OK, so if you live in Florida…. you might come across these critters that we did while taking a short trip there this past January.
First off, we have our dog Leeloo, checking to see if there are any alligators in the vicinity. Depending on your preference for such reptilian encounters you may or may not want to come across one. We did not see any at Manatee State Park, but it was a little chilly for them. American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis) are native to the southeastern U.S. found from parts of North Carolina to Texas. Alligators are in the Alligatoridae family and are members of the order Crocodillia with species that range in size from as small as 3 feet up to 23 feet. The American Crocodile can reach up to 12 ft. Crocodilians are excellent swimmers and though not as great at moving on land, they can be quite quick. Always good to be aware of them if you are in crocodilian territory. One of my favorite things about alligators is their vocalizations and parental care. Most mama crocodilians will guard their nests and then move the hatchlings into the water by tenderly carrying them in their mouth. The hatchlings may stick around with the mama for up to one or two years as well. Adult alligators make a variety of sounds (https://www.nps.gov/subjects/sound/sounds-alligator.htm) from groans and grunts to hisses and even infrasound. Young are believed to communicate with one another while still in their eggs in the nest. It is believed that this might help them hatch at the same time. Once hatched they will make several sounds drawing their mama’s attention to help them. American alligators can be distinguished from their large cousin the saltwater crocodiles by their broader rounder snout (https://www.livescience.com/32144-whats-the-difference-between-alligators-and-crocodiles.html; https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/reptiles/a/american-alligator/; https://www.nps.gov/ever/learn/nature/alligator.htm)
We also got to see about a dozen manatees at Manatee State Park. There are 3 known living species of manatees, the Amazonian manatee, the West Africa manatee and the West Indian (or American) manatee (Trichechus manatus). It is the latter that is found in Florida and the southeastern US, as well as the Caribbean, Mexico and parts of South America. These large aquatic mammals can get up to 14 feet long and weigh over 3000 lbs. Although generally not fast swimmers, they prefer to lounge around eating sea grass, they do have large strong tails that help them swim. They can swim up to 15 mph if need be. Manatees are usually solo swimmers, but in the wintertime, they congregate and move closer inland to warm springs in Florida rivers to help keep warm. During the warmer months however, they move out and can be found as far north as Massachusetts. Manatees are US federally protected. With about 13,000 across the range. Boat collisions are a major cause of death and injury to manatees. Boater awareness and education along with protecting important habitat has led an increase in numbers over the past decades. In 1971 where there were an estimated 1,267 manatees in Florida, but today more than 6,300 are believed to be found in Florida, a substantial increase. Going to show that conservation DOES WORK! (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/manatees/; https://www.fws.gov/southeast/wildlife/mammals/manatee)
We did come across a large congregation of turkey and black vultures at Manatee State Park as well! It was cool to see so many roosting in one place. We saw lots of cool birds in Florida, so I will do a post on them another time.
During our stay we took a kayak tour near Fort De Soto. We got to see this neat mollusk. I am not sure whether it is a whelk or a conch. Our guide said it was a whelk and that is what I am leaning towards based off the flat spiral on top of the shell, but alas I am not a mollusk expert. Most people are familiar with these creatures just from the shells that they find washed up on the beach, so it was neat to get to see an actual live one. The black part in the middle of the white shell opening is the foot of the animal. Whelks are actually snails and belong in the phylum of Mollusca (or mollusks) with other snails and slugs-mollusks that lost their shell, as well as bivalves (like the mussels from last month’s post) and …..cephalopods – which include octopus and squid. Mollusca has to be one of my favorite phyla due to the diverse types of animals that it contains form the lowly garden snail to the might giant squid. One characteristic that all mollusks share is the mantle, which is a portion of their body that covers their dorsal or back side and covers their internal organs. It also is the part that secretes the material for the formation of their shell. For slugs and others that do not have a shell, they still maintain a mantle. The foots of mollusks are muscular appendages that are used for locomotion - crawling, digging into substrate or propulsion (squid and nuatilus). Or in the case of this marine mollusk that we found - used for protection - to close up its shell and keep us from getting an even closer look! (http://oceanicresearch.org/education/wonders/mollusk.html; http://www.molluscs.at/mollusca/index.html?/mollusca/shell.html)
While on our kayak adventure we were also accompanied by cormorants (see the above bird). Again, I will have to do a separate post about all the neat bird life in Florida. But for now I will leave you with this science tip!