Dermatemys mawii, the Hickatee, a Central American river turtle is such an aquatic turtle that it spends its entire life in or on water, even sleeping, and yet remains afloat. This fairly large tortoise species reaches a maximum shell length of 25 inches and can weigh up to 44 pounds, 50 pounds if the weight of the shell or tortoise shell is included. Males can be differentiated from females by yellow markings on either side of the head. They also have a longer and thicker tail.

The female is somewhat smaller, with a shorter tail and an unadorned gray head with the male’s matching gold emblem and spotted insignia. The carapace, brown or olive green, is only slightly curved; the ventral shell is cream-colored.

The female Hickatee only leaves water when she has to lay eggs, where up to sixteen eggs are laid under the camouflage of decaying vegetation. This ‘mother’ never looks back, never checks the eggs she just laid. The eggs you just laid hatch on their own.

The coastal lowlands of Belize are the usual home environment for the Hickatee along with the waterways of southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. Deep, clear water is best, and the many lagoons in Belize are regarded by the Hickatee as prime residential areas.

When it is newborn, a Hickatee will start life as a carnivore, however, as it becomes an adult, it switches to a vegetarian diet. The ancient Maya appreciated turtle meat as food, as well as for religious ceremonies. Turtle meat is still a highly regarded delicatessen today. Sea turtle eggs are harvested in Belize for food.

The Hickatee is a herbivore and its meat is eagerly sought by carnivorous man. Hickatee turtle meat is a traditional Easter food in Belize that has helped place this turtle on the critically endangered species list. Additionally, the Hickatee are an easy catch, as they drift lazily on the surface of the water unaware that a well-pointed paddle will knock them unconscious or simply pick them up from a river bed in the dry season.

Despite its endangered status, the Hickatee has only very limited protection in Belize with a one-month closed season and no trade in Hickatee meat, a maximum of 3 per person and only five per vehicle is allowed to be caught.

The Hickatee turtle is one of the most exploited turtles in the world, having been captured intensively, mainly for its meat, but also for its eggs, shells and even the hatchlings that are sold have food. This turtle has been nearly wiped out from much of its former range in southern Mexico.

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