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.


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:




Agami Heron Study at BFREE

Agami Heron at the Agami Lagoon - Photo by Rick Hudson

Agami Heron at the Agami Lagoon in September 2015 – Photo by Rick Hudson

During 2016, BFREE began gathering data on Agami Herons and their nesting site on the edge of BFREE’s property, the Agami Lagoon. Students, staff and other visitors have helped with the project by recording their observations and specifically by counting pairs and nests. Because Agamis are only at the lagoon during their nesting season – from approximately late May through the end of each year, many visitors were only able to document the birds’ absence. However, because there is also a healthy population of Boat-billed herons year-round, we have begun documenting their numbers as well.

Juvenile Anhingas in a nest near 9 nests of Agami Herons in September 2016

The Agami Lagoon is rich with wildlife. Three fledgling Anhingas were seen on a nest very close to the Agami Herons in September 2016.

9 nests with adult Agami Herons were identified in September 2016. 5 fledglings and 4 eggs were also observed.

Nine nests with adult Agami Herons were observed throughout September 2016. Five fledglings and four eggs have been confirmed in the nests.

BFREE began this research after learning of the newly formed Agami Heron Conservation Working Group in late 2015 from Dr. Emily McKinnon, a bird biologist who completed her PhD research at BFREE. At that time, the working group had no documentation of nesting sites in Belize and they were eager for us to being collecting information that would help better their understanding of how many colonies exist.  Heather Barrett is currently representing BFREE and reporting findings to the Working Group. We anticipate that the study will continue to develop in coming years.

The Agami Heron (Agamia agami) is a medium sized heron with stunning plumage. This reclusive bird is sometimes known as the chestnut-bellied heron, due to the color of its neck and underparts.

Information from the Agami Heron Conservation Working Group on the current conservation status:

The Agami Heron is considered to be Vulnerable by Birdlife International / IUCN Red List because the population is expected to decline rapidly over the next three generations due to loss of its habitat (as predicted by a model of Amazonian deforestation) and possibly also due to hunting (BirdLife International, 2012). Unfortunately, in fact, nearly nothing is known about population size or trend. However there can be no doubt that habitat destruction is its greatest threat, and that of the Amazon one of particular importance as it covers so much of its overall range. There is no information that suggests that the overall population is large, despite its large overall range. Perhaps more importantly, it is now documented to be a congregatory species, apparently dependent on few large colony sites scattered over its large range. This clearly makes it vulnerable to disturbances at those sites as well as to loss of feeding habitat associated with colonies and in the nonbreeding season. Evidence suggests that in some places (Peru) egg collecting affects local populations. Only a few colony sites now are known, and it is likely that its dependence on relatively few nesting sites, any of which may be subject to habitat loss, makes it vulnerable.

Click here to read the full Agami Heron Conservation Plan.



Emily Buege – Fish Research on the Bladen River

Emily Buege and Melito Bustamante during their cichlid study.

Emily Buege and Melito Bustamante in the Bladen River while studying cichlids. Pic by Tyler Sanville

My name is Emily Buege, and I’m a master’s student in the geography department at the University of Alabama.  I’m finishing my first year in the program with my thesis fieldwork at BFREE!  Originally from Dakota, Minnesota, I grew up on a state park, so I’ve always been close to nature.  I obtained my undergrad degree in biology just down the road at Winona State University (WSU) in spring 2015.

At WSU, I met Dr. Jennifer Cochran-Biederman (then Mrs.), someone who would become one of the most influential people in my life. Jennifer’s master’s thesis had been on the diets of cichlids in the Bladen River and she based out of BFREE. In 2012, I participated in a student trip to Belize that she organized for Winona students. Never traveling to the tropics before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Having the BFREE experience lessened the appeal of more tourist-based attractions for me.  The wildlife is only part of that experience; the scenery, food, company, and accommodations were also big factors that drew me back for my master’s.

I’m interested in all animal taxa – butterflies to jaguar – but I chose a fish-based master’s project because my advisor is a river specialist.  My initial plan was to study African tilapia – a highly invasive and destructive species throughout Belize (and much of the rest of the world).  I got to Belize and found 3 individuals within reasonable working distance from BFREE, which isn’t exactly enough for an entire study!  So, I redirected my research to nesting sites of native cichlids. (Hopefully it’s a testament to BFREE that I was willing to change the entire focus of my study rather than my study site!)

Emily and Sarah Praskievicz in the Bladen River.

Emily and Sarah Praskievicz in the Bladen River. Pic by T. Sanville


During my time in Belize, I closely analyzed the habitat in the stretch of river near the BFREE crossing and up to Blue Pool.  Melito Bustamante, my field guide, and Sarah Praskievicz, my advisor, worked with me during different phases of my study. We noted locations of as many cichlid nests as we could find, and I hope to build a map that reveals the condition types each of four main species prefers to nest in.  I’ll be using the data I collected while in Belize to shape my thesis over the next year.

When not in the river, I went for walks in the forest.  Melito is an incredible birder, so when we went for walks together, I learned an incredible amount about the bird community here – toucans, tanagers, tinamous.  I also encountered a tayra (aka bush dog) near the river; I had never heard of that species until I read about it in a book the night before we sighted it!  Another highlight that was different than my last trip was that I had the incredible opportunity to really get to know the staff!  I’ve really connected with people I would never have gotten the chance to meet if I weren’t doing this project.

For me, this whole experience has been a lesson in taking life one day at a time.  I’m a planner, so I struggled when my project changed.  On top of that, I developed an ear infection, Melito got sick and had to leave, and other various challenges arose as I worked through my time at BFREE.

If I were to offer advice to other researches it would be to prepare for everything to go according to plan, but know that it might not!  Also, work hard, but don’t let opportunities to experience great things slip away.  Finally, get up early and go birding or stay up late and get to know the staff.  It all goes by so fast, and you don’t want to leave feeling like you missed out!

A note of thanks:

I want to extend a big thank you to everyone who helped me out during my stay!  Between seeking remedies for infections and looking for help in the field, I feel that I kept everyone at BFREE busy.  I’m so grateful for all the physical and moral support that I’ve received throughout this experience. Also, many thanks to both my advisors, Dr. Sarah Praskievicz who helped me immensely with the execution of physical habitat sampling and Dr. Peter Esselman who provided invaluable biological guidance in selecting not one, but two, projects. THANK YOU!

P.S. Despite a somewhat chaotic change of research topic at the beginning of my trip, I’m still hoping to continue on with a PhD after my master’s. I’m not sure what animal taxa I envision working on next, but there’s a neotropical river otter that I’ve caught on my fish cameras that seems to be asking me to study it!