Reproductive Assessments Conducted in Belize

by Rick Hudson 

A TSA team recently assembled at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) for the second round of husbandry evaluations and reproductive exams on our group of 25 Central American River Turtles, or Hicatee, Dermatemys mawii. Located at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) in southern Belize, this tropical forest research station provides an idyllic setting for this project, now in its second year.

TSA President Rick Hudson was accompanied by Dr. Shane Boylan (South Carolina Aquarium) and we were joined on site by Nichole Bishop, a University of Florida PhD student who is studying feeding and energy dynamics in this species. We were hosted by BFREE President Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett and their incredible staff, including Tom Pop who manages the HCRC. Tom's sharp observational powers have become a real asset to the program, and thanks to his well-trained eyes, we found our first Hicatee nest in December 2014, and seven hatchlings emerged in June. Also joining us were Richard and Carol Foster, an Emmy Award-winning couple who have produced some remarkable wildlife and natural history films over the years. They began collecting footage for an upcoming film on the plight of the Hicatee, and if the project is funded, it will become the centerpiece of a national awareness campaign designed to highlight the need for tighter restrictions on Hicatee hunting in Belize. While hunting appears to be on the decline in Belize there is still a need to improve local people's appreciation for the vulnerability of this species.

Over a two day period we managed to capture all 25 (3 males, 22 females) turtles for health and reproductive assessments, including weighing and measuring, and ultrasound exams on breeding size adults. Most of the colony are sub-adult females, which are growing rapidly under captive conditions and optimal food intake, but we are limited by the number of reproductive sized adults - 3 males and ~3 females. Unfortunately, only one of the females appears to be in a reproductive cycle now, and has large follicles in the 3 cm range, so nesting could be expected within a month. Armed with this information, we will soon deploy infrared camera traps around the breeding pond to try and capture this female nesting on film. We also evaluated water quality – our dissolved oxygen levels are really good – and feeding practices. Nichole was able to collect a lot of fresh feces for analysis, which was frozen for transport back to Florida. Finally the team did the bi-weekly processing of the seven babies, all of which are growing rapidly on a variety of food sources. Interestingly, juveniles have an orange nose, the function of which we can only speculate.

The HCRC is developing nicely and both ponds are supplied with fresh ground water from a well with solar powered pumps. The floating islands are lush with sedge, grass and fern growth, and help filter the water while providing a source of shade for the turtles. Grasses are growing down to the water line for grazing, and the fig trees that were planted as a food source are growing at an impressive rate. A new covered work space with tables and chairs provides a dry and shady environment for processing turtles.

We will return in early November for the next round of reproductive evaluations, and hope to find at least two more females in a reproductive cycle; peak nesting season for this species in Belize is December. This research project is generously supported by grants from the AZA Conservation Grants Fund and the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund: notice Mickey helping to monitor ultrasound exams.