Cycad Expedition in Southern Belize

A major expedition to conserve a remote cycad! Montgomery Executive Director Patrick Griffith and Cycad Biologist Michael Calonje recently led a collaborative team – 18 people, 3 horses and 3 dogs – to distant caves in the Maya Mountains.

Dr. Patrick Griffith climbs a tree in BelizeIn addition to Montgomery, the team included botany, horticulture and wildlife experts from Belize Botanic Gardens, Teakettle Enterprises, and the Ya’axche Conservation Trust, in addition to local and national support personnel.

The species studied here – The Sinkhole Cycad, Zamia decumbens – has been of great recent interest. Michael and co-authors described this speciesonly in 2009. Based on its biological and geographic circumstances, this cycad has the potential to inform conservation methods for other plants. Montgomery is developing a new model for botanic garden conservation collections based on this species.

The same geographic circumstances that make this cycad ideal for research and conservation – remote caves in the mountain forest – prompted careful logistics and planning. The study sites are a full day’s walk beyond roads, and quite near the Guatemalan border. Three nights of distant bivouac with food, camp gear and botanical tools – for such a large group – required a pack train of three horses. In addition, the increased presence of xateros (palm poachers) in the area made security planning necessary.

Photo of crew members in BelizeThese major efforts were absolutely worth it: Michael and Patrick were delighted to learn of and document a third major population of this cycad in yet another remote site! The team took extensive notes, photographs, DNA samples and seeds for research and conservation. The new findings and collections will help conserve this rare cycad, as well as inform conservation for other plants species.

The field expedition was generously supported by grants from SOS Save Our Species, and the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, in addition to the staff time provided by the participating organizations. duPlooy’s Jungle Lodge also very generously provided in-kind support of food and lodging for the project. We also are very grateful to the Belize Forest Departmentfor permission to study and collect these plants.