Conservation Update: Field Report from OKC Zoo-Supported Turtle Research Project in Belize

Last month, the OKC Zoo received a field research update from University of Oklahoma graduate student Elyse Ellsworth who the Zoo is funding to study Central American river turtles (aka hicatee) in Belize. Elyse is capturing wild hicatee and placing radio-transmitters on them to track their movements. This is not easy to do considering these turtles spend most of their time underwater – making them hard to find and hard to track because the transmitter only sends data when the turtle surfaces.

Ellsworth’s project focuses on a spatial ecology study and assessment of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) captive breeding and hatchling head-start program in two major watersheds in Belize. Considerable historical data and natural history information is available on both watersheds, including cultural, economic, biogeographic, land-use data, as well as topographic maps. Importantly, most of the captive, breeding individuals at the HCRC were collected from the Belize and Sibun River Watersheds, allowing more direct assessment of survivorship and growth rates of head-started hicatee into native environments.

Currently, no data exists on the survivorship or growth rates of hatchling head-start turtles in the wild. Such data is critical to assess the long-term viability of the HCRC head-start program and for the recovery of depleted wild populations of captive-born animals. Furthermore, little remains known about the general ecology, microhabitat preferences, home range size, or dispersal activity of the hicatee.

By investigating the spatial ecology and population dynamics of the hicatee in Belize, this project intends to immediately address the following four critical objectives: documenting the behavior, spatial ecology, and microhabitat preferences of the species at two identified watersheds; evaluating the home range characteristics and dispersal patterns of different age classes (juveniles, sub-adults, and adults); evaluating the optimum size/age for reintroduction into the wild; and assessing the survivorship and growth rates of head-started individuals into the two focal native environments.

This project will initiate the first long-term spatial ecology study of this species, helping to mitigate threats and ensure the recovery of wild populations in Belize.

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