by Howard Goldstein 

When the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) first opened five years ago as a joint program of the TSA and the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), it was envisioned to one day become a world-class facility for the study and captive breeding of the critically endangered Central American River Turtle  (Dermatemys mawii), known locally in Belize as Hicatee.

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That vision is rapidly becoming reality.

The Hicatee, the last surviving member of the once widespread family Dermatemydidae, exists within a small natural range restricted to southern Mexico, Belize, and northern Guatemala. Threatened mainly by overharvest for local consumption, Belize still supports some relatively healthy populations, though they are in decline.. Historically little studied, the Hicatee’s poorly known breeding habits and unusual nesting/developmental requirements had long rendered it a “problematic” species to maintain and breed in captivity. The HCRC is rapidly demonstrating what a first-class facility dedicated to this animal can accomplish. If the past five years of the HCRC is an indication, when the Hicatee’s biological requirements are met, this animal is not difficult to either keep or breed in a properly maintained facility. Already this month, four clutches totaling 44 eggs have been produced at the HCRC.

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Previous years had successful breedings, but until now, never more than one clutches from one of two females. The facility contains two breeding ponds, and for the first time, nests have been found at the margins of both at the same time.

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These four clutches appear to be the tip of the iceberg, with other females seen actively digging nest sites and more clutches expected. One of the unusual characteristics of Hicatee nesting is that the eggs are laid submerged at the margins of rivers, where they undergo embryonic diapause during periods of complete inundation and rapid development as the water line recedes, and temperatures rise, in the dry season.

For the past two years, a  female Hicatee at the Center laid a viable clutch, but the nest was higher up the beach than expected. Recent changes to the pond margins, allowing the Hicatee access to soil, has resulted in the females laying eggs submerged at the pond edges in vegetation, similar to what  Hicatee have been reported doing naturally in rivers in the wild.

The sight of many female Hicatee now exhibiting their natural nesting behaviors at the Center is a resounding success, and a great relief that this severely depleted species can breed regularly given the proper conditions.

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Furthermore, an additional three new adults, one male and two females, have been added to the colony. The animals were initially dropped off at the Belize Zoo; while their origins are unclear, the shell conditions of both females indicate that they are long term captives. The animal count is currently 45 adults, 7 juveniles, and 5 hatchlings, more than double the animals the facility first accommodated.

Improvements to the facility and its breeding record continue every year.

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“The HCRC looks better than it ever has, with clean, naturalistic ponds surrounded by natural Hicatee food plants and rimmed with soil margins suitable for nesting,” said TSA President Rick Hudson. “It is truly shaping up to the facility we all envisionedand we have Tom Pop to thank for that. We absolutely would not be where we are without his hard work, enthusiasm and  ability to interpret animal behavior.”  Tom is the manager and caretaker of the HCRC, is a long-time employee of BFREE and spent his life observing wildlife in the tropical forests of Belize.  

The news gets even better. With four currently known clutches, and many more females exhibiting nesting behaviors, 2017 promises to be a break out year, and the HCRC could easily have well over 100 hatchlings.

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It looks like it’s truly going to be a Happy New Year for the endangered Hicatee and for the HCRC.