful to Dr. Elliott Jacobson who took the lead on this important effort.