Habitats for Hatchling Hicatees

by Jordan Gray

A relative newcomer to the TSA scene, PhD candidate Nichole Bishop has been working in collaboration with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education’s (BFREE) Hicatee Conservation Research Center (HCRC) for the last two years. Through the discipline of Nutritional Ecology, her efforts should help to maximize the captive-husbandry effort and reproductive potential for the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) at the HCRC. Last month, Nichole and her husband Mark once again traveled to the jungles of Belize to construct new captive-rearing infrastructure for “Hicatee” turtles expected to hatch this summer. Below is Nichole’s latest blog from Belize.

Nichole Bishop

The HCRC at the BFREE is expecting more than 100 Central American River Turtle or “Hicatee” hatchlings this summer; very exciting news for this critically endangered freshwater species! However, the facility’s current infrastructure does not support proper enclosures to securely house this large recruitment of new additions. Therefore, I began designing new infrastructure that could house all the new hatchlings and would be conducive to operating in a remote jungle location. After months of planning and preparation, it was finally time to take plans on paper and turn them into reality.

Three months prior to our travel, my husband Mark and I retrieved the necessary supplies for building the nursery. We fully constructed a “mock-nursery” in our backyard so that we could work out all the “kinks” before constructing the “real-thing” in Belize. The nursery consists of ten stock tanks connected by an elaborate plumbing system, with water pumped in by a submersible pump from a nearby well. The entire system is powered by solar panels. We would eventually name the facility “Two Tom’s Turtle Nursery” after the HCRC’s manager, Tom Pop, and Thomas Rainwater, who provided the necessary support to complete this project. Both Toms also helped collect the founding adult population. On Wednesday, June 14th we departed Florida for a 5-day trip back into the Belizean jungle to build the “Two Tom’s Turtle Nursery”.

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"Two Toms Turtle Nursery" schematic.

Wednesday, June 14th ‚Äì We arrived at the international airport in Belize City, Belize mid-morning. My husband and I had driven to Miami, Florida two weeks prior to the expedition and shipped two pallets containing 600 lbs. of equipment to the Port of Belize. We received word that all the supplies had cleared customs and were ready for pick up. I rented a moving truck to get everything from the port to the entrance road to BFREE,  6-hours south of Belize City. Although we had been to Belize numerous times, riding in taxis and with friends, driving in Belize was a totally different (and nerve-wracking) experience! There are no road signs in the city and many one-way streets! Nevertheless, Mark navigated the huge box truck through what seemed like impossibly narrow roads and parallel parked on the busy street. After inspecting everything (and thanking the shipping gods that nothing had been broken or lost in transit), we loaded ten 150-gallon stock tanks, two solar panels, one submersible pump with controller, and a box full of plumbing equipment into the truck. We also met up with Grant, a volunteer who had traveled from the States to help out with all of the hatchlings this summer. The three of us loaded up and headed south for BFREE.

We zigged and zagged down Belize’s main highway, traversing through Belmopan, the capital, and several small villages. We passed through open fields, mountain corridors, and open savanna. About 5 hours into our trip, I remember the rental car agent saying that it was best to get to our destination before dark because there are no street lights. What they failed to mention was that there were also no working headlights on our vehicle! As the day slowly faded away, Mark went to turn on the headlights only to realize that they flickered on and off, and that the high beams were only slightly more effective than parking lights. Miraculously, we made it to mile marker 58 on the Southern Highway without getting lost AND before it became too dark to see.

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The Belizean savanna en route to BFREE.

Mile marker 58 serves as the entrance point to BFREE. It is at this point one leaves the paved highway and must switch to an all-wheel-drive vehicle to transverse the 6 miles through savanna and jungle until the “road” ends at a river. During the dry season, this whole portion of the trip can be made in such an all-wheel-drive vehicle, including driving across the river; during the rainy season however, hiking and canoeing are the only way to make it in. Although Belize was about a month into their rainy season, it hadn’t rained yet, and we had our fingers crossed that it would remain this way until we had at least delivered all the supplies across the river. After greeting BFREE employees, Tom and Elmer, we switched vehicles and drove all the way in; even across the river. Upon our arrival, we were informed that the first turtle started hatching that morning! It was almost as if they had been waiting for us to arrive to set up their new home. When we arrived at the field station, we had a hot meal and a soft bed waiting. It was great to be back at BFREE!

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Transporting nursery material to the HCRC.

Thursday, June 15th ‚Äì The priority for today was to unload the truck and return the rental before it rained and we were stuck! Tom and Elmer were up before sunrise unloading the supplies and driving them across the river. Shortly after, Mark and I made the 2-hour drive north to return the rental truck in Placencia. Placencia is located at the southern point of a peninsula along the coast. Due to the city‚Äôs geographic placement, we had to drive north and then back south to reach our destination. Once at the rental office, we watched cricket with the rental car office manager on TV while we waited for paperwork from Belize City. He was from India and apparently India was playing Pakistan in what is cricket‚Äôs equivalent of the World Cup for soccer. Although I had no clue what was going on, it was really fun watching with such a passionate fan! (While writing this, I Googled who won and yet I am still confused about the game, have no clue who won, or what the tournament is officially called!) 

With the rental truck safely returned, our return trip to BFREE would prove to be much quicker, thanks to the Hokey Pokey water taxi! The Hokey Pokey afforded us a beautiful boat ride through mangrove-bordered creeks to the mainland where Elmer was waiting to pick us up and return to BFREE…but not before stopping for lunch. A friendly traveler insisted we try some local cuisine - a Chinese restaurant! I should admit, it was the best Chinese food I had ever eaten!

Hatching Hicatee

A hatching Hicatee pips its eggshell.
Back at BFREE, more eggs had started hatching and we knew we had better hurry constructing their new home! With plans in place, we began laying out tanks and putting the lids together. To save time, I had assembled as much as I could in my backyard in the states, retro-fitting many items so that assembly would be much like college dorm-room furniture (i.e. quick and easy). By the end of the day, all the lids were assembled and attached to the tanks. Additionally, 7 Hicatee turtles had begun the hatching process! 

Friday, June 16th ‚Äì It rained last night! It rained so hard that the river was now only passable by canoe. We had LITERALLY arrived just in time! When we went to check on the eggs, we were pleasantly surprised to see that now over 20 had pipped! We could see little webbed feet and noses sticking out of the some of the eggs, and other eggs were ‚Äúwiggling‚Äù. The first egg that had begun hatching the day we arrived was now sticking its foot out, waving it around, and then pulling it back in as if to say ‚ÄúHurry up with my new home!‚Äù We named this little guy ‚ÄúTJ‚Äù, short for Thomas Jr (after Tom Pop and Thomas Rainwater).

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The nearly-completed infrastructure for the turtle nursery.
We began our work for the day with the enclosure plumbing system. I designed the system so that each tank would have its own water supply and stand pipes would maintain water levels while allowing continuous flow. Grant and I worked on plumbing the tanks while Tom and Mark began wiring the solar panels and the controller for the pump. By the end of the day we had a working drainage system (which we tested by draining all of the rainwater out from the night before), and all of the electrical components had been wired and buried in PVC conduit. Before going to bed, I checked on TJ and knew by morning he would be completely free of his egg!

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"TJ" the hatchling Hicatee.
Saturday, June 17th ‚Äì TJ finally hatched (along with several siblings)! When we woke up Saturday morning we were greeted by several hatchlings that had fully emerged from their shells. TJ was by far the largest. He had no external yolk present and weighed almost twice as much as some of the other hatchlings. Tom and I quickly got to processing the hatchlings. With help from Mark and Grant, they were all weighed, measured, photographed, and marginal carapace scutes notched with nail clippers for identification. Each turtle got a bath to wash off all the vermiculite (incubation medium) and was introduced to a shallow tub of water. Within minutes, they were swimming around; within a few days, they would be able to better control their bouyancy, and begin feeding. Although we wanted to ‚Äúhang out‚Äù with the hatchlings, we still had to finish their new home, so we went back to work on the nursery.

With the solar panels and pump controller wired, we could now install the pump into the well. After Tom created some fittings from extra PVC pieces, we installed the pump and connected it to the water delivery set up for the tanks. When Tom turned on the pump for our moment of truth, water began filling each individual tank; it was a success! Within a couple of hours, 1,500 gallons of water had filled all of the tanks. Water was flowing into and draining from each tank, just as I had planned! TJ and his siblings now had a new home!

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Mark and Tom installing the solar panels to power the new nursery.
We headed back to the check on the hatchlings and discovered more had emerged. While processing these new arrivals, Tom and I heard a noise from one of the other clutches. Two more hatchlings had just emerged and were crawling around the bin! That day, 8 new Hicatee had joined a critically endangered population.

Sunday, June 18th‚Äì Unfortunately, we had to leave today. We checked on the hatchlings early this morning and saw that by the end of the day, a total of 27 eggs would hatch! I said bye to TJ and thanked Tom and Grant for all of their hard work. We canoed across the river and began our trip home knowing that these hatchlings were in the best possible hands!

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Tom Pop visibly elated at the name for the Hicatee nursery.