A Visit from Our Belizean Partners

As you may know, Zoo New England helps support the conservation of the hicatee, or Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii), one of the world’s most endangered turtles. These large freshwater turtles (females can weigh up to 45 pounds) are the only living members of their family. They live in rivers, streams, and riparian wetlands in southeastern Mexico, eastern Guatemala, and Belize.

We support hicatee conservation by donating funds to the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), a fantastic NGO in southern Belize that seeks to inform people about the incredible natural diversity of Belize and to engage them in its conservation. BFREE is the only institution that is currently captive breeding hicatees, and BFREE has also been reintroducing some of their captive bred juveniles in suitable Belizean wetlands since 2020.

A small, pig-nosed turtle the size of a pocket watch is held up for examination in a pair of human hands. Its pale belly contrasts with its blackish head and limbs.
A baby hicatee hatched at BFREE’s facility in Belize.

This past March, Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder visited BFREE and helped assess the sex ratio among juvenile hicatees for the first time. Bryan also helped conduct a brief survey of wild turtle species on the 1,100 acre BFREE lands. We just recently had the pleasure of returning the favor, hosting BFREE turtle biologists Tom Pop and Jonathan Dubon on a week-long visit to Massachusetts.

Two people in chest waders stand side by side in a thigh-deep pool of greenish swamp water and smile at the camera. One of them holds a large common snapping turtle with its belly towards the camera.
Tom Pop (L.) and Jonathan Dubon (R.), hold a common snapping turtle captured in Concord, MA. Photo credit: B WIndmiller

During their week with ZNE’s Field Conservation staff, Tom and Jon radiotracked wood, eastern box, and Blanding’s turtles, helped check turtle traps in the dense muck of Moore’s Swamp (see photos), and learned about some of ZNE’s pioneering genomics research by visiting ZNE Conservation Genomics Scientist, Rachel Johnston, at her office at the Broad Institute in Cambridge. The Belizean biologists also were able to enjoy some “behind-the-scenes” wildlife encounters at the Franklin Park Zoo, including watching a gorilla training session, an event that was up there on Tom’s “bucket list”. As we write this, Jon and Tom are spending a week at the annual conference of the Turtle Survival Alliance in Tucson, AZ, where they are presenting on their hicatee research and joining turtle experts from around the world, including our own Emilie Wilder, who is also presenting on our Blanding’s turtle conservation successes and on our HATCH programs.

Three people in chest waders stand in a bright green pond covered with algae, all surrounding a large mesh hoop trap partially submerged in the water.
ZNE turtle biologist, Jimmy Welch (L.), works with his Belizean counterparts, Jonathan Dubon (C.) and Tom Pop (R.) to set a turtle trap in Concord, MA. Photo credit: B. Windmiller

Zoo New England is delighted to be able to host Tom Pop and Jonathan Dubon of BFREE, to help share knowledge of turtle conservation techniques and to further our partnership with BFREE. We hope that we continue to have opportunities to help fund and host trips to Zoo New England by our international conservation partners.