Field Conservation Goes to Belize

Zoo New England is famous for its turtle conservation projects here in Massachusetts, but did you know that we also partner with a turtle conservation project in Central America? The Central American river turtle, or Hicatee as it’s known locally, is the focus of a nonprofit in Belize called the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) – the subject of our past International Partner Spotlight. Much as we give Blanding’s, Wood, and Spotted turtles a headstart to help our turtle populations, they are raising hicatee turtles to restore and repopulate hicatees in Belize. 

Bryan Wondmiller and Emilie Wilder, both wearing their blue ZNE Field Conservation staff shirts, smile for the camera while holding a basketball-sized hicatee turtle between them.
ZNE Field Conservation Department staff Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder recently traveled to Belize, assisting with BFREE’s annual turtle check.  

“One of the exciting new things being done this year is scoping some of the juvenile turtles to determine if they are male or female,” reports Emilie. “There’s no way to tell them apart visually as juveniles. Instead, just like we do with our headstart turtles, the turtles get a simple laparoscopic surgery to look inside their body and see if the turtles have ovaries or testes. It’s a lot of work, but it’s critical! After all, it’s pretty important to know that you’re releasing a mix of boys and girls if you want the population to grow!” 

A veterinarian holds a young hicatee on its side in a foam block to stabilize it as she prepares to insert the fiberoptic scope to examine its reproductive organs.
Wildlife vet Dr. Isabel scopes a turtle.

Since the surgery requires a skilled wildlife veterinarian, it’s not something that BFREE staff can do on their own. Therefore, Bryan and Emilie are also testing out a method to use careful photographs of the turtles that, with the help of computational software, might be able to sex the turtles without surgery. The idea is that adult turtles look different morphologically: males have extra-large tails and their plastron (bottom shell) is shaped differently. It’s possible that as they grow, the juvenile turtles may have started to shift in subtle ways that wouldn’t be apparent to the human eye, but that a computer could discern. 

ZNE and BFREE staff cooperate to prepare a young hicatee, currently on its back, for photography on a table under a tripod camera setup with a ring light.
Each turtle is photographed, and then the results of the laparoscopic surgery will be fed into the program and the computer will look for differences between the males and females. 
A close-up of a hicatee in the photographic setup shows four red dots, each placed on a different scute of its plastron. Data sheets, tools, and water bottles are visible on the table behind the animal, which lies on its back.
The turtle needs to be carefully leveled to the camera, and we use small colored sticker dots for scale. 

“We’re learning so much from everyone here,” says Emilie. The team includes talented experts including David Rostal, who is an expert at sexing turtles laparoscopically, Tim Gregory who is on the board of the Turtle Survival Alliance, and Elliot Jacobson who wrote the seminal textbook on reptile medicine. “We’re trading stories and tips on raising turtles or dealing with common problems, and learning new techniques. I feel like I’m coming home with new ideas and perspective for our own turtle projects.” 

Emilie and Bryan talk with Tom Pop at BFREE.

Bryan and Emilie have also relished the opportunity to meet and work alongside the BFREE staff, especially the Hicatee program manager Tom Pop and program fellow Jonathan Dubon. Emilie says, “Their skill and passion are palpable, and we are learning so much from them. The hicatees are lucky to have such dedicated advocates here in Belize.” Conservation Society members may remember Jonathan from our January Cocktails for Conservation event where he joined us virtually to present on the Hicatee project. Zoo New England will be hosting Tom and Jonathan this summer so they can see our turtle projects and we can return the favor. Stay tuned for your own chance to meet with them later this year!