17 New Species of Land Snails Discovered in Belize

17 New Species of Land Snails Discovered in Belize

By Dan and Judy Dourson

The beautiful country of  Belize, known to the rest of the world for its stunning reef and adventure tourism, has a new claim to fame as home to seventeen new species of land snails! This information was uncovered thanks to a long-term study by Malacologists (scientists who study snails) Dan Dourson, Judy  Dourson, and Ron Caldwell. Along with  several well-trained Belizean biological field technicians, the  trio have been searching the leaf litter, epiphytes, deep caves,  sinkholes, and the remote sections of the Maya  Mountains for more than a decade. They have added new species of land snails to  science and many new land snail records for Belize.

Judy and Dan Dourson pose for a photo in Placencia, Belize.

The study began when husband and wife team, Dan and Judy Dourson, came to the country to assist BFREE in 2006. Dr. Ron Caldwell joined the Doursons through his affiliation with Lincoln  Memorial University in Tennessee.

So, you may ask, what’s the big deal about discovering 17 new species of snails? When the Doursons and Caldwell began surveying Belize, only 24 species of land snails were reported. Their research has added 135 species, a staggering 558% increase in land snail biodiversity for the country.

Even though snails rank as one of the most numerous and speciose groups of organisms on Earth, they remain largely unstudied. As a result, little is known of their importance in ecosystems. Land snails, like most invertebrates, suffer from being in a conservation “blind-spot”.

Every expedition into the Maya Mountains has yielded spectacular finds for the team. A 2016 National Geographic-Waitt Foundation Grand-funded and UNC Wilmington-led expedition looked at the functioning of a tropical ecosystem from the bottom up by studying the links between Harpy eagles (a top predator) and land snails who occupy the bottom of the food web. The links between these two divergent organisms were established by documenting Harpy eagle food that consumed land snails. The study also found two new species living at the bottom of a 100-meter deep sinkhole in the middle of the Bladen Nature Reserve. As a result, the Maya Mountains is considered to be one of the most important land snail regions in Central America and may exceed other areas of comparable size in terms of numbers of species and endemism.

The team’s long-term research resulted in the development of the first field guide for the region, Land Snails of Belize, A Chronicle of Diversity and Function and the first comprehensive publication since the early 1900s for Central America. The book includes species accounts and range maps for all 158 species. Many of the 17 new species described in the book were named to honor Belizeans and other conservationists.

Seventeen New Species to Science and Described from Belize (2018)

1 Hairy Lucidella Lucidella caldwelli Named in recognition of Ron Caldwell’s important contributions in land snail research in Belize.


2 Checkered Cone Drymaeus tzubi Named in honor of Belizean, Valentino Tzub of San Jose, Toledo District, one of Belize’s top biological field technicians. Valentino discovered many new land snail records and several new species to science including the recently described Eucalodium belizensis of southern Belize.


3 Rosy Marauder Euglandina fosteri In honor of award-winning wildlife filmmakers, Richard Foster & Carol Farneti Foster whose work has increased understanding of the natural world including the never before filmed interactions of Sibon snakes and land snails.


4 Blue Creek Shaft Pseudosubulina juancho In honor of Juan Cho, for his contribution to the environment by promoting and utilizing sustainable organic agricultural practices in the Toledo District of Belize to produce organic chocolate.


5 Montane Splinter Rectaxis breweri Named in honor of Steven Brewer, an extraordinary and passionate botanist who has spent countless hours exploring and cataloging Belize’s outstanding plant life.


6 Bladen Cave Snail Opeas marlini Named in honor of Jacob Marlin who has dedicated most of his life to passionately protecting the crown jewel of protected areas in Belize, the Bladen Nature Reserve.


7 Belize Cave Snail Leptopeas corwinii Named in recognition of Jeff Corwin, a conservation biologist who conducted research at Blue Creek Cave for a Master’s degree studying Central America bats and continues to educate the public about the natural world through his outstanding wildlife films.


8 Macal River Cave Snail Lamellaxis matola Named in honor of Sharon Matola, founder of the Belize Zoo for her dedication and perseverance in protecting Belize’s abandoned wildlife and commitment to education about the incredible wildlife of Belize.


9 Blue Creek Cave Snail Leptinaria doddi Named in honor of Frederick Dodd, founder of International Zoological Expeditions (IZE) who had the foresight to purchase and protect the wild jungles surrounding Blue Creek Cave, the only known location for the globally rare Blue Creek Cave Funnel.


10 Smooth Quill Brachypodella levisa Levisa is Latin for smooth.


11 Hairy Phora Thysanophora meermani Named in honor of Jan Meerman, an extraordinary Belizean biologist whose work to create a database for wildlife in Belize has been an invaluable resource.


12 Mountain Gloss Miradiscops striatae Striatae means striate in Latin.


13 Hillside Gloss Miradiscops youngii Named in honor of Colin Young in recognition of his outstanding work in the field of conservation and biology in Belize.


14 Bladen Gloss Miradiscops bladenensis Named in honor of the Bladen Nature Reserve, the “crown jewel” of Belize’s numerous protected areas.


15 Maya Mountain Rotadiscus Rotadiscus saqui Named in honor of Ernesto and Aurora Garcia Saqui for their extraordinary contributions to conservation, Mayan cultural preservation, art and alternative healing in Belize.


16 Ornate Crystal Chanomphalus angelae Named in honor of Dan and Judy’s daughter, Angela Dourson Christensen, a woman of uncommon courage and genuine honesty for which they are deeply proud.


17 Oak Ridge Teardrop Cecilioides  dicaprio Named in honor of American actor Leonardo Dicaprio for using the medium of film to bring attention to the challenges facing our natural world and planet and promoting sustainable tourism in Belize.





Hicatee Awareness Month

We are thrilled to announce this October as the First Annual Hicatee Awareness Month! 

To kick off the month, the Turtle Survival Alliance, BFREE and Wildlife Film Productions will be releasing an exciting documentary providing a rare glimpse of the critically endangered hicatee turtle on October 2, 2017.

‘Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle,’ is a 16-minute natural history film produced by Emmy-award winning wildlife filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster. The critically endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii), known in Belize as the Hicatee, has been intensely harvested for its meat. The 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.

Make sure to save the date and begin telling your friends and family now! Once the film is released, we encourage you to host a viewing party at your home or in your community.

A Volunteer Toolkit will be made available in late September on the BFREE website. The Toolkit will include materials and info sheets for you to use at your viewing party. It will also include many ways to partake in the Hicatee Awareness Month.

Save the Date: 

October 2 – On World Habitat Day, ‘Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle,’ film will be released. Begin gathering your friends and family for viewing parties and send us photos of your events #SaveTheHicatee!

October 17 – National Hicatee Day in Belize, show your support from around the world and send us your #Shellfie wearing something green!

October is sure to be a turtley amazing shellebration

We will continue to share updates on Hicatee Awareness Month, please follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and our new Hicatee Center page on the BFREE Website!




Funding for the film was generously provided by Columbus Zoo & Aquarium Conservation Fund.

The Bladen Review 2017

The fourth 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 and educational projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize.



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

Belize is Our Classroom

Vermont Commons School Educators, Jennifer Cohen and Mark Cline Lucey on the beach of Placencia at the end of their student trip to Belize in January.

Vermont Commons School Educator, Social Studies Department Chair and Research & Service Program Director, Mark Cline Lucey is no stranger to Belize or the BFREE Field Station. Having first met BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, during his junior year of college while studying abroad in Belize. Mark returned several years later to live and work from the BFREE Field Station. In 2004, Mark joined the team at Vermont Commons School and soon after, he and Vermont Commons School English Instructor, Jennifer Cohen, began bringing student groups to Belize. Mark and Jennifer are passionate advocates for both Belize and BFREE having traveled with more than five student groups over the last ten years.

Mark and Jennifer both have an intimate knowledge of the players, wildlife, cultures and the developmental and political issues facing Belize. This depth of knowledge and understanding shines through their incredibly informational and inspiring field courses year after year.

We are so fortunate to work with many educators like Mark and Jennifer who are deeply invested in their students as well as the BFREE mission. Together we strive to inspire students to be global citizens, who care about their environment and recognize their role to take positive action.

Check out Mark and Jennifer’s group of incredibly smart and talented students and receive a glimpse of a BFREE field course through their eyes by watching this student made short-film documenting their trip to Belize in January, 2017:




Can Chocolate Save the Rainforest?

cacao podCan chocolate save the rainforest? BFREE has been exploring this question for many years, beginning when our certified organic shade-grown cacao demonstration farm was planted in 2006. Since then we have worked diligently to provide educational opportunities and support for those interested in learning more about the benefits of shade-grown cacao. We have offered workshops and training programs for local farmers which have provided Belizeans with the tools necessary to grow sustainable and successful crops. BFREE along with students of UNC Wilmington have co-produced ‘The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook.‘  This handbook is a resource manual for anyone interested in growing cacao in Belize.

Due to its high value and its success as an understory crop, cacao is proven to be a great alternative to other forms of agriculture in the tropics which generally require clearing of tropical rainforests and heavy input of agrochemicals.  Therefore, we have been promoting shade-grown cacao as a method for restoring the forest canopy and to help improve the lives of local farmers by offering higher income and healthier working environments, while also maintaining and expanding rainforests, and providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Growing chocolate is a win-win; it’s good for the environment and can improve farmers’ livelihoods.

cacao agroforest

Pedro Rash and Elmer Tzalam manage BFREE’s cacao agroforest.


Cacao Pod photo credit: Graham Byers

The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook

500 copies of the handbook are now available in Belize

500 copies were produced in the first handbook printing.

The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook is now complete and available in Belize. A joint effort between BFREE and UNC Wilmington’s Department of Environmental Studies with significant input from experts at the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, the handbook describes the benefits of sustainable agriculture for humans, wildlife and forests.

The 70-page manual is filled with illustrations and simple descriptions intended to guide farmers through the basics of land preparation, nursery management, planting, maintenance, harvest and post-harvest. The ‘Resource,’ section of the Handbook includes checklists, management schedules, and cultivation records, to help farmers track their farm activity and keep on schedule throughout the year. The hope is that this new handbook will provide a comprehensive resource for cacao farmers whether just starting out or experienced, and help promote organic cacao-based agroforestry practices as an alternative to traditional agriculture that often required clearing of rainforest and intensive agro-chemical inputs.

Five hundred handbooks were produced during the initial printing and will be made available to farmers in the Toledo District through farmer cooperatives, during meetings and workshops, in farm supply stores in Punta Gorda, at this year’s Chocolate Festival of Belize, and at the BFREE field station. In late January, the first books were distributed to BFREE staff who will share them with their village leaders and community members.

Partial funding for the Belize Cacao-based Agroforestry and Restoration Project (BCARP) is provided by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

BFREE staff with Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook

BFREE Staff members pose with their copies of The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook in January 2017 at the BFREE Field Station.      Standing from Left to Right – Carmelita Shol|San Felipe Village; Patron Coc|San Marcos Village; Apolonio Pop| Santa Cruz; Jacob Marlin| BFREE; Pedro Rash| Indian Creek.    Seated from Left to Right – Thomas Pop|Golden Stream Village, Thomas Chub|Indian Creek; Elmer Tzalam|Golden Stream Village; and Cesario Pop|Silver Creek.


Hicatee Health Check

Hicatee Health Checks 2016

Dr. Shane Boylan (left) performs ultrasounds on the female turtles to determine if there were eggs or follicles present. He is assisted by Dr. Thomas Rainwater while Tom Pop and Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand of Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic look on.

Between September 17 and 19, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) team joined BFREE staff in Belize during mid-September to perform annual health checks on all of the turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). The team consisted of Dr. Shane Boylan and Dr. Thomas Rainwater who were joined by Dr. Isabel Paquet, a veterinarian based out of the Belize’s Cayo District, Felicia Cruz and Gilberto Young of Belize Fisheries Department, Robert Mendyk of the Jacksonville Zoo, Dr. Ben Atkinson of Flagler College, Jacob Marlin and Tom Pop of BFREE, as well as Richard and Carol Foster, who were there to continue gathering footage for their documentary film.

Currently, there are 54 Hicatee at the center, including: 20 adult reproductive females, 16 confirmed males, many of which are either reproductive or just becoming reproductive, 6 sub-adults whose sex is yet to be determined, seven juveniles hatched in 2015 and five hatchlings from 2016.

Examinations revealed that 13 individuals previously thought to be female due to coloration have now been proven to be males because they have developed the distinct yellow head associated with adult male hicatee and are showing other signs of male sexual maturity.


Ms. Felicia Cruz, Belize Fisheries Officer and Dr. Ben Atkinson, Flagler College hold new recruits at the HCRC.

Ultrasounds performed by Shane Boylan, DVM from South Carolina Aquarium showed reproductive activity (eggs and follicles were present) in 20 of the females.  Based on these tests, we are hopeful that December will bring between 60-100 eggs. Additionally, the seven juveniles and the five recent hatchlings are all in good health and are continuing to grow.

In coming months, we will deploy a remote video camera powered by a solar system well as battery-operated camera traps in an attempt to document the females nesting. No nesting footage has ever been recorded on the Hicatee. In fact, this is the first time a captive population of Hicatee has been studied with such detail which will allow us to expand the existing knowledge on the species.

The captive breeding program continues to exceed our expectations and we anticipate it will continue growing exponentially. Current infrastructure is needed and will require immediate and extensive expansion. If you are interested in supporting our efforts to conserve this critically endangered river turtle as a donor, partner or volunteer, please contact Heather Barrett at

Hicatee Health Checks 2016

Robert Mendyk of the Jacksonville Zoo assists with measuring an adult male Hicatee.

Currently, Dermatemys mawii is classified as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), listed as endangered under the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Finalist in Wildlife Vaasa Film Festival

BFREE’s documentary film, “Wings of Hope,” was selected as a finalist in Finland’s Wildlife Vaasa – International Nature Film Festival. Created by Emmy-award winning filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster of Wildlife Film Productions, and produced by Carol Foster and Jacob Marlin of BFREE, the film is about the re-discovery of wild Harpy Eagles in Belize.  “Wings of Hope,” is being considered for a Special Award in the category of “Best Ethnographic Film (Man & Nature)” and will be judged against 15 other finalists from countries including Ghana, Nepal, Russia, Serbia, Peru, Italy, India, Estonia and the USA.

"Wings of Hope," a documentary film on Harpy Eagles in Belize, will be included in the Wildlife Vaasa Film Festival in Finland later this year.

“Wings of Hope,” a documentary film about the re-discovery of wild Harpy Eagles in Belize, will be included in the Wildlife Vaasa Film Festival in Finland later this year. Photograph by Kai Reed.

This year, Vaasa Wildlife Festival  received a total of 922 submissions from 83 countries, which was a  new record for the festival. From that original submission, 218 films from 54 countries were selected to be shown in the festival and to compete for awards. Submissions come from film companies, TV companies, production companies, independent producers, filmmakers, festivals, TV- broadcasters and journalists, as well as from newcomers and established professionals.

About Wildlife Vaasa International Nature Film Festival

Wildlife Vaasa International Nature film festival is located on the West Coast of Finland, and has been held in the city of Vaasa every second year, since 2002. Since its conception, it has grown in stature receiving commendation from participants, delegates, media and the public world-wide. The upcoming 8th biennial edition of the festival will take place from September 28 to October 2, 2016. The competition aims to raise public awareness , as well as to participate in a global dialogue about Nature and The Environment. Therefore, only Nature and Science documentaries related to Nature and produced after 2013 were accepted in the competition. The festival’s special themes in 2016 are ENERGY & GLOBAL WARMING. Wildlife Vaasa Festival is the only film festival of its kind in Scandinavia.

About “Wings of Hope”

In 2015, BFREE released, “Wings of Hope, a film chronicling the re-discovery of a population of wild Harpy Eagles in the Maya Mountains of southern Belize. The film details the history of the BFREE and UNC Wilmington initiative born from this discovery – the Integrated Community-based Harpy Eagle and Avian Conservation Program.  This 20-minute documentary is rich with breathtaking footage of adult and juvenile Harpy Eagles and other wildlife and vistas found in the pristine tropical forests of the Bladen Nature Reserve. Over the seven year duration of the project, the Fosters followed project trainees William Garcia, Liberato Pop, Alejandro Cholum and Thomas Pop as they work to learn about and ultimately save this rare bird and its diminishing habitat.

“The story captures the essence of BFREE’s mission. I think of it as a model for integrating science, education and conservation.” Jacob Marlin, Executive Director of BFREE.

In August and September 2015, the film was shown in schools and community centers throughout the Toledo District of Belize in order to raise awareness of the significance of continuing to protect wilderness areas like the Bladen Nature Reserve and the greater Maya Mountains. Over 1,100 people were reached during those events.

Liberato Pop and William Garcia pose with students at Julian Cho High School after a film showing in 2015

Liberato Pop (center) and William Garcia (right) pose with students at Julian Cho Technical High School after a film showing

Liberato Pop of Bladen Village was one of the project trainees and is featured throughout the film. In recent years, he has worked all over Belize doing bird research using expertise gained from his years of experience as an avian technician for the project. Mr. Pop, along with Mr. William Garcia of Trio Village, represented BFREE and answered questions about their work during film showings in 2015.

Mr. Pop says of the film, “As an Avian Technician at BFREE, I am very excited about the Harpy Eagle film and the work we have done. I think that many students and parents were interested to learn about the value of what we have in our protected areas.”

Project trainees include: Abidas Ash, Alejandro Cholum, Alan Romero, Frank Perez, Henry Perez, Liberato Pop, Macario Coy, Marlyn Cruz, Pedro Pop, Roni Florian, Sipriano Canti, Thomas Pop, William Garcia, and Wilfred Mutrie

Latest Hicatee turtle hatchlings for the HCRC


Hicatee hatchling by Carol Foster

Hicatee hatchling by Carol Farneti Foster

On May 6 and 7, four Hicatee turtles hatched under the watchful eyes of wildlife filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster, who documented the exciting events. They captured this amazing footage. The Fosters’ were contracted by the Turtle Survival Alliance and BFREE to produce a short documentary film in order to to improve local awareness and appreciation for the uniqueness and the plight of the Hicatee across its small range of southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize. The film will focus on the turtle’s status in Belize and will describe its rapid decline due to over-hunting (for the purpose of human consumption), and will highlight current conservation efforts.

Ten eggs were laid by an adult hicatee at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center on December 14, 2015. Seven were deemed viable and four were transferred to the Fosters’ residence outside of Belmopan for incubation at a constant temperature of 29 degrees celcius in hopes of producing females. The rest of the clutch remained at BFREE for incubation at ambient temperature. After 149 of incubation at the Fosters’ residence outside of Belmopan, four turtles emerged – tiny and healthy.  This was 44 days sooner than last year’s seven hatchlings, which emerged after 193 days of incubation at ambient temperature!  We are still waiting for the remaining two viable eggs from the December 14 clutch to hatch.

Initial funding for the film is being provided by the Columbus Zoo and the Houston Zoo.

“Wings of Hope” premiere in Gainesville, Florida

In US for BFREE’s home town of Gainesville, Florida our documentary “Wings of Hope” was shown at the 7th annual Cinema Verde International Film Festival. The festival showcased over 30 films from around the world with a goal “to increase public awareness about environmental practices that enhance public health and that improve the quality of life for all.” The Festival also served as a forum for community organizations, businesses, and citizens to discuss ways to work together to create a sustainable culture.

Juvenile harpy eagle - Photo by Kai Reed

Juvenile harpy eagle – Photo by Kai Reed

“Wings of Hope,” is a 20-minute documentary that chronicles the re-discovery of a population of wild Harpy Eagles in the Maya Mountains of southern Belize. The documentary showcases the history of the BFREE and University of North Carolina, Wilmington initiative born from this discovery – the Integrated Community-based Harpy Eagle and Avian Conservation Program. Created by Emmy-award winning filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster of Wildlife Film Productions, and narrated by Jacob Marlin, this film is rich with breath-taking footage of adult and juvenile Harpy eagles and other wildlife and vistas found in the pristine tropical forests of the Bladen Nature Reserve. Over the seven year duration of the project, the Fosters followed project trainees William Garcia, Liberato Pop, Alejandro Cholum and Thomas Pop as they work to learn about and ultimately protect this rare bird and its diminishing habitat.

BFREE was honored to have “Wings of Hope” shown as part of the Cinema Verde International Film Festival at the Hippodrome State Theater. Following the film, BFREE Director Jacob Marlin along with members of the Alachua Audubon Society answered questions from viewers about harpy eagles, migratory birds and how we can all work together to best protect them.

Haven’t seen “Wings of Hope”? Watch it here.