Florida Box Turtle, Terrapene Carolina Bauri. This cute little girl is a great example of what the Florida box turtle looks like. Florida box turtles are a terrestrial species which typically inhabit damp forests and marshes. They can be found from the Keys north to the very southern portion of Georga. Their shell is dark brown to black with yellow radiating stripes.
The males have a concave plastron and both male and female have a hinged shell, which allows them to fully close up in their shell.
They are omnivores, feeding on fruits, mushrooms, and various bugs and other small creatures. They are a protected species in Florida. The selling of them is prohibited in the state and you may not be in possession of more than two box turtles. Habitat loss and road mortality are two major causes of their decline in population.
Did you know dragonflies inhabited earth before dinosaurs? These amazing arthropods can be found near lakes, ponds, rivers, swamps and marshes. After hatching from eggs, dragonflies spend much of their life as nymphs. In this stage, they breathe through gills located in their anus and feast on tadpoles, worms and small fish. After shedding their skin, the adults crawl onto land. Dragonflies must warm up before setting off to do important work in our ecosystem. You will find them soaking up the sun early in the morning before spending the rest of their day on a search for food. Dragonflies control populations of many insects including those pesky mosquitoes. Known as nature’s helicopter, the wings of a dragonfly work both together and independently. This is why we see incredible aerial feats such as hovering, turns and backward flying. The next time you see a dragonfly, spend a few minutes watching one of nature’s wonderful gifts.
The Florida horse conch (Triplofusus giganteus) shell is the state shell. It’s easily identified by the bright orange body. Many people think it’s a type of shellfish but it’s actually a type of marine snail. These snails consume algae and detritus (poop and parts of dead organic matter.) The horse conchs are predatory and will eat bivalves and sometimes other horse conchs. This photograph shows how the horse conchs make little horse conchs.
Commercial harvesting requires a permit and there are limits. In some areas, it’s illegal to collect them. Lee county does not allow their harvest and Manatee county does not allow more than two per day. Keep in mind that while it may be tempting to collect large numbers of shells, other organisms rely on their shells for a safe living space after the conch dies. Sometimes it’s best to admire it for a brief time and leave it for someone else to appreciate.
The Giant Manta Ray (Manta birostris) is the largest of several species of manta ray throughout the world. They can occasionally be seen here in Florida. The most common place to see these elegant swimmers are around coral reefs where smaller fish clean parasites collected on the rays from open waters.
Recently, an endangered species petition was proposed for three species of manta ray including the Giant Manta Ray. Threats from illegal fishing in several countries have caused their populations to decline rapidly. They also have low reproductive rates at one pup every two years. They give live birth but once the pup is born there is no parental care which reduces survival rates.
Their diet consists of plankton and very small fish. As they swim, food and oxygen from the water are filtered continuously. There is no umbilical chord so the pups have to rely on another way of getting oxygen before they enter open waters where they can swim. They do this the same way some sharks do when they rest. It’s called buccal pumping. A small part inside their mouth pushes fluid into the mouth and past the gills. Think of it like a person gulping. Once they are born they use a process called ram ventilation. This just means as they swim the water passes through their gills.
Manta ray mating is really weird. It usually occurs at the reef cleaning stations. Females will release a sex hormone when they want to mate and several males will line up to mate with her. This is referred to as “train mating” and increases the odds of fertilization.
Many places have already implemented protection for Manta Rays. Here in Florida it is illegal to kill them under FL Administrative Code 68B-44.008. This protection has not only benefited the rays themselves but also the economy of many regions. The top 10 hot spots for giant manta rays bring in an average of $73 million in direct funds and $173 million in indirect funds. However, many areas have had such a high interest in manta rays that regulations had to be put in place so not to disturb them.
If you are lucky enough to see one of these graceful giants here in Florida please, respect their space, don’t try to pet them, and keep your distance. If you witness anyone poaching a manta ray you can report it to your local law enforcement or through the FWC Wildlife Alert Reward hotline; 888-404-FWCC (3922).
This Ruddy Turnstone was spotted eating a shrimp at our winter Gandy Beach Clean-up in St. Petersburg, FL. These rock dwelling birds spend the winter months in warmer climates, such as Florida, and migrate back to the Arctic Circle in Alaska in central Canada to breed during summer months. These birds are protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBCA). Despite protection, these birds face numerous threats from deteriorating habitat along coasts to contaminated waters which directly threaten their health but also the health of their food source. Climate change is another risk factor. These birds rely on predictable climate patterns for food and breeding. Like many migratory animals if the climate is offset it could throw off their migration patterns. This means they may have a shorter time to raise their babies or their food sources may not be available when they previously had in the past. One study even estimated that migratory bird populations are likely to decline 66-83% in the next 70 years. (Wouchope et al 2016) These migratory animals are another reason Global warming should be a concern for Floridians.
Anhingas are known as snakebirds because they swim with their bodies submerged while stretching their head and neck above the surface of the water, giving them the appearance of a snake about to strike. They are large, dark waterbirds with long, thin necks, bills, tails and silver patches on the wings. Males have greenish black plumage, accentuated by silver-gray feathers on their upper back. Their wings are edged with long white feathers. Females are brown with a lighter brown head and neck.
Anhingas hunt by spearing fish and amphibians with their sharp, slender beaks. They are so powerful that sometimes they have to leave the water with the speared fish and use a rock on the shore to remove the prey. Because of the unusual shape of their wings, and the lack of a gland that secrets oil like other birds, Anhingas become waterlogged. This makes it possible for them to dive easily and stay underwater for long periods of time.
After hunting, Anhingas sit in shrubs and trees with their back to the sun and stretch out their wings. This posture helps to dry their water-logged wings and warm their body after exposure to cold water. They prefer shallow, slow-moving, sheltered waters for hunting with access to nearby perches and banks for drying and sunning themselves.
Anhingas are monogamous. The male gathers the nesting materials and the female weaves together the nest. They are known to reuse the same nest year after year. The female will typically lay from two to six pale bluish-green eggs. The parents share incubation of the eggs for 25 to 30 days. Chicks will stay in the nest for 3 weeks. At 6 weeks they will climb onto the branch and fledge. They stay with their parents several more weeks before becoming independent.
This photo is of a male. Their scientific name is one that everyone can remember, Anhinga anhinga.
A common sight all across Florida, these birds occupy a variety of mostly freshwater habitats. They prefer slow moving lakes, ponds and backwater areas but can be found in saltwater areas as well. Excellent fishers, they dive to spear small fish and other small aquatic life. After fishing, they perch and dry their wings, as seen in this photo, so that they can fly again.
Protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, the species is considered of least concern due to their stable population across their massive range. Apart from natural predators such as alligators, bobcats, and panthers; they are susceptible to being entangled in discarded fishing line. Their aquatic lifestyle also means that is pollutants are present in the water, Anhinga are susceptible to accumulating these contaminants.
The black tailed red sheet weaver (Florinda coccinea.) These spiders get their name from the black crebelum or tail and the webs they weave which resemble a sheer material. They have two different parts of their web. The top part is intended to knock flying insects down and the bottom sheet catches them in a non-sticky web where the spider attacks the prey. They can be very useful in controlling flying bugs in your yard and are even encouraged as a pest control method in agriculture. They were historically popular among Florida orange groves.
The spiders can be found upside down in their webs. Typically, males are either the same size or smaller than the female. Smaller males can sometimes be seen in the same web as the larger females. Both take part in creating the web and cleaning it. Talk about the perfect couple.
Mating can get a bit complex though. The courtship ritual of these spiders consists of 18 different behaviors ranging from reduction of the web to the act of copulation. Spider sex can be a bit weird. The females first release their sex hormones onto the net. The male finds the female and reduces the web to prevent other males from reaching her. If the female approves of the male she positions herself. If the male tries to mate without permission there is a good chance the female may eat him. Mating is not done like most animals. The male deposits his sperm packets onto the web and then uses his pedipalps to place the packets into the females sex organs. They are stored near the ovaries until the female decides to lay eggs.
Next time someone tells you science is boring, tell them about the black tailed red sheet weaver and maybe they will start watching more nature and less Real Housewives.
—-Endangered Florida Bonneted Bat -Eumops floridanus—-
Florida deemed these bats endangered in 1993 but they were not federally listed until 2010. This cool animal, a large free-tailed bat, is approximately 5.1-6.5 inches in size and is considered critically endangered. Color varies from black to brown to brownish gray to cinnamon brown. Bats love to forage over ponds, streams, and wetland. They drink as they are flying over open water. If their water source becomes dry, they will move to where this is water. Bonneted Bats have been seen drinking out of swimming pools and other open sourced waterways. Bonneted bats have been seen nesting in the holes left be red cockaded woodpeckers in Longleaf pine trees as well as in the shafts of royal palms. These wonderful animals live in some Central Florida counties with most living in South Florida. The total number of Bonneted Bats worldwide is estimated to be at around 250 . Bats in South Florida, including this species, appear to have declined drastically in numbers in recent years due to loss of roosting sites, effects of pesticides, hurricanes, and habitat loss from development.
Remember, what we may fear is not bad for us or the environment. Our fears demand us to educate ourselves about the amazing reasons why these animals are here and how they contribute to our Circle of Life.
The Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) is a bird of prey that is commonly seen along coastal habitats within Florida. These birds have a brown upper body, white underside and a black line across their eyes. They can reach 2 feet in length and have a 6-foot wingspan. These raptors hunt for food by using their keen senses, especially their vision, and kill prey with their talons. This is the only raptor with a reversible toe that can grasp prey with two toes in front and two toes in the back. They will soar high above their prey and dive feet first often submerging themselves to catch their prey. Their feet are barbed to be able to hold on to slippery fish. Osprey nests are large platforms built mainly of large sticks, sod, and grasses high above the ground although they will use any high man-made structure. A female Osprey will be attracted to the male that can provide the best nest. Osprey mate for life and will have between 2 to 4, creamy white blotched brown eggs a year. The eggs do not hatch all at once but will hatch 3 to 5 days apart. They fledge at 8 weeks and reach sexual maturity at 3 years of age. Because of its highly visible nest, the Osprey is a prime indicator species that can be used to monitor habitat conditions, fish populations, and overall environmental health.
A Happy Osprey with a Fish
Also called the Fish Hawk, the Osprey is a medium-sized raptor that can be found throughout Florida. These apex predators are fascinating to watch as they catch their prey and enjoy eating it. There are many different species of Osprey and even two species who have been documented to be extinct. One of those species, the Pandion lovensis, was discovered through fossils here in Florida. The fossils dated back to the Tortonian stage of the late Miocene sub-Epoch of the Clarendonian age. That’s about 9 million years ago. During this time Florida was only an island. it spanned from the eastern Panhandle and curved down a narrow stretch of the gulf coast to central Florida. During this time temperatures were reducing and the Earth was going into the ice age known as the Quaternary glaciation. This process took approximately 3 million years in which average global temperatures dropped to between 4-7 degrees Celsius. Not all areas had ice. Florida was much cooler but was not part of the freeze. Despite the lack of a freeze, conditions could have presented the Pandion lovensis ability to survive. Fortunately, the Pandion haliaetus shown in this video managed to adapt to these conditions. Because of its ability to adapt, we can enjoy watching this magnificent bird almost anywhere we go throughout Florida.
The Mabel Orchard Orb Weaver, Leucauge mabelae, is common throughout Florida. It is one of the prime examples of evolutionary adaption being that it has adapted to a wide range of habitats and climate. It can be found as far north as Canada and as far south as Columbia. Reproduction is similar to most spiders where sperm packets are transferred but the females can be very particular about their mates and if specific behaviors are not followed it could mean the male gets eaten.
These spiders are efficient at pest control and have been historically welcomed in agriculture to reduce pests that would otherwise destroy crops. They are also very effective against mosquitoes. However they become prey to many bird species. They are also hosts for wasp larvae. Wasps may paralyze the spiders and lay their eggs on them. As the wasp larvae grow they feed off the body of these spiders.
Perhaps one of the most notable facts about this spider is that it is the only spider family to receive it’s nomenclature from Charles Darwin. Darwin first discovered a spider in Brazil during his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle. it didn’t fit into any previously noted genus so he classified it under Leucauge. This has become one of the larges groups of spiders currently documented. This is greatly due to it’s ability to adapt successfully to a changing environment through natural selection. This has lead to various species of these spiders. The one discovered by Darwin was named Leucauge argyrobapta. This species ,Leucauge mabelae likely selected for traits that helped it adapt to a different environment.