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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.

 

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.

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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 hbarrett@bfreebz.org.

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).