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The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements

by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP)

The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) has partnered with Dr. Lambert A. Motilal to create a comprehensive evaluation of all cacao-growing countries around the world. The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements is a 300-page review is comprised with riveting information regarding the history, genetics, flavor profiles, and cultivation areas of each country.

The purpose of the review is to enrich readers with the understanding of cacao origins, migrations and explorations of cacao varieties have taken place over time, and where future collections should be focused.

Cacao is an important tree crop impacting on livelihoods of millions of farming families in tropical and sub-tropical countries worldwide. This review serves to help conserve cocoa genetic diversity by identifying places for in situ collection and germplasm collection for ex situ genebanks.

To celebrate the launch of The Review, Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director and HCP President, participated in a webinar with Dr. Motilal and Anne Zaczek, HCP Executive Director. The event was hosted by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) as part of their on-going webinar series.

You can now download your copy of #TheReview on at the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund website! We encourage cacao enthusiasts to donate to the research efforts that made this publication possible, and to support future research possibilities, Heirloom cacao, and HCP farmers.

The Science of Fine Chocolate

by Jacob Marlin

The flavor attributes of chocolate, especially fine flavor chocolate, is determined by numerous factors: 1. Genetics of the cacao, 2. The farming practices implemented, 3. The location, biophysical features, and climactic conditions of where it is grown (also called terrior), 4. The time of harvest, 5. Fermentation protocols, 6. Drying methods, and finally the chocolate-making including, 7. Roasting and, 8. The final recipe. Each of these factors has tremendous variability and requires specific expertise to successfully implement the management and interventions.

Fermentation is a critical aspect in flavor development and final acidity of a finished chocolate bar. You can’t hide bad fermentation in chocolate. If the beans are over-fermented, they yield an undesirable, wet “barnyard” type flavor. If they are under-fermented, the results are an astringent attack on your tastebuds that causes your mouth to pucker.

Even with the best farming practices producing the finest beans, if the fermentation is not done to its fullest potential the results will be disappointing at best. Our work to determine this important stage in producing some of the world’s finest chocolate is an important part of our current efforts.

BFREE began a collaboration with Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, to begin to determine the best fermentation protocols for Criollo cacao. Crioco Cacao’s Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, and I managed the fermentation experiment at the BFREE Field Station. Because there is no information on successful fermentation of the rare and ancient Criollo cacao, we had to undertake our methods based on limited information. We instituted three separate fermentation protocols and upon completion sent these batches to Dancing Lion Chocolate, where my good friend and colleague Rich Tango-Lowy and my son, Shaman Marlin, processed the beans into chocolate using a standardized roasting methodology. These three profiles were then molded into exquisite artfully designed hand crafted limited release specialty chocolate bars. Dancing Lion Chocolates is not your typical chocolate shop. Each bar is a work of art – visually dazzling and delicious. And chocolate is made in small batches and only one time in that exact way, they never repeat the same recipe twice. Rich has used BFREE Criollo cacao in the past on a few specialty bars and bonbons. After visiting BFREE with his wife, Torene, and Dancing Lion’s Baker, Donna McLintock, we began a conversation on how to improve and refine our fermentation methods.

I’m thrilled to announce that our initial collaboration was a success. Chocolate from these three different batches will be sold this year through Dancing Lion Chocolate. I’m especially proud to acknowledge Shaman Marlin who has been working at Dancing Lion for over a year and was responsible for making the chocolate in these bars! A very limited supply will be available in the shop and online after Thanksgiving. The bars can be identified by Criollo I, Criollo II, and Criollo III.

By determining the best fermentation protocols based on continuous feedback, revisions can be made until the process reveals the unique flavor attributes intrinsic to this unique cacao. In 2016, the BFREE cacao beans and chocolate were designated “heirloom fine flavor” by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), one of only 16 cacao varieties throughout the world to receive such an honor. In order to get designated “Heirloom Fine Flavor”, beans are submitted to HCP blind, meaning the chocolate maker, in collaboration with Guittard Chocolate, does not know where the beans were sourced. Once made into chocolate liquor and chocolate, it is tasted, also blind, by a 9-person panel made up of the world’s most expert chocolate tasters. If the flavor meets a very high mark, the beans are designated Heirloom. Based on those results and additional feedback and reviews, we are confident that this Criollo cacao is unlike any other cacao in the world, and this inspires us to continue our efforts to master the process, from the nursery to fermentation to chocolate bar.

From Bean to Bar: BFREE’s cacao program bears fruit

by Jacob Marlin

Over the past three years, BFREE has been doing research and experimentation to develop a model for farming the BFREE Criollo cacao, under its for-profit – Crioco Cacao, LLC. The goal is to create healthy and productive trees that yield cacao beans that are ultimately made into some of the world’s best Heirloom Fine Flavor chocolate. So, we are experimenting with creating conditions in the farm as well post-harvesting protocols including fermentation and drying techniques. Our work is challenging and requires a lot of innovation. Primarily because this cacao has been growing in isolation on BFREE property for thousands of years and has not been worked with by anyone in the cacao industry.

Specifically, experiments have focused on fine-scaled management of the farm setting to provide the optimal conditions for cacao tree health. This includes planting and managing temporary and permanent shade trees, as this variety of cacao has been growing under the natural canopy of the rainforest for thousands of years, and requires a lot of shade. To date, we have planted over 10,000 criollo cacao trees and an equal amount of shade trees representing 25 soil enriching native forest and fruit tree species. The work begins in the nursery with very specific protocols including grafting robust seedlings with clonal material from the most productive criollo trees on site, and continues as the young trees are transplanted into the farm. Specific pruning protocols, of both the cacao and shade trees is a constant endeavor, and careful management is required as each tree has its own unique set of conditions and expressions. Organic nutrition is applied throughout the year, and regular observations and adaptive management takes place as the dry and rainy seasons set in. Extensive data is collected throughout the year, providing the basis for improving management and adapting the conditions to best reflect the perceived requirements of this rare and unusual cacao.   

Historically, much of the available literature states that cacao trees with a high percentage of criollo genetics are very difficult to get optimal productivity because of low yield, are prone to disease and pests, and are difficult to cultivate on a commercial scale. However, initial results from our work suggest otherwise. We are finding that with careful and specific management activities, this unique variety of 100% Criollo genetics shows promise that it can be highly productive given the right conditions.

After three years of trial and error plus the hard work of our staff as well as meaningful contributions from expert advisors, we are narrowing in on the exact conditions for the trees to thrive. As the pictures below illustrate, trees in the best condition are showing very high levels of productivity after just two years and promise to bear fruit in the years to come. These early results keep us working toward our goal to create a thriving cacao agroforestry system which restores forests and provides habitat for a wide array of wildlife species while also providing some of the world’s finest chocolate to the consumer while simultaneously providing a sustainable climate smart source of revenue for BFREE to further achieve our important conservation work.


Re-wilding Hicatee into Belize’s rivers

BFREE, with the help of our dedicated partners, implemented three (3) separate Hicatee turtle release events for 2022. The first release event was conducted on the 1st of April 2022 when fifty-five (55) juveniles and hatchlings were released into a river in north central Belize. The release was done by BFREE’s Tom Pop and Jonathan Dubon with the support of community members.

The second release event was conducted on the 2nd of June 2022 when forty five (45) turtles were released into another river system also in north central Belize. The release was conducted by Belize Turtle Ecology Lab (BTEL) and students from Dr. Day Ligon’s Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State University, USA.

The third release event was conducted on the 17th of June 2022 and was the biggest release to date. A total of one hundred and twenty-four (124) juveniles were released into the wild in central Belize. BFREE staff, Dr. Ed Boles, Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon and Barney Hall, were responsible for transporting and releasing all of the turtles. The location was chosen based on two factors. The first factor was that many of the adults that parented the juveniles were from this watershed, and previous data collected confirmed that this population has been heavily depleted. The second factor is related to research. This specific location allows for BFREE and its partner institutions to track and conduct long-term monitoring, and the habitat is healthy and provides the natural requirements needed for the population to rebound over time.

Jacob Marlin, BFREE’ Executive Director, states, “The reintroductions or rewilding of captive bred Hicatee from the HCRC at BFREE is a critical part of a much broader effort to prevent the extinction of this critically endangered species of turtle. By monitoring the survivorship and overall health of released turtles, and comparing the results to wild turtles of similar age and size, we can better understand the efficacy of and probability that our program can help re-establish and augment populations that have been severely depleted where they once were abundant.”

Over the last three years, with the support of our partners, BFREE has successfully released 415 captive born and raised Hicatee turtles in five different water bodies in central Belize. These turtles have been reintroduced into two watersheds where their populations have been severely depleted. Our reintroduction programs include both short and long-term monitoring, which will help us determine the success of this project. Several of the releases included the participation of community members to further expand our outreach efforts. 

As always, a special thanks to our partner, Turtle Survival Alliance, for their consistent and faithful support of Hicatee conservation in Belize.

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.

Introducing #CantiCam

Puma or Mountain Lion caught on BFREE Camera Traps 2021

This July, BFREE launched a new wildlife monitoring program with Panthera Wildlife Cameras. These cameras are designed to endure the wet, humid rainforest conditions and are perfect for the BFREE Privately Protected Area. Protected Areas Manager and Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, is tasked with managing the project. Canti states “With this monitoring program, we are playing an important role in identifying the wildlife that utilize the property. Not only for their homes but as a pass through to the neighboring protected areas.”

Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger, checking a wildlife camera in the young cacao agroforest

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, has identified three goals for the project. 1. Several cameras will be situated in the cacao agroforest and will look at the species utilizing the area and their abundance over time; 2. Monitor and observe the species found throughout different parts of the reserve; and 3. Contribute to a regional jaguar monitoring research program.

Fun with Social Media

The wildlife cameras are also giving us a great opportunity to share with our audience the many cool things that move around the property on a daily (and nightly) basis. Look out for regular updates under these themes and more! #TapirTuesday #WildcatWednesday #FurryFriday #CantiCam

TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey at BFREE

Last month, the BFREE reserve became the focus of a mark-recapture survey by the Turtle Survival Alliance’s – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG).  After a year’s delay due to the COVID pandemic, the team was thrilled to get approval from Belize Fisheries Department to implement their research.

The TSA-NAFTRG team’s goals included establishing safe protocols for surveying freshwater turtles on the property, training BFREE staff on those methods, locating appropriate long-term survey sites and completing an initial assessment. Their timing couldn’t have been better: with the onset of rainy season, creeks were flowing, puddles formed regularly and turtles were everywhere.

The TSA-NAFTRG team of Eric Munscher, Arron Tuggle, Andy Weber, Collin McAvinchey, and J. Brian Hauge  were joined by BFREE staff, Tom Pop, and Jonathan Dubon as well as BFREE Fellowship Program Alum, Jaren Serano, who helped with the survey just prior to returning to the U.S. for grad school. TSA COO, Andrew Walde, and TSA Board Member/ WCS Coordinator for Turtle Conservation, Brian Horne, were also present and able to spend time in the field during the survey.

This initial assessment was deemed an incredible success with 227 turtles captured, marked, measured and safely released. Turtles found included Meso-American Slider, White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, and the Furrowed Wood Turtle – representing seven of Belize’s nine freshwater turtles. (Fun fact: the Central American River turtle/ Hicatee is the only Belizean freshwater turtle that does not naturally occur on the BFREE reserve!)

We are grateful to the TSA-NAFTRG team for supplying us with the expertise and field equipment needed to ensure this survey continues and we look forward to their return trip next July!

Land Snails of Belize Book Receives Five-Star Reviews!

In 2019, we shared that 17 new land snails were discovered in Belize by husband and wife team, Dan and Judy Dourson, and their colleague, Dr. Ron Caldwell.

Before the team’s research began in 2006, only 24 species of land snails were reported from Belize. Over the next decade, a total of 158 native land snails with 17 species new to science were documented. The Dourson’s spent seven of those years living at BFREE, and the BFREE Field Station became home-base for the snail research team for over a decade.

The 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 is presented as a reference to both the biologist and citizen scientist alike and includes a brief history of research in the region, status of current research, how to collect land snails, shell morphology, anatomy and terminology, and species accounts. The book contains more than 750 color images and diagnostic features highlighted for each of the 158 species.

Five-star reviews for the book, Land Snails of Belize:

Since the release of their book, we have heard from many just how useful this resource has been. But don’t just take our word for it, read some of the reviews below! And be sure to pick up your own copy here: Purchase Land Snails of Belize on Amazon

“I just received my copy of this book and I write to commend you. I am not a malacologist so I can not speak to the technical taxonomic aspects of the work. However, I have written a few natural history books and collected many hundreds more. Based on this, I think that you have produced a masterpiece of natural history- a work that will inspire me and many others to learn about and work on this fascinating group. Thank you. I look forward to seeing some of your other books on this topic.”

– Adrian Forsyth, author of, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America

“There are many photo guide books for marine shells (and mammals, birds, reptiles, and so on) in Central America, but none for land snails. These guide books are useful for biologists and those of related professions to keep track of all the taxa and to teach students or explain or show something to someone who is not an invertebrate expert. And they are wonderful for nature lovers who want to identify something in their backyard. Land snails in the tropics have an amazing amount of diversity, and we’re just starting to understand their different niches, behaviors, and relationships.

This book is up-to-date with most of the (albeit limited) studies on land snails in Belize. The scientific names are correct (at least for now), the organization of the book is very clear to follow, the descriptions are useful, the photos are fantastic, and the maps with known localities are incredibly useful. This is a valuable book for invertebrate enthusiasts in the tropics. The background at the beginning regarding snail behavior (as well as throughout the book, where relevant), along with associated pictures (wolfsnails attacking prey, various animals interacting with snails like the snake on the cover) are very useful, making this more than just a book on identifications and bringing these snails to life. It also has beautiful drawings and close-up photos of shell patterns and ridging for identification, including different colormorphs of the same species.

In addition to land snails in Belize, there are some useful sections regarding freshwater invertebrates (also, alas, understudied in this region of the world) and slugs. For invertebrate enthusiasts, this is a great guide with beautiful photos and some funny sketches. For anyone who works with these critters in and around Belize, it’s an absolutely excellent resource.”

– Anzu

“If you are interested in the snail of this region you must get this. It’s also well done, informative in general ways, and the ways of snails. A great work, and necessary if you’re a snailologist. (FYI that’s not really a word).”

– B. J. Stephen

Land Snail Citizen Science in Belize:

If you are in Belize, visit our blog, Un-Belizeable Land Snail Activity to learn how you can participate in citizen science. Submit your snail findings by email to contact@bfreebz.org. Download Land Snail Diversity of Belize card here.

BFREE Receives Porras Conservation Award

  It’s not often international wildlife conferences hold their annual meeting so close to home. Fortunately, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) chose Belize City as the base for their 42nd gathering and we are so glad they did!    The International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) provides a forum for the dissemination of information and research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, captive management, and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to showcase the herpetological conservation taking place in Belize.    BFREE Staff, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, and Jaren Serano, attended the conference and presented on various topics. Dr. Marisa Tellez of the Crocodile Research Coalition also provided local perspective on conservation in Belize and several student presenters from southern Belize’s Independence Junior College highlighted research questions and projects pertaining to reptiles and amphibians in the country.    At the close of the conference, BFREE was given the Porras Conservation Award. This award is granted in recognition of lifelong achievements in and contributions to field biology. The award is presented to a speaker (or – in this case – an organization) who has demonstrated that their work represents exceptional accomplishments in the field that benefit herpetological conservation. We are pleased and honored to have our work recognized in this way.  

BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director, provided the keynote presentation. “The Herpetofauna of Belize, 30 Years of Observations, Myths, Facts and Hot Spots”  

Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director, presented “Awareness Messaging as a Tool for the survival of the world’s most endangered turtle family”  

Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow, presented “Turtle or Fish? Investigations into captive management and reproductive biology of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawaii), at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, Belize”    

BFREE Receives Porras Conservation Award

 
It’s not often international wildlife conferences hold their annual meeting so close to home. Fortunately, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) chose Belize City as the base for their 42nd gathering and we are so glad they did! 
 
The International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) provides a forum for the dissemination of information and research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, captive management, and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to showcase the herpetological conservation taking place in Belize. 
 
BFREE Staff, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, and Jaren Serano, attended the conference and presented on various topics. Dr. Marisa Tellez of the Crocodile Research Coalition also provided local perspective on conservation in Belize and several student presenters from southern Belize’s Independence Junior College highlighted research questions and projects pertaining to reptiles and amphibians in the country. 
 
At the close of the conference, BFREE was given the Porras Conservation Award. This award is granted in recognition of lifelong achievements in and contributions to field biology. The award is presented to a speaker (or – in this case – an organization) who has demonstrated that their work represents exceptional accomplishments in the field that benefit herpetological conservation. We are pleased and honored to have our work recognized in this way.
 

BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director, provided the keynote presentation. “The Herpetofauna of Belize, 30 Years of Observations, Myths, Facts and Hot Spots”
 
Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director, presented “Awareness Messaging as a Tool for the survival of the world’s most endangered turtle family”
 
Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow, presented “Turtle or Fish? Investigations into captive management and reproductive biology of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawaii), at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, Belize”