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!
Four Mucket mussels being used in an eDNA shedding experiment
So I haven't been keeping up with posts (since last year....). Here I will attempt to at least make a backyard biodiversity post once a month ... this one is supposed to be January's so as you can see, I am still behind....so lets get started.
At work we are currently developing environmental DNA detection methods for freshwater mussels.
What are freshwater mussels and why are we interested in them? You are probably familiar with oysters or scallops or blue mussels found in the salty waters of costal areas, but there is also a large group of these bivalve animals that are found in freshwaters such as lakes and rivers. There are many groups of mussels that live in freshwater, and several families of these are found in the United States and North America. For today’s post however I am focusing on the mussels found in the taxonomic order Unionida or Unionids for short (though that is really not any shorter). Unionids are found worldwide in freshwater ecosystems. But what makes them so neat is that they are one of the few groups of animals (along with salamanders and a few other things) that have their highest diversity in terms of number of species, in the temperate regions of the world, such as in North America, as opposed to the tropics.
Unionid mussels burrow partially into the substrate of the river pumping water through openings in their body and filtering out phytoplankton and other small, microscopic organisms in the water. The soft tissue of these animals that contains their organs are enclosed in a shells made of two halves or “valves” (thus the name bivalve). The shell develops from material secreted by the soft body tissue and the two halves are connected together by a ligament tissue. Unlike other mussels which attach themselves to the substrate with fibrous threads called byssal, Unionids have a muscular foot that allows them to move through the substrate and dig down.
Unionids also have a special way of reproducing. After males spawn and the released sperm is taken up by the female, tiny baby mussels or larvae called glochidea develop. The female releases these larvae onto a host fish, where the little bivalves clamp on to the fish’s gills and parasitically live on the fish until they reach a large enough size to live on their own. Then they fall off the fish and are now free living mussels, now capable of filtering water to obtain their microscopic food, rather than living off of the fish. If this wasn't cool enough some species have elaborate ways to entice their host fish. Females of some species have specialized tissue lures that can trick a fish into thinking it is a tasty bit of worm or fish, thus drawing the predatory fish nearby, at which point the mussels can catch the fish in its shell and inoculates the fish with the baby mussel larvae. The fish is then let go and is left to unknowingly help feed the baby mussels. (Check out this video, it is amazing!
Freshwater mussels unfortunately are in danger of extinction. In fact 88 of the 298 describes species in North America are currently listed as federally endangered or threatened in the U.S. Because of their aquatic lifestyle and the fact that they filter water removing detritus, pathogens, and pollution from our drinking water, they are good indicators of water quality. It has been estimated that an adult mussel can filter 15 gallons of water a day. Their aquatic lifestyle, however, also makes them more prone to water pollution. Chemical spills in water ways can kill off healthy mussel’s beds and chronic water pollution can stress mussel populations, making them more susceptible to disease or other stressors. Other stressors are also suggested for reasons why populations appear to be declining, including a warming climate, changes to the water flow in a stream that may be caused by a dam, and loss of a host fish species. Recently large mussel declines have been observed, biologists are still trying to understand the cause.
Given their incredible diversity in form, unique natural history and importance to cleaning our waters we should all give Unionids a second look and help them out. Check out some more links:
Well its been nearly 2 months since I last posted. Apparently teaching a class in addition to a full time job, while starting a large research project, takes up quite a bit of time. Also it being winter it has been a bit hard finding biodiversity, so here are some pics of traces of biodiversity. I know critters are around, they are just harder to see and come by.
The top pic is of some white-tail deer poop and the bottom pic is of some squirrel poop. I was actually pretty excited to see the squirrel poop, for all the years that my bird feeders have become squirrel feeders, I never really came across squirrel poop, until last month!
A lot can be learned from scat, the scientific word for poop. Most interestingly for me is the ability to extract DNA from scat , so that conservation geneticists can learn about a species they are studying. Plus, as we found in some of our work the amount of DNA released by fish, that can be picked up by environmental DNA (eDNA) methods , varies with how much the eat....and thus....poop.
This weeks Backyard Biodiversity post is...no not me...and not my dog, whose nose you can see....., it is something you cannot see....its the cold virus. Don't let my smile fool you. I feel crappy! Thanks cold #virus! Viruses, are they a life form or not? That's the big debate. They have #DNA or other genetic material and can reproduce, but they do not have a cellular structure and have no metabolism, instead they take over MY cells and use MY cells' metabolism to create more of themselves, disgusting but genius. Meanwhile I feel crappy and my dog wonders why I am not out playing with her. I'd write more about them, but I don't feel much up to it, maybe when I get over this cold.
Again, I have surprised myself in finding winter biodiversity....or at least that which I can take a relatively decent camera phone picture of. This weeks post is the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, a highly social and adaptable bird found throughout most of the U.S., with the exception of the desert southwest. During the winter crows will get together in large communal roosts, however, they continue to defend their territory where they spend the rest of the year. Family groups are common, with young crows helping their parent raise the young of that year. Crows are crafty and intelligent, making and using tools to get food. Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more bird facts and information. For more info on bird intelligence check out: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/year-of-the-bird-brains-intelligence-smarts.
I though it might be a bit tough to come up with a #backyardbiodiversity post for each week during the winter. But look what the cat dragged in....not literally. There has been a mouse in our house for the past month, and live traps did not get him. My cat Marm is more interested in the chase rather than the capture, but she is a good mouse tracker, I could always tell when the mouse was out and about. Well on Monday the mouse ran out from underneath the oven and into one of our small bedrooms and Marm followed. After securing the facilities, I was able to trick the mouse into running into a cardboard box and quickly covered the top. I then released him into the woods out behind our house, and I've been leaving a pile of sunflower seeds near the release site, hoping he decides to stay outside.
I ID'd him as a deermouse with the help of iNaturalist, it was either a deermouse (Peromyscus maniculatus) or a white-footed mouse (P. leucopus). The pics were not good enough to discern the coloration on the tail for a better ID. Both species are common and found throughout North America. According to the internet (sorry not my best lit search skills today) there are either 56 subspecies or 56 species of deermice in North America, either way that's a lot of variation.
How do scientist determine a subspecies versus a species? Ha ha, that discussion is for another post.
As a side note, my pics for this backyard biodiversity series are supposed to be mostly from my phone camera. I aim to get as good of a picture as I can which can be quite tricky not using a regular camera. The close up pics of this mouse are OK, but not as in focus as I would like. And the subjects are any species that I find during my usual wanderings (either at home or in town).
I've been moving all my old laptop computer files to a new desktop, including my old iphoto libraries. Moving from a mac to a pc. Now I am going through all my photos from > 10 years ago to present....yowsers the memories....most of them good :)
It also give me an excuse because I'm trying to look for a good photo of myself in the field, doing fieldy things b/c I am teaching a class this semester and wanted to share.
I haven't found one yet, but here is a super adorable pic of my cat marmalade with a ruffle on, looking like the lion she is, and George Schaller's lions (see book behind her).