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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”

 

 
 

 

Summer Intern Spotlight: Parr McQueen

Parr McQueen, an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond traveled to Belize with BFREE earlier this year along with thirteen other classmates. The Field Course led by Dr. Amy Treonis and Dr. Kristine Grayson was focused on using experiential field methods to learn how scientists study the natural world.

Inspired by his trip and what he learned during his semester-long course, Parr returned to BFREE this summer. For just over a month, Parr spent his time working in the field, collecting data to support his research examining cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. When he wasn’t busy taking soil samples, Parr explored the many trails around BFREE snapping incredible photos of the wildlife he discovered.

We are so fortunate to have hosted Parr for the second time this year. We can’t wait to see all of the great things he will accomplish!

My Summer Internship at BFREE

By: Parr McQueen 

Earlier this summer I had the fantastic opportunity to stay at the BFREE field station for five weeks as part of the summer internship program. As a current undergraduate student at the University of Richmond, this was a great educational opportunity for me. Doing anything from assisting with the care of the Hickatee turtles to working with school groups, I was able to experience the rainforest more than any week-long field course could offer. This was an incredible experience with too many good memories to write about and has certainly made me grow, providing a stepping stone for future career prospects. In addition to the internship program, I made use of my time in Belize to conduct my own research.

My research examines cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. In much of the developing world, forests are being cut down at increasing rates for traditional agriculture. Slash and burn farming is prevalent and it is occurring right up to protected area boundaries, reducing habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change. Deforestation in the tropics has been estimated to make up 29% of the total emissions from fossil fuels and other sources that cause global warming.

BFREE has an ongoing project to help promote cacao agroforestry, which is a much more sustainable farming method that still provides income for local farmers. This is a way of planting cacao, the raw product to make chocolate, within the established rainforest instead of in a traditional field. Rather than cutting the forest to the ground, smaller plants are thinned out and large trees are left in place. In many studies, this has been shown to preserve biodiversity by providing habitat for avian and mammalian species, but no work at all has been done examining how the microorganisms are affected. With the help of Dr. Amy Treonis, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond, I am attempting to answer this important question.

While in Belize, I sampled soil from replicate cacao agroforestry farms and the adjacent undisturbed rainforest. Currently, in Richmond, I am in the middle of processing the soils to extract microscopic nematode worms. Nematodes are a commonly studied microorganism and are a good indicator species of soil health. I will be looking at the makeup of the nematode communities present in the soils to get an idea of the health of the soil in the agroforestry systems compared to the health in the undisturbed rainforest. This research is important because we need to know if the cacao agroforestry is impacting the health and biodiversity within the soil. While we can see the colorful birds and cute mammals prospering, we have no idea if the microorganisms in the soil are thriving or not. Healthy soil microorganisms carry out critical nutrient cycling and decomposition processes that are essential to having a fully functioning ecosystem.

Overall I had a wonderful time at the BFREE field station and was able to learn a lot, by fully immersing myself in the day-to-day operations, while at the same time strengthening my own personal research program.

 

2017 BFREE Field Courses

BFREE 2017 Field Course Season wraps up this month with 172 students and instructors visiting the Field Station from as far as Scotland and Alaska. Eleven courses in total, including two junior colleges and one primary school from Belize, all traveled to our small slice of paradise off the Southern Highway.

BFREE field courses are each uniquely developed by the lead instructors and BFREE staff. Courses are created to reflect each school’s curriculum and goals. While each group is different, visitors to BFREE share many similar challenging and rewarding experiences.

Upon arrival to Belize, each group is welcomed at the airport by a BFREE Tour Guide. If you have the pleasure to be greeted by Nelly Cadle then you know you are in for a treat! Nelly’s experience, knowledge, and passion for her country and work are hard to match.

The hike from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station is a memory hard to forget. Traversing several distinct habitats, each with unique plants and animals, leads you to the Bladen River, towering cecropia trees, and your final destination — The BFREE Field Station.

While at BFREE, groups not only learn about the various ongoing program work but have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with first-hand experience supporting BFREE’s conservation initiatives. Students have the opportunity to visit the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a breeding and research facility for the critically endangered hicatee turtle as well as the 15-acre cacao and coffee agroforest, home to over 12,000 cacao trees.

Assigned by their instructors, many students are tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data while spending several days working on independent projects.

Students may choose to participate in various field experiments such as conducting river studies in the Bladen River, setting up small mammal traps for the Small Mammal Community Study or surveying selected plots in the Fruit Phenology Study.

In addition to the BFREE Field Station, many groups incorporate a marine component, learning about the second largest barrier reef system in the world, snorkeling from various islands around Belize.

There is nothing quite like traveling to a remote field station deep in a tropical rainforest to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

On behalf of all of us at BFREE, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the instructors, administrators, students, and parents that helped make the 2017 BFREE Field Season one of the best yet! We can’t wait to see you all again!

If you are interested in visiting BFREE, whether it be a student group, family vacation, solo adventure or interest in volunteering, we would be thrilled to have you! Contact BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville at tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information.

 

2017 BFREE Field Courses 

 

For even more Field Course information check out these links below: 

University of Richmond Story Map

Click the link above to visit the University of Richmond’s Story Map put together by the fourteen students that visited BFREE this year.

Vermont Commons School Video: Belize is Our Classroom!

Vermont Commons School creates a compelling video documenting their trip to BFREE, check it out on YouTube: Belize is Our Classroom! 

Volunteer with BFREE

BFREE is now looking for volunteers to work with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and the nearly 70 newly hatched hicatee turtles. Visit the link below for more info!

BFREE flickr Page

Find even more photos from the 2017 BFREE Field Course season on flickr!

Slideshow on Student Alumni Facebook Group

Watch all the group photos from 2017 in this slideshow on the BFREE Student Alumni Group Page. If you are a student alum, be sure to follow along!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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).

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!