An update from Belize by Michael G. Starkey, SAVE THE FROGS! Advisory Committee Chairman
In January 2012 I traveled to Belize for 12 days to help spread the message of amphibian conservation and to promote appreciation of wildlife and nature through education. SAVE THE FROGS! presence was incredibly well-received while I was in the country and I was asked to come back. Thanks to the incredible generosity of friends, family, and SAVE THE FROGS’ supporters, I was able to return and am currently in Belize saving the frogs once again!
Stauffer’s Treefrog, Scinax staufferi
The Journey Begins: On January 22nd, I left San Francisco for Belize with a head full of questions and a pack full of field gear and STF! educational materials to distribute around the country. My goal was to spread the SAVE THE FROGS’ message of amphibian conservation and find out what was happening to Belize’s amphibians. My first destination was to go to the Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (T.R.E.E.S.). T.R.E.E.S. is located in the heart of Maya Mountains between Dangriga and Belmopan along the Humming Bird Highway. Here I would plan the logistics of my trip and conduct amphibian surveys with the biologists at the station.
The first night we went out, we found very little. In fact, we only found one species of amphibian, Vaillant’s Frog. They were plentiful in the area and we found tadpoles, metamorphs, and adult frogs. I was expecting more species as it was the beginning of the wet season. However, the rains had not come yet, so I kept my hopes up for finding more frogs!
Vaillant’s Frog, Rana vaillanti
Eager to get back into the field, the next day we set out early to look at potential amphibian habitat at higher elevations near the property. As we hiked deeper into the forest, we followed a stream that snaked up the mountain. The forest was rich with life. As we traversed through the forest we observed many bird species, including Blue Crowned Mot-Mots, Trogans, and Keel-billed Toucans. Yet, birds were not the only animal to cross our path…
Snakes, including the Fer-de-lance pictured above, are very common here. This particular individual caught us by surprise as it was curled up in the middle of the trail. Like amphibians, snakes are very misunderstood animals but are key to balancing ecosystems. This Fer-de-lance was quite well behaved and was very tolerant of us taking photos. As we needed to move forward, we gently moved it off the trail and it slithered back into the forest.
Shortly after seeing the snake, we rested at a pool which had formed at the base of a waterfall. The stream drained from the pool and seemed to cut the thick forest in two as it meandered back down the mountain. It was not long before we found a wonderful species of amphibian: the Maya Mountain Frog, Rana juliani.
The beautiful Maya Mountain Frog, Rana juliani
By chance, this frog jumped into the pool as we were resting. We able to locate it and take some photos. This species is special for Belize, as the Maya Mountain Frog is an endemic species. This means that this species only lives in Belize. This frog can be found in higher elevation forest located in the Maya Mountains. We were incredibly fortunate to find this amphibian as they are hard to find! The Maya Mountain Frog is becoming rare because of increasing forest degradation. There is also an additional concern if the Chytrid Fungus has an effect on this species.
Maya Mountain Frog Habitat
As we traveled back down the mountain, we crossed through neighboring properties as the trails are shared. Unfortunately not all property is kept as pristine as T.R.E.E.S. The understory of the neighborhood property had been almost completely destroyed, and only trees remained. To make matters worse, the area has been sprayed with herbicides to keep the forest from returning. It was alarming to know how close these chemicals were being used near the streams, which feed the water to the village below.
The next day I left T.R.E.E.S. and headed down to southern Belize to the small, coastal town of Punta Gorda. I was invited to speak to Ya’axche Conservation Trust, which is one of the largest conservation organizations in Belize. They work with a multitude of species and work diligently to protect Belize’s forest. Other non-government organizations (NGOs) were invited to the presentation and members of Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (T.I.D.E.) and Satiim participated in the event.
Participants of the presentation learning about amphibian conservation
Again, my presence in Belize was well-received, as many enjoyed the presentation. Many of them told me about how they had always overlooked amphibians and now felt they are incredibly important for the balance of the ecosystem. After my presentation I was invited to participate in an amphibian survey just north of Punta Gorda. I was fortunate to be invited as this was the first formal amphibian survey to be conducted at this particular site.
There had been heavy rains the night before and the frogs were out! We found four species of amphibians on this outing as we hiked a trail through the forest to the coast. Some of which were:
Yellow Treefrog, Dendropsophus microcephalus
Red-Eyed Tree Frog, Agalychnis callidryas
Rio-Grand Leopard Frog, Rana berlandieri
Did you notice the trash? When we arrived at the beach, it was covered in bits of plastic, bottles, and other pieces of trash. It was interesting to see these Rio-Grand Leopard Frogs living in burrows along the beach, but it was unfortunate to see them among the trash. Sadly most beaches in Central America are covered in trash so this was not a unique phenomenon.
While I was in Punta Gorda, I met a Mexican biologist that was going to conduct an amphibian survey in the Sarstoon/Temash National Park, which is a very remote location in southern Belize along the Guatemala border. She was seeking to learn more about amphibian identification in the field and asked me if I could accompany her and some others to the field site. This was a unique opportunity to survey an area of Belize that has never seen an amphibian biologist, as no surveys have been conducted there before.
Sarstoon/Temash National Park was incredible, but the surveys did not go as well as planned. In the morning, we took a boat from the village of Barranco to the park. The boat dropped us off, we hiked to survey each site… and every site was completely flooded. However, even though wading through water up to your knees is not necessarily easy, it’s great for the frogs! So, check: Habitat looks awesome. However, we needed to go back at night to find them, which was not possible because we could not find a boat driver to take us and we were told there was a potential threat of poachers/fishermen from Guatemala coming into the park. Despite not being able to survey the park, we looked around Barranco and found seven species of amphibians and heard two more calling in the distance.
- Stauffer’s Treefrog, Scinax staufferi
White-Lipped Foam Frog, Leptodactylus fragilis
We even found some more Red-Eyed Tree Frogs!
Currently my work in Belize is going well as I am learning about the many threats facing amphibians and about the serious lack of research that is being conducted within the country. I am now in the city of San Ignacio giving presentations to various NGOs and academic institutions. More updates to come! Thank you for reading and please stay tuned for more!
Written by Michael G. Starkey, SAVE THE FROGS! Advisory Committee Chairman
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