When lemons give you life: Herpetofauna adaptation to citrus orchards in Belize

Natural habitat areas exhibit similar abundances and diversity of herpetofauna as citrus orchards and reclaimed orchard forests in Stann Creek, Belize, reports a comparative study by researchers Russell Gray and Dr. Colin Strine of Suranaree University of Technology (SUT), Thailand.

The scientists utilized several drift-fence arrays equipped with double-funnel traps to monitor and compare reptile and amphibian communities in a lowland broadleaf forest, a lime orchard and a reclaimed citrus orchard at the Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (TREES) field station. Their study was recently published in the open-access journal ZooKeys.

Often referred to as Central America’s “hidden gem” for its abundance of undisturbed rainforests and natural beauty, Belize has a long-standing record for vigorously protecting and maintaining their forested areas. However, just as in any other developing country, its primary sector is expanding with agricultural land clearings becoming more frequent with newly established properties.

Approximately midway through the study (June – September 2016), the site was hit by Hurricane Earl, a Category 1 hurricane. The hurricane-force winds altered the canopy cover significantly over the forested study sites, due to felled trees and broken branches.

Surprisingly enough, the herpetofauna remained relatively unchanged in the aftermath of Earl. The phenomenon revealed that not only were herpetofaunal communities lacking sensitivity to anthropogenic changes in the area, but also to extreme weather events, even though these had affected most of the standing vegetation.

Some notable observations occurred within three days of Hurricane Earl, according to Russell Gray:

“One of the trapping system was catching arboreal [tree climbing] snake species, like the cat-eyed snake and blunt-headed tree snake. This wasn’t only interesting because arboreal snakes were caught in terrestrial traps, but rather because they were never caught in our traps during the study up to this point.”

“Even more interesting is that they were caught exclusively in the manicured orchard area, which makes me wonder if they somehow predicted falling trees and fled to the only habitat without them. Some animals appear to forecast weather events due to sudden or drastic changes in environmental conditions. I wonder if this is a similar case.”

Amongst other notable scientific discoveries reported during the project were two new accounts of the Petén Centipede Snake (Tantilla hendersoni), one of which was the first documented male of the species. This secretive snake had only been documented once prior to the study and is the only endemic snake species to Belize.

Further noteworthy instances were two range extensions for relatively data deficient species – one for the Doflein’s Salamander (Bolitoglossa dofleini) and another for the Ringneck Coffee Snake (Ninia diademata).

Besides providing important data on herpetofauna assemblages in various disturbed and undisturbed habitats in Belize, the research identifies future conservation methods to be considered.

The study serves as new evidence that as long as agricultural areas remain surrounded with natural habitat buffers, they have little effect on herpetofaunal communities.

Replicates of this study are encouraged by the authors and can be utilized as a feasible and efficient way to monitor reptiles and amphibians in Belize.

Although Belize still preserves a considerable amount of intact forest cover, there are several on-going conservation concerns. Besides agricultural land clearings, there are constant struggles with xate poachers, or “Xateros”, on the Guatemalan border, as well as illegal logging activities and illegal off-season hunting.

Unfortunately, reptiles and amphibians have been understudied in comparison to other vertebrates and government action is rarely enforced on their conservation throughout the Neotropics.

A striking example of this relates to the only critically endangered reptile in Belize – the Hickatee turtle (Dermatemys mawii). Although the species is likely to become extinct, it is still traditionally collected for its culinary value, while its hunting is banned only in May.

In conclusion, the authors note that it is crucial to pay close attention to anthropogenic activity and the potential repercussions it may have on native species. With extensive and active efforts to study Mesoamerican herpetofauna, proper conservation efforts can be implemented and focused.

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Original Source:

Gray R, Strine CT (2017) Herpetofaunal assemblages of a lowland broadleaf forest, an overgrown orchard forest and a lime orchard in Stann Creek, Belize. ZooKeys 707: 131-165. https://doi.org/10.3897/zookeys.707.14029

New species of Brazilian copepod suggests ancient species diversification and distribution

A new species of groundwater copepod has been discovered in the rocky savannas of Brazil – an ecosystem suffering from heavy anthropogenic impact. Upon description, the tiny crustacean turned out to also represent a previously unknown genus. It is described by Dr. Paulo H. C. Corgosinho, Montes Claros State University, Brazil, and his team in the open access journal Zoosystematics and Evolution.

Prior to the discovery of the new species, named Eirinicaris antonioi, only one genus of its subfamily (Parastenocaridinae) had been recorded in the Neotropical region, which comes to show that related species had already spread across a huge range when the ancient supercontinent Gondwana split apart.

The new copepod measures about 0,300 mm and can be told apart by its morphological characteristics, including unusual sensorial structures at the rear part of the body, as well as unique sexual dimorphism.

The copepods of the family Parastenocarididae are adapted to life in groundwater, where they thrive between sand grains. These tiny creatures measure less than 1 mm, ranging between 0,200 and 0,400 mm in length. They can be found in various microbiotopes along rivers, lakes and human-made structures, such as dug or artesian wells. Alternatively, these copepods might be associated with mosses and other semi-terrestrial environments.

“This is the first species described from Goiás state, Central Brazil,” explain the authors. “With the discovery of this new species our knowledge about the geographical distribution of the copepod family Parastenocarididae is increased. Our project highlights the vast amounts of undiscovered biodiversity of the Brazilian rocky savannas, which are under high anthropogenic threat.”

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Original source:

Corgosinho PHC, Schizas NV, Previattelli D, Falavigna da Rocha CE, Santos-Silva EN (2017) A new genus of Parastenocarididae (Copepoda, Harpacticoida) from the Tocantins River basin (Goiás, Brazil), and a phylogenetic analysis of the Parastenocaridinae. Zoosystematics and Evolution 93(1): 167-187. https://doi.org/10.3897/zse.93.11602