2018 Critter-of-the-Year: the pelican
Each year Wild Amelia spotlights one animal, native or migratory to our locale, as a focus of our educational efforts. Below are all 12 critters from 2007–2018.
Both white and brown pelicans are large water birds with short stout legs, long beaks, and large throat pouches that help catch prey, primarily fish, at or near the surface of the water. Air pockets in the pelican’s skeleton and beneath the skin enable pelicans to float high in the water. Their broad, wide wings are perfectly shaped for their soaring and gliding over ocean thermals. White pelicans are larger than brown pelicans; their magnificent large white wings are tipped with black on the underside. Pelicans often plunge almost vertically from high above the water to stun fish before scooping them up in their pouches, which have built-in drains. The white pelicans often work in groups in shallow water to herd fish cooperatively for easy feeding. Brown pelicans tend to nest in trees while white pelicans nest on the ground. Both white and brown pelicans are social birds and travel in flocks and breed in colonies.
While pelican populations have been adversely affected by habitat destruction and environmental pollution from pesticides, the species has made a significant recovery from once being on the brink of extinction.
Florida is home to 170 species of butterflies. All butterflies are herbivores and eat plants and plant nectar and juices. The caterpillar feeds off a host plant; for example, the gulf fritillary’s host plant is the passionflower; the monarch’s, milkweed. The butterfly feeds off special nectar plants. Therefore, good butterfly gardens will offer host and nectar plants for butterfly visitors. Butterflies have an average lifespan of 20-40 days; some species live only 3-4 days, while others may live as long as six months. Wild Amelia will offer educational programs this year about the butterflies of Florida and smart butterfly gardening.
The shark is an often-feared and frequently-misunderstood apex predator common in the waters surrounding Amelia Island and oceans worldwide.
Over the past few decades, shark populations have declined worldwide due to overfishing and habitat loss. Some species are at the edge of extinction due to demand for shark fins as a delicacy food in some parts of the world.
As apex predators, sharks are critical to maintaining population balance in the seas. As shark populations decline, other species can become more prolific, causing serious imbalances in a very delicate food chain.
The most common species in our local waters is the Atlantic sharpnose shark that typically grows to 3-4 feet long. Regional waters also feature blacktips, hammerheads, bull sharks and others, even the occasional great white shark.
Sensational news coverage of shark attacks has contributed to a perception of sharks as ruthless killers, although such attacks are rare and fatal attacks even rarer. Worldwide, there are about 60-80 shark attacks annually. Sharks annually kill and average of 4-6 people globally, although people kill about 100 million sharks every year. Photo by Dollar Photo Club.Learn More
2015 GREEN ANOLE
The green or Carolina anole is a native species with a slender body and long pointed head that can change its color from brown to bright green. Males have a red throat fan (dewlap) exhibited when courting or when claiming territory; females have a white throat fan. The green anole is a curious animal often seen perched on railings, steps, and porches adjacent to foliage. During the summer mating season the males engage in elaborate courtship rituals, including headbobbing, pushups, and throat fan display. Green anoles can regenerate their long tails, often lost to predators; their enemies include skinks, birds, snakes, and invasive brown anoles.
Though still abundant in Florida and the southeast and not a threatened species, many biologists believe the invasive brown anole and possibly the Cuban green anole—now making its way north from south Florida—both aggressive lizards, present a theoretical threat to the survival of the green anole in the future. Already many believe the brown anole has driven the native green anole from the ground to the trees for survival. Although the male green anoles will fight for their territory, the invasive anoles appear much more aggressive. Combined with habitat loss due to land development and the diminution of the trees and shrubs of the maritime forest, this threat of the invasive anoles creates a bleak future scenario for green anoles. Photo by Carol Cusick.
Manatees are thought to have evolved from four-legged land mammals over 60 million years ago. As mammals they nurse their young, which is done underwater, and breathe oxygen. A resting manatee can hold its breath for up to 15 minutes, but when it's swimming, it must surface every 3 or 4 minutes. Their lungs are 2/3 the length of its body.
Even though they live in the water, manatees are more closely related to elephants. Manatees measure up to 13 feet long, and weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. They have paddle-like flippers with a fingernail on the end — a remnant of evolution, when they lived on land. Manatees can live up to 60 years.
In spite of their size, manatees have relatively little fat and are very susceptible to cold. In warmer months they can be found all over Florida but when temps drop they retreat to the warmer springs and south Florida. If the water temp goes below 68 degrees manatees suffer from 'cold stress'.
Manatee pregnancies last for 11 to 13 months. Newborns weigh about 60 pounds. Mothers must take their newborns to the water's surface for their first breath, but calves can swim on their own after an hour or so. They are dependent on their mothers for two years. Manatees give birth to one calf about every three years.
Manatees are the only surviving marine mammals that eat only plants. Each one of the massive sea cows can eat upwards of 100 pounds of vegetation daily. A thick bristly upper lip helps them gather food. The animals use the lip to grasp vegetation, as it is split down the center, and each half can be moved independently.
Humans are the only known predator for manatees. Development has destroyed habitat and polluted water. Because they travel slowly thru shallow water many die from boat strike injuries. Photo by Dawna Moore Photography.Learn More
2013 HORSESHOE CRAB
The earliest horseshoe crab species were crawling around the Earth's shallow coastal seas for at least 100 million years before dinosaurs. horseshoe crabs’ hard outer shell looks like a horse's hoof print and protects their soft underside. Beneath the shell they look quite similar to a large spider. They have five pairs of legs for walking, swimming and moving food into the mouth. The long, straight, rigid tail or telson can be used to flip themselves over if they are turned upside down.
Horseshoe crabs are usually found on the ocean floor but they can swim upside down and propel themselves through the water. They have two primary compound eyes and seven secondary simple eyes. Two of the secondary eyes are on the underside.
Each spawning season, the female will lay about 80,000 eggs. On full moon high tides, usually in the spring, the females will crawl ashore on quiet beaches with little wave energy. The female pauses every few feet to dig a hole and deposit as many as 20,000 pearly green, birdshot-sized eggs . The male then fertilizes the eggs as he passes over the nest. After the spawning is complete, the crabs leave and the waves wash sand over the nest. Females will return to the beach on successive tides, laying 4-5 clutches of eggs with each tide.
At least 11 species of migratory birds (including Red Knot, Least Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Dowitcher) use horseshoe crab eggs as their primary food supply during their 2 to 3 week stopover. The eggs replenish their fat supply during their trip from South American wintering areas to Arctic breeding grounds. Overharvesting of female horseshoe crabs by commercial fishermen, coupled with loss of spawning habitat resulting from beach erosion associated with sea level rise, has resulted in a serious decline in the horseshoe crab population, and in the number of eggs available to feed migratory birds. This, in turn, has led to a dramatic decrease in the size of annual red knot migrating populations, to the point that red knots have been proposed for federally endangered status.
Because of the copper present in their blood, it is blue when exposed to oxygen. Horseshoe crabs play an important role in human health because their blood contains a substance used for fast, reliable testing for infectious bacteria present in drugs and prosthetic devices such as heart valves and hip replacements. Research facilities collect adult horseshoe crabs and bleed them to get this precious fluid. Most animals survive with mortality estimates between 3 percent and 15 percent. Their blood cell count returns to normal after a couple of months. Photo by Dawna Moore Photography.
The most abundant wildcat in the U.S., bobcats are elusive and nocturnal, so are rarely seen by humans. Bobcats usually eat rabbits, birds, mice, squirrels, and other smaller game. They inhabit forests and swamps, and on Amelia Island they can sometimes be seen in Fort Clinch State Park or in Egans Creek Greenway.
Named for their short “bobbed” tails, bobcats are roughly twice as big as the average house cat. They have long legs, large paws, and tufted ears. Most bobcats are brown or brownish red with a white underbelly and short, black-tipped tail. There have been sightings in Florida of bobcats that appear to be black. Their unusual color is due to a genetic difference.
The adult bobcat has few predators other than man, and is still hunted in some areas. Nevertheless, North American populations are
believed to be quite large. The average life span for a bobcat in the wild is 10 to 12 years. Photo by Vicki White.
2011 AMERICAN ALLIGATOR
Alligator mississipiensis have an average length of 11.2 to 14.5 ft in length for males, wand 8.2 to 9.8 ft for adult females. While they generally have a green, olive, brown, gray or nearly black hue with a creamy white underside, algae-laden waters can produce greener skin, while tannic acid from decomposing leaves often produces darker skin.
Gators like it wet, but unlike their cousins the American crocodile, don't really tolerate salt water well and are more likely to be found in fresh to brackish marshes and lowlands. The marsh needs the gator almost as much as it needs the marsh. As apex predators they help control the population of hungry rodents and other animals that can easily overtax vegetation.
Marsh and swamp water is rich in suspended sediment and solids, not a place you can easily "see" your prey. Gators also hunt at night when light is low and clouds can block a perfectly good full moon. Gators have developed thousands of small nodules sprinkled across their faces that act as very sensitive pressure detectors that allow them to sense presence, size, movement, and location of other animals in the water around them.
All alligator activity — feeding, metabolic rate and even digestion — is dependent on external temperature. Feeding ceases when water temperatures drop below about 60°F. Heat from sun activates digestive enzymes, so cold temperatures can kill a gator with a full stomach because the food will not digest.
Optimum body temperature is around 89°F; when air/water temperatures cool, alligators crawl out of the water to warm in the sun where their dark skin absorbs the heat, and when they are too warm, they return to the water to cool off; on cool windy days or hot summer days, they remain in the water. Photo by Scott Moore.
2010 GREAT EGRET
These white, long-legged, S-necked birds feed in salt or fresh water. They snare prey by walking slowly or standing still for long periods, waiting for an animal to come within range of their long necks and blade-like bills. These birds nest in trees, near water, and gather in groups called colonies, which may include other heron or egret species.
The great egret is the symbol of the National Audubon Society and represents a conservation success story. The snowy white bird’s beautiful plumage made it far too popular in 19th-century North America where ladies enjoyed wearing stuffed birds and bird plumage on their hats. Plume hunters decimated the great egret population which plunged by 95 percent. Today the outlook is much brighter. The birds have enjoyed legal protection over the last century, and their numbers have increased substantially. Photo by Kevin Lynch.
2009 NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE
The Northern Right Whale can be found in the areas marked in yellow in the map below. Named by whalers because it was the 'right' whale to hunt, Right whales were easy to kill because they were slow moving and, due to large amounts of blubber, would float after they died. The blubber was made into oil and baleen was used for corsets and buggy whips. Hunted to near extinction they were finally protected in 1931. Although the Southern species seems to be bouncing back, there are only about 300 of the northern species left. Ship collisions and entanglement in fishing gear is the most common cause of injury and death today.
Right whales can be distinguished from other whales by their 'V' shaped blow, stubby pectoral fins, a large head (about 1/4 of body length), callosities, no dorsal fin and a broad, deeply notched tail. The callosities found around the head are actually roughened patches of raised tissue. It has the same color as the whale's skin. The light color is caused by cyamids or 'whale lice' that live on the callosity. The pattern formed by the callosities is unique to each whale and is what researchers use to identify individuals.
Adults are 45-55 feet long and can weigh up to 70 tons. Females are usually 10 years old when they have their first calf. Birthing takes place off the coast of the FL/GA border with the majority of the sightings off Amelia Island. Calving occurs December thru March. But don't get any ideas about going out to try and view a mom and calf — Federal law prohibits approaching a right whale closer than 500 yards. They are frequently within a mile or two of shore, so sightings from the beach are possible. Photo from NOAA.Learn More
2008 GOPHER TORTOISE
A slow moving reptile found in the dunes and wooded areas. If you happen to find one trying to cross the road, help out by carrying it to the other side. And please remember they are NOT sea turtles. There are many stories about poor Gopher Tortoises tumbling in the surf because tourists were trying to 'help the turtle get back home'.
Gopher tortoises are cold blooded reptiles that burrow deep into the earth, building homes for themselves and creating a refuge for other animals. Populations of gopher tortoises are scattered throughout Florida and southern portions of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The species has been reduced throughout its range and is listed as threatened by the State of Florida.
Gopher tortoises live in dry sandy habitats and are usually found in sandhills, pine scrub, flatwoods, dry prairies, and coastal dune habitats. They feed mainly on low growing broad leaf grasses and legumes as well as blackberries, gopher apple, and saw palmetto berries.
Gopher tortoises are estimated to live 40 to 60 years in the wild and do not reach reproductive maturity until 10 to 15 years of age. Mature tortoises usually mate around April or May and females will lay a single clutch of 3 to 15 eggs near the burrow entrance. Gopher tortoise eggs are very vulnerable and about 80 percent of nests are destroyed by predators. After hatching, young tortoises either live in their mothers burrow or dig a small tunnel near her burrow. The burrows, which can be up to 40 feet long and 10 feet deep, maintain a fairly constant temperature and humidity throughout the year and provide the gopher tortoise and other critters with relief from the cold, heat, and dryness of the surrounding habitat. Burrows also act as a refuge from the periodic, regenerative fires that are required to maintain the quality of their scrubby habitats.
Gopher tortoises are known as a keystone species because their burrows provide shelter for so many animals. More than 350 species including mice, skunks, opossums, rabbits, armadillos, snakes, lizards, frogs, toads, and insects utilize the burrows as shelter from predators, weather and fire. Other animals which utilize the gopher tortoise burrows are known as commensal species. Since many commensal species depend on the burrows for survival, decreases in gopher tortoise populations result in a decline of other species. The primary causes of population decline for the gopher tortoise are habitat destruction, human predation, and increased vehicular traffic. Photo by Priscilla Footlik.
2007 PAINTED BUNTING
Described by Audubon as the most colorful bird in the the U.S., the Painted Bunting is sparrow sized between 4.5-5 inches. The male has bright red underparts and rump, green back, blue head and red eye ring. Females are bright green all over and paler below.
A type of medium-sized finch, the Painted Bunting has a stubby beak. They breed from S. Carolina to northern Florida and winter in south Florida, the Caribbean islands and Central America.
Arriving on Amelia Island in April or May, Painted Buntings frequently visit feeders on the edge of woodlands or marsh, and pefer feeders which offer millet seed.
According to long-term Breeding Bird Survey data going back to 1966, the Eastern painted bunting has been declining at an annual rate greater than 3 percent. This translates into more than a 60 percent total population loss. The total eastern population is estimated at about 100,000 birds. Because of its brilliant colors it was a popular cage bird until it came under federal protection; it is still sold in markets in Mexico and the West Indies.
Loss of habitat is the primary cause of painted bunting decline. Buntings rely heavily on grass seeds for food and nest in bushes, thickets and other scrubby places. Although they can coexist with some development, the intensive growth and urban sprawl that has taken place along the Southeastern coast in the past 35 years has permanently eliminated much bunting habitat. Outdoor house cats and nest predation by cowbirds are also a problem. There appears to be a delicate balance between a landscape with enough fields to support painted buntings, but with enough forest to keep predators and cowbirds at a low enough level to maintain high reproductive success. Photo by Dawna Moore Photography.