Posts Tagged ‘Everglades’

Fence Me In: Panther Crossing in the Everglades

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Monday, August 13th, 2012
Panther Fences

Panther Fences in the Florida Everglades

Traveling across the Everglades, a motorist will see signs that caution “panther crossing”, and “wildlife on roadway”. Speed limits are reduced at night to protect nocturnal species. Hundreds of miles of fences stretch from one side of the state to the other. Wildlife is often observed behind the fence and one might wonder if you’re traveling through a zoo or you are part of the zoo.

The Big Cypress National Preserve, established in 1974, is a vast 750,000 acre wilderness in the heart of the Everglades. Three main roads cut through the preserve. I-75, also known as Alligator Alley runs east/west from Fort Lauderdale to Naples. SR-29, aka Panther Pass runs north/south along the western border of the preserve and US-41, aka Tamiami Trail cuts just above the southern boundary of the Preserve and runs from Miami to Naples.

Deer in Everglades Behind Panther Fence

Deer in Everglades Behind Panther Fence © Jungle Pete Corradino

In the 90’s, the Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) population dropped precipitously low to an estimated 35 cats. Various methods were used to help the population, including introducing eight Texas Cougars, installing reduced speed limit signs in popular panther habitat and building wildlife underpasses and overpasses. The majority of the passes were built along I-75 with an additional 6 passes built along SR-29. They were built in locations where an unsustainable number of road fatalities to panthers had occurred as well as American Alligators (Alligator mississippiensis), American Black Bear (Ursus americanus), White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and many other species.

White Tailed Deer behind Panther Fence

White Tailed Deer behind Panther Fence © Jungle Pete Corradino

Fencing helps redirect the wildlife to the bridges where they can safely cross, prevents vehicular accidents and maintains contiguous habitat for animals that are known to wander far and wide throughout the wet and dry seasons.

In January of 2012, Florida DOT installed solar-powered, Remote Animal Detection Systems in areas where fences are not practical. LED-slit signs flash when the RADS are triggered, warning motorists of wildlife on or near the roadway.

Safe from vehicles, the deer in the photo was grazing behind the fence, oblivious or uncaring that I stood just fifteen feet away. It also happened to be inside the Panther Refuge…..

Ghost Hunters, Part III

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Monday, July 9th, 2012

Ghost Hunters, Part I 

Ghost Hunters, Part II

Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) © Jungle Pete

Fear is an acceptable emotion that can lead to a heightened sense of awareness and ultimately protect one from a potential threat. I’m not afraid of ghosts. Nor am I afraid of seeking them but there are situations involved in the hunt that make you pause and consider that what you are doing is extremely dangerous and each step must be made with the greatest level of caution. The reward is ephemeral – 22 ivory white Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) blossoms floating under a canopy of Pop Ash (Fraxinus caroliniana) and Pond Apples (Annona glabra) in the midst of Florida’s greatest wildernesses – the Everglades.

The first step off the unpaved road is a hot one. Swamp Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) radiates intense heat and although it’s just after 8 AM, it feels like someone opened the oven door. Drainage efforts over the years have created high and dry ecotones, where welcoming shade comes from Slash Pines (Pinus elliottii) along the trail. A Black Bear (Ursus americanus) footprint reminds us that we are not alone out here. This doesn’t concern me. The bear mostly likely knows we are here and has gone in the other direction.

American Black Bear footprint © Jungle Pete

Eventually the slightest elevation change brings us through a transition zone where towering Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens) draped with briars make the narrowing trail all the more difficult to traverse. There is no water here yet, but by the end of the rainy season, it will be two feet deep where we stand.

As the elevation plummets by the inch, the canopy closes in, the temperature drops nearly 20 degrees and we come to the edge of the water. The rainy season began a month back and the sloughs of the Everglades have been the first to fill. The limestone has been carved out by flowing water and has created the perfect environment for Pop Ash, Pond Apples and an assortment of native, spectacular orchids.

(to be continued)

Bite the Hand That Feeds You

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Monday, July 2nd, 2012

American Alligator by Jungle Pete

Recently, an Everglades airboat captain lost his hand to an American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) during a tour. Feeding, harassing or molesting alligators is punishable with a maximum fine of up to $500 and 60 days and jail. Losing your limbs or your life is an additional punishment for bad behavior.

In all of my years in the Everglades I have seen people do some dumb things around these giant reptiles. I watched a mother with a shovel in one hand and a bag of mystery meat in the other feed a wild alligator as her small children stood by and watched. The shovel she claimed was to hit the alligator over the head if it approached. I explained to her the first rule of alligator etiquette. Don’t do dumb things. I explained the law and she left (and probably to return another day).

I watched in horror as a European couple walked their child down to the edge of the water and backed away to take a picture. No doubt the picture of a small child with a six foot alligator just feet away might have impressed someone but I carefully approached and pantomimed the first rule. They didn’t speak English, but “don’t do dumb things” was easily articulated with two arms making a chomping motion.

I watched two teenage boy inexplicably chasing an eight foot alligator down the main road in the Everglades National Park. I stopped them and asked them what was going to happen when they caught up to the alligator. They had no clue. The alligator found an opening in the mangroves and slipped away.

American Alligator by Jungle Pete

The law has a purpose. Alligators have a natural fear of humans. In fact there have been less than 600 wild alligator attacks in Florida since 1948 and only 23 of those were fatalities. Of those attacks, most were either alligators that were fed, alligators that were being handled (molesting) or occurred when someone was swimming in the water with them.

Once an alligator loses its fear of people it becomes a dangerous alligator. If you dangle a piece of chicken in front of an alligator, it’s going to bite the hand that feeds it.

Note: The above incident had nothing to do with Jungle Pete’s Company.

Mahogany Bombs

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Monday, May 14th, 2012

Mahogany Seed by Jungle Pete

When the fruit fell from the tree it clanged on the hood of the car with the force of a well hit baseball. It rolled off the grill, falling to the pavement with the sound of the crack of a bat. The rock hard exterior of the fruit had cleaved into four neat quarters, each maintaining a slim connection to the adjacent quarter. Inside, several dozen reddish-brown, winged seeds had separated from the core, while a few had been ejected upon impact. Today, this is a commonplace occurrence in department store and grocery store parking lots of South Florida where the West Indian Mahogany (Swietenia mahagon) has been planted.

The long sought-after hardwood is native to many islands in the Caribbean as well as extreme South Florida. Over harvesting has reduced the range and abundance of this tropical species, which most likely found its way to Florida millennia ago on the winds or waves churned up by tropical storms or hurricanes.

Shoppers might find it hard to believe the seemingly ubiquitous tree that has been planted prolifically is recognized as a threatened species. Most wild specimens are found on the hardwood hammocks (aka tree islands) of the Everglades. Mahogany can grow to fifty feet in height with a sixty foot spread. It’s an excellent shade tree and as landscapers recognize the importance of using native species, the mahogany is found more and more in urban areas.

The adage “never park beneath a coconut tree”, which is understandably a useless sentiment for most of North America, should apply to the West Indian Mahogany as well. The problem though, is the popularity of this species in parking lots and the inability of most people to identify it. The main telltale clue is the brown mahogany fruit growing upright on a tufted stalk. At this time of the year, a good sized tree could have fifty or more. They don’t all fall at once. Some ripen, split and expel their seeds while still attached to the tree. But the rest? Bombs away.

Stop It – The Burmese Python – Part II

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Monday, February 20th, 2012

Burmese Python by Jungle Pete

In 2008 the USGS released a potential range map for Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) in the United States. The startling suggestion was that the lower third of the continental US could be prime habitat. What it neglected to point out was that this tropical weather-loving snake can’t take the cold.

As evidence, in 2000 the Everglades National Park removed two Burmese Pythons. In 2005 they removed 94 more. In 2009 they removed the highest number ever at 367 followed by a decline in 2010 to 322 and in 2011 only 169 were found. In 2010 Florida suffered a sustained period of cold weather. For ten days, the temperature remained un-Florida like and the consequence was the death of many of the invasive species (as well as many of our native one like the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus) and American Crocodile (Crocodylus acutus).

West Indian Manatee

The snakes are a huge problem. Necropsies have found the endangered Florida Woodrat (Neotoma floridana), Big Cypress Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger avicinnia), Wood Storks (Mycteria americana), Everglades Mink (Mustela vison evergladensis) and recently a 76 pound deer in the belly of the snakes.

Wood Stork, adult © Arthur Morris/VIREO

Compounding the problem is the protective nature and prodigious offspring output of a female Python. One female can lay up to ninety eggs. Cold will keep them from spreading north. Strict laws are being put in place to ban the importation of the largest and most dangerous of the invaders and most of the locals are intent on dispatching them.

If only I could enlighten the media a little.
1) Alligators rule the Everglades
2) A handful of pet Anacondas have been found and they are not known to be breeding in the Everglades.
3) The Everglades is over four million acres. The study of mammal population declines occurred in the Everglades National Park. The pythons do not have “voracious appetites”, nor are they “picking the Everglades clean”.
4) The media has a stranglehold on their readers. We have a right to well researched, well written information. Not sensationalism.

To those that would release invasive snakes into the Everglades and to those in the media who perpetuate the python myths – Stop it.

Stop It – The Burmese Python – Part I

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Monday, February 13th, 2012

Everglades Guide Jason with a Burmese Python

We must do everything we can to rid the Everglades of all invasive plant and animal species. That’s a seemingly impossible task at this point for the supposed invasive species capitol of the world. We must also prevent the importation and introduction of any new species to protect the currently out of whack balance of South Florida’s ecosystem. Having said that, I am enraged by the ignorant media coverage regarding the “big snakes” in the Everglades. In December of 2011 an article titled “Severe mammal declines coincide with proliferation of invasive Burmese pythons in Everglades National Park” was published and the media-led hysteria that followed offered tabloid style headlines that fed into people’s natural fears.

“Pythons Rule Florida’s Everglades”
“Pythons and Anacondas Dominate Food Chain”
“Burmese Pythons Picking Florida’s Everglades Clean”
“Pythons have stranglehold on Everglades”

A local NBC anchor suggested without a trace of skepticism that the population of the invasive giants was well over 200,000. This is a stunning climb up the food chain from a few years ago when the estimate was 9,000, then 15,000, 30,000 and then inexplicably 150,000. Now 200,000 plus? Stop it.

Burmese Pythons (Python molurus bivittatus) are endangered in their native Southeast Asian range, thanks to poaching and exportation for the pet trade. People buy them as pets because they’re cuddly or they’re constricting. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. They get to be big, growing to lengths over 20 feet. Eventually they’re the ideal pet they once were and owners dump them in the Everglades. Many were thought to have escaped into the swamp in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew devastated Homestead, Florida, home of many reptile breeders and importers.

Northern Raccoon

The scientific paper that has flamed the frenzy claimed that Northern Raccoons (Procyon lotor), Virginia Opossums (Didelphis virginiana) and bobcat sightings (both live and road kill) are down about 99% from a period of time that predated the python infestation. Now one of the co-authors is distancing himself from the suggestion that pythons are to blame. He says it’s possible, but he blames the media for drawing a correlation between the two.

Virginia Opossum with young © Jack Dermid

They did note that top predators like the Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi) and Coyote (Canis latrans) (an Everglades new comer), populations had increased but did not suggest that they could be culprits in the population declines of prey species such as raccoons and opossums. Nor did they mention the severe drought the Everglades National Park has experienced and what effect that might have on the need for certain species to seek out better habitat.

Florida Panther © Brian Kenney

The analysis of the scientific paper was lacking and the media did not do their due diligence to understand the entire issue. The shocking headline was enough to craft an exciting tale of reptile Armageddon. I’ll explain more about the biology of the pythons, the threat they pose and what we need to do to stop it. Next week.

A Different Kind of Snake Bite

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Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

The Everglades is a wonderful and sometimes mysterious place: A place wonderful enough that a mid-westerner such as myself has been there 3 times. Whether spending time at the famed Anhinga trail getting up close and personal with Great Blue Herons or walking through the Shark Valley in and around American Alligators, there is something for everyone.

One of the lesser traveled trails is the Snake Bight Trail. Located near the Flamingo Area, this trail doesn’t really have a parking area but one only needs to pull off, park and get on the trail. More famous than the trail itself are the mosquitos that can be so thick, you’d think a person could be carried away. While reminiscing of a trip a few years ago, thoughts of the Snake Bight trail quickly came to mind. Fortunately for us, the mosquitos were tolerable so we decided to hit the trail in hopes of making it to Snake Bight Bay.

The goal for the morning was to photograph Spoonbills and we hoped to have the rare opportunity to see Flamingos. Vegetation was thick at times but manageable. As the sound of traffic slowly became distant, closer cries of Red-shouldered Hawks flying above the canopy gave way to truly being in the swamp. At around the 1.5 mile mark, we knew we should be close to the boardwalk that would take us out into the bay. As we continued hiking, however, the vegetation started thickening and rising. Soon we were surrounded in dense green so thick; a “trail” was no longer visible beneath our feet. We quickly made the decision to turn back as the sun was setting and the thought of a night with no gear in the swamp was not desirable. To this day, I don’t know if we made a wrong turn somewhere or if the trail was just crazy thick that year but we turned around and started the long trek back with heads hanging low. On our return hike, talks were grim but disappointment turned to excitement as a Tricolored Heron popped out of the swamp and perched on an open branch no more than 20 feet away. A great view of an even greater bird sure made up for a long hike through the swamp.

Blink

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Monday, July 11th, 2011


I like when animals behave as anticipated. I enjoy the undulating flight pattern of a woodpecker. I get a kick out of the hundreds of toads coming out to mate after the first big rain or a black bear standing on its hind legs to get a whiff of danger. But even more exciting is when an animal does something that they’re “not supposed to do”.

A few years ago I moved back home to Florida and was out rumbling down a back road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. I noticed a dark line ahead in the distance. Often these are simply branches or occasionally just a mirage but in this case, it was what I expected to be the first snake of the day. Sure enough, basking in the sun and stretched half way across the road was a long, skinny “snake” of unknown variety. The Everglades is home to twenty seven native species of snakes including four venomous types, so the first order of business was to identify it. The head was thin; not triangular shaped like the rattlesnakes or the Cottonmouths. It didn’t have the distinct pattern of red yellow and black stripes of a Coral Snake, so it wasn’t venomous.

I edged closer to get a better look at the colors and patterns. It looked vaguely like a Garter or Ribbon Snake but something didn’t look right. I took one more step and it blinked.

Snakes don’t blink. They have no eyelids. This was not a snake but an Eastern Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis). Glass Lizards have eyelids and can blink! They can also chew their food instead of swallowing it whole. And unlike snakes they have ears and can hear more than just vibrations. This species is common in wetlands and grasslands and the only legless lizard in the Everglades. They can grow up to 42” and most of their body is tail. As a defense, the tail can break off and regrow. They slither like a snake too and true to form, when I touched the tail, it slithered quickly off the road and into the sawgrass, tail still intact.

Of course the Legless Lizard behaved as one should but my expectation of its behavior based on my initial incorrect identification led to a fun surprise. It’s good to take a closer look. That snake might be a lizard you’ve never seen before.

An Allergic Reaction to Suspense: Name the Species

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Tuesday, April 26th, 2011


If you’re the kind of person that has to peek under the Christmas tree before the day has arrived, go ahead and skip to the end. If you read the last page of a novel first or if you fast forward through the movie because you have to know “what is in the box!”, go ahead and skip to the end. I wouldn’t want the suspense to kill you.

What is the fine specimen we have before us? It is a caterpillar entering the pupal stage before it becomes a butterfly. It has crawled up under a metal guardrail on a desolate road in the Everglades. Here it remains suspended, awaiting a transformative process that will entirely change its way of life. But which species will it become?

Brightly colored insects, reptiles and snakes are usually warning signs for predators to stay away. The caterpillars of this specie feed on passion flowers which cause them to be toxic.

While some predators ignore the warnings and suffer the consequences, others have adapted to the poison and can enjoy what most others can not. Will the fly on the bottom right of the caterpillar be one of those predators?

If the color wasn’t enough of a deterrent, the well-fortified exterior should repel the hungriest of predators. Surprisingly, the fierce looking spines are innocuous, flexible ornamentation that rounds out the repulsive costume.

Within a few days, the metamorphic process will conclude, the pupal casing will cleave and a beautiful butterfly will fly off, but which species?

If you skipped ahead from the opening paragraph, you’ve ruined it for everyone and now I won’t tell you what it is. But hey, what’s the fun of me telling you what is wrapped up in the package when it’s more fun to find out yourself.

Are You Smarter than a Raccoon?

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Monday, March 28th, 2011

Several years ago I went camping at the Myakka River State Park. After a campfire dinner we took a walk down to the river to look at the stars and watch for gators. When we returned to our seats around the campfire we were showered with garbage! In the short time we were gone we had been raided by one of the locals, a Northern Raccoon (Procyon lotor), who had grabbed our garbage and dragged it up into the safety of an oak. There it sat eating our leftovers and hurling bun wrappers and bean cans at us. Not very smart.

I took an airboat ride in the Everglades a few years back. Raccoons live on and around the islands and take advantage of the tides where they hunt for crabs, eggs and whatever else they may find. The boat captain pulled up to a mangrove island and pointed out a raccoon on the shore. “There’s plenty to eat here, but for some reason this one is always here every day so I feed him marshmallows.” Not very smart.

On the boardwalk at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary two women noticed a raccoon sitting in the water. One explained that they only live around dumpsters. The other nervously suggested it might be rabid and they should leave. Not very smart.

They walked off and the mother and the rest of the raccoon clan peeked out and continued poking and prodding the mud for invertebrates and other snacks. They were healthy raccoons. They were just in their natural environment.

At a local Florida beach, a teenager watched a raccoon climb a garbage can, lift the lid and pull out the garbage he had just placed in it. Incredulous, he turned to a gathering crowd and explained he had put the lid on it and doesn’t know how the raccoon did it. Not very smart.

Raccoons are found across North America. They’re adaptable, versatile, intelligent creatures who despite the reputation for carrying rabies as well as raiding our garbage cans are doing what any other species is doing. Surviving. As omnivores they have a full menu to choose from plus they have the dexterity, agility and intelligence to adapt to just about any environment.

In other words – pretty smart.