Sniffing out Dermatemys

Border collies are well known for their ability to herd sheep, but Milena Mendez has another job in mind for Fenix, her 10-month-old companion. Mendez, who graduated from University of Valle in Guatemala in March with a degree in biology, is studying the rare turtle Dermatemys mawii, known as the Central American river turtle and colloquially as the hickatee. But to study them she has to find them, and that’s where she hopes Fenix will help.

Finding the turtles isn’t easy. Her fieldwork takes place in the remote Sarstún River on the border between Guatemala and Belize. Just getting there from her home in Guatemala City requires multiple buses and boats.

“Ifis already critically endangered, this lineage [1D] must be much more endangered than the rest of the species. I think the work that Milena is doing is very important because of this.” —Gracia Patricia González-Porter

One day, Mendez got a tip from one of her field assistants, a villager named Cush. Today, Cush assists Mendez’s conservation work, but like many villagers in the area, he makes his living from the river and was once a renowned hickatee hunter. One of his secrets: He trained his dog to sniff out turtles and even their well-hidden nests.

A dog enthusiast, Mendez had recently bought a puppy from one of the few border collie breeders in Guatemala. She planned to train the dog for agility contests—until she decided to try engaging Fenix in more meaningful pursuits.

Mendez’s work with the hickatee started when she was an undergraduate, after an internship at Zoo Atlanta led to an interest in turtles and an invitation the following year to attend a Turtle Survival Alliance meeting. The alliance’s director learned that she was from Guatemala and approached her about studying the Sarstún River’s Dermatemys.

Mendez agreed readily, in part because she’d seen a hickatee: It is a striking creature. Its head may be yellow, olive green, or orange, and specimens can weigh up to 45 pounds. It has a primitive look—and indeed, the fossil record shows that 19 genera of Dermatemydidae existed at one time or another, but only the hickatee remains from a lineage that can be traced to the Jurassic period in Europe and the Cretaceous in North America and East Asia. “They’re the coolest turtles we have [in Guatemala],” Mendez says.

The hickatee’s flesh has been prized since ancient times. Fishermen often net them inadvertently, and villagers raise them to be consumed at celebrations. But when what was once a ritual became a large commercial trade in the 1980s—hickatee flesh can command up to $45 a pound—the turtles nearly vanished from Mexico, where they were once common. Populations in Guatemala and Belize are in better shape but still endangered.

A new species?

Scarcity makes the Sarstún River population critical, but there is another reason to study the hickatee: Two genetically separate hickatee populations in the Sarstún River may be separate species.

Gracia Patricia González-Porter, now a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of zoology at the Autonomous University of Querétaro in Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico, was the lead author of a phylogeographic analysis of the hickatee, which included 238 individuals from 15 regions throughout its range. The group identified 16 haplotypes. One of them, 1D, differed by about 2% from other haplogroups, a spread that in other turtles often indicates a separate species.

Turtles with the 1D haplotype were found in only Guatemala, in the Sarstún and Salinas rivers. Actually, the Sarstún River animals that they studied came from a zoo in Philadelphia, where they lived after being captured by zoo conservationists. González-Porter is hoping to work with Mendez to collect more samples and conduct genetic analyses to determine if 1D haplotype animals are breeding with other turtles in Sarstún populations. If the distinct populations aren’t interbreeding, González-Porter is ready to conclude that there are two species, not one. “If Dermatemys is already critically endangered, this lineage [1D] must be much more endangered than the rest of the species. I think the work that Milena is doing is very important because of this,” she says.

Fenix, rising

There are dangers for Fenix, too. The Sarstún River is home to poisonous vipers and toads, which the dog must learn to avoid. A friend of Mendez, who works at a zoo in Guatemala City, lent Mendez some vipers, which she keeps in a box and places in various spots. She lets the dog find them and gives a correction when she starts to get too close. “I don’t like seeing her scared, looking at me like ‘Oh, no, what’s happening?’ ” Mendez says. “But I’d rather see her scared for a couple of weeks than bitten by a venomous snake.”

Ecological thinking

González-Porter is developing an international plan for conserving Dermatemys in Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. Mendez is working with the Sarstún River population and applying for funding from the Turtle Survival Alliance and Fundaeco, a nonprofit foundation for ecological development and conservation that is heavily involved in the Sarstún region. She hopes to put together a conservation plan to protect this Dermatemys population.

But the experience of working with Cush and other villagers has changed her perspective and her plans. She had intended to do increasingly detailed surveys, “but now I think I need to focus on the villagers and the community, because they are the key for success of a conservation strategy,” she says.

She hopes to recruit villagers to conduct some additional surveys, but she intends to go much further. Public education in the village—El Aguacate—now ends after 10th grade, and the schools are sweltering. “The kids are desperate to get out because it’s so hot, and it’s really hard to pay attention in an environment like that. They have little chance of [bettering themselves] or getting a good job,” Mendez says.

Mendez is developing connections with teachers, conservationists, and others. She plans to transform the schools in the area, starting with improved facilities. After that, she hopes to develop curricula that apply more directly to the children’s lives. “[The teachers] try to give them a lot of information that maybe the city people [need], but the country people have other interests. I feel like they don’t see the point of study, because what they teach them is not going to help them,” she says. She envisions a teaching environment where scientific principles are incorporated and where children can apply the scientific method to learn about the river that is so important to their livelihood.

“I really think environmental education is good, and it can solve a lot of environmental problems, but you need to do it well. You can’t just go and tell them, ‘Don’t eat Dermatemys or don’t kill Dermatemys,’ because you’re just imposing concepts that they might not even care about,” Mendez says. “I think using the scientific method you can do a lot of activities and teach them to value their natural resources better, and then eventually I think [that], by themselves, they’re going to preserve the ecosystems and natural resources because they already know they’re important but they don’t know why. I think if they figure out why by themselves, it’s better than just imposing.”

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