Species Spotlight Vol.10

by Jordan Gray 

Central American River Turtle Hicatee

Photo by Dustin Smith

Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii)

Countries of Origin:   Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico

IUCN Status:   Critically Endangered

Estimated surviving population:   Unknown/Declining

Habitat:   Large rivers, lakes, oxbows, flooded forests

Habits:   The Hicatee is a fully aquatic species that spends nearly 100% of its time in water. It is so adapted for an aqueous life that the Hicatee can barely move on land, let alone even hold its head up. They are primarily active during nocturnal and crepuscular hours, spending the day sleeping in deeper holes on the waterbody bottom. All life stages of this species are herbivorous, feeding on detritus, aquatic vegetation, and overhanging leafy matter and fruits from riparian vegetation. During the wet season, the Hicatee will expand its movements into the flooded forests adjacent to its primary waterbody. During the dry season, they will retreat to the deepest pockets of the water column, sometimes becoming trapped in oxbows or ponds, before they can return to their home river or lake. Because of their inability to make overland treks, they are relegated to stay in these pockets of water until the next wet season.

Size: ≤ 65 cm (26 in)

Factoid:  The Hicatee is so adapted for a fully aquatic existence that it has evolved highly vascularized papillae in its larynx (hollow muscular organ forming an air passage to the lungs). The Hicatee will draw water into the mouth, where the oxygen diffuses across these papillae and into the respiratory tract, before the water is expelled through the nose. This allows them to stay submerged for a virtually unlimited amount of time.

Another adaption for an aquatic lifestyle is found in its reproductive habits. Females will lay eggs beneath the substrate of the shoreline or very close to it during the wet season. As the water levels rise with the prolonged rains, the eggs are able to undergo an embryonic diapause (temporary halt in development), to prevent the embryo from dying due to substrate saturation and low oxygen availability. Once the waters recede, the embryos will begin or resume their development.

Greatest Threats:  Collection of adults for consumption have wiped out populations of this species in many areas of their range, and decimated those still clinging to existence. The population of this species in Mexico has been nearly extirpated, and that of Guatemala are largely unknown. Belize continues to be the strongest remaining foothold for the species, however, despite its protected status there, it is still poached for its meat.

How you can help:  TSA’s partner, the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), maintains an assurance colony of this species at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). BFREE not only maintains this assurance colony, but also hosts visiting research scientists who study this species in an effort to better conserve them, partakes in educational outreach in the country and abroad, and creates awareness campaigns to promote their survival. Find out how YOU can help the Hicatee HERE.