Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Looks Can Be Deceiving

I found this juvenile Gafftopsail Catfish (Bagre marinus) while walking my beach last month (somehow I neglected to talk about this little guy earlier).

Just under 5″ long, this saltwater cat had recently left dad’s protection. Males of this species not only keep the eggs in their mouths while they incubate but even the fingerlings. Afterward they stay under his guardianship until 4-5″ long.

Though this small fish looked harmless I resisted the urge to pick it up with my bare hands. Instead, I carefully used my shoe to flip it back into the surf. Good thing too, since this species packs venomous spines in its fins.

Spectacular Day!

I had a plethora of things on my to-do list yesterday but instead I spent the entire day exploring Fort DeSoto Park. My 9am arrival coincided with low tide which, combined with the recent full moon, meant there was a lot of exposed sand.

Which in turn led to some fun finds; Small Spine Sea Stars (Echinaster spinulosus), Atlantic Purple Sea Urchins (Arbacia punctulata), Keyhole Sand Dollars (Mellita tenuis), Atlantic Horseshoe Crab molts (Limulus polyphemus), a Giant Red Hermit Crab (Petrochirus diogenes) occupying a Horse Conch (Triplofusus giganteus), and a vibrant crimson sea pork (the most colorful one I’ve yet seen).

This was my first visit to the park in awhile, the gulf waters around the park had suffered a late-in-the-year outbreak of red tide last month. Thankfully, that seems to have subsided, though the evidence remains.

The swashline was littered with fish carcasses, I didn’t spend much time up there (though I was excited to find the mouth plate of a drum fish). You can imagine the stench (thank goodness for the strong breeze). A large flock of Turkey Vultures (nature’s cleanup crew) was on hand, happily dealing with the mess.

My friend Alyssa joined me about noon and we spent the early part of the afternoon wandering the bayside of the park. The calm waters surprised us with several large Lightning Whelks (Sinistrofulgur perversum) and some juvenile Horseshoe Crabs.

They were the smallest I’ve ever seen and one had a translucent shell, which meant it had recently molted (an indicator that the eating is good in that area since they molt as they grow). Though once prolific in this area it is now a species of concern in the state. I reported our sightings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help with their monitoring efforts.

Afterward we took our chairs to the beach to enjoy the last of the daylight, what a spectacular day!

Plant It and They Will Come

Since it’s playoff season, I felt it was appropriate to borrow (and slightly alter) a phrase from the world of baseball. The saying rings true in my front yard. Shortly after moving in, I dug out my entire lawn and replaced it with a pollinator garden. I carefully selected native and other plants that would flower year-round.

The pretty pops of color not only look attractive but they attract dozens of species to my yard. This week I couldn’t help but notice a large bee buzzing around.

He was so busy devouring nectar that I was able to capture a few decent photos of this Eastern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa virginica). Two species of Xylocopa occur in Florida, thankfully identifying this one was easy because he was massive! The other species is quite small in comparison.

Their glossy bodies help differentiate them from Florida’s five species of bumblebees. The yellow dot on his forehead (see the first photo) indicates that this was a male, since females lack that distinctive feature.

Colorful Surprise

I was puttering in my friend’s backyard down in Bradenton last weekend when I was urgently summoned to his front yard. I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe another stray cat to befriend? I took one glance at the bright colors and dashed back to grab my phone so I could get a couple photos.

Good thing I hustled because this boy was not a slowpoke. The Ameiva ameiva’s common name, Jungle Runner, is very well-deserved! Native to Central and South America (and parts of the Caribbean) this colorful lizard has made itself at home in parts of south Florida since the 1950s.

I have no way of knowing whether this handsome male was someone’s escaped pet or a part of the resident population’s expanding tribe. He didn’t stick around for long, quickly finding cover under weeds and detritus in the neighbor’s yard.

It was fairly easy to track his movements, as the standard anoles and other yard lizards all scurried out of his way. At 20 inches long he was 4-5 times their size, must’ve seemed like Godzilla to them!

Fantastic Phenomena

Ready for the Night
Movement Makes the Magic Happen!
Stir It Up!

After learning about the nearby fluorescent, bioluminescent waters last year I had to patiently wait for all the right factors to align (warm water, new moon, time off, cooperative weather, and synchronized schedules with friends). Luckily, everything worked out just right last night!

Katie, Lori, Arlene, Al, and I paddled out of the tiny Safety Harbor marina around 9:30pm (roughly an hour after sunset). I was eager with anticipation and it didn’t take long before we were all oohing and aahing over the mesmerizing display.

The light show is courtesy of millions of minute dinoflagellates (Pyrodinium bahamense) which emit a blue light when disturbed. The water was calm, a large ray flitted under us, dolphins swam by, and we were the only paddlers on the water. Though the camera on my phone barely captured the phenomena, it was magical. Thank you phytoplankton (and friends) for lighting up the night!

Night Swimmer

I was a bit surprised to see this snake swim by last night at John’s Pass. Sadly, after much fruitless searching, I still haven’t any idea exactly what it is. It certainly looked like a capable swimmer that knew how to hunt for food. Did you see it bump the algal clump (in the middle of the video), in an attempt to dislodge any hiding prey?

According to my research, there are not any sea snakes native to the Atlantic Ocean (and thereby, the Gulf of Mexico). Though there have been sightings of sea kraits and Yellow-bellied Sea Snakes in the past few years.

One hypothesis suggests that ships are responsible for these new visitors. It is possible that the snakes were suctioned up with ballast water in other tropical waters and then accidentally released here when the weight was no longer needed. There is documentation that other species have been introduced in this manner.

No matter what it is or how it got here, it certainly looked quite at home!

Not Trash!

I’ve been picking up litter ever since I was little, it’s a hard habit to break. After all these years, I have a good eye for spotting trash and other oddities (things that seem out of place).

During the summer months, it’s fairly common to find curved, plastic-like structures on the beach. I will admit that my first summer here I presumed they were some kind of marine debris. Maybe from a fishing vessel? So, into the trash they went.

Last year, I didn’t pick them up. I still didn’t know what they were but I had a feeling that they were some sort of natural phenomenon. I was curious about them (but obviously not enough to take the time to photograph or research them).

A couple months ago, I was delighted to randomly come across an article that explained these strange shapes were not trash but were, in fact, egg casings created by the Shark Eye Moon Snail (Neverita duplicata). I tucked that important information away and waited for summer.

Last week I found my first egg casings (or sand collars) of the season. Each one contains thousands of eggs carefully secreted by the female snail into a protective, gelatinous structure. After a quick photo shoot, I carefully buried them back in the sand.

It takes them about six weeks to hatch so hopefully next month there will thousands of veligers floating in the water!

Consider Me Chuffed!

While strolling the beach earlier this week I chanced upon my first Banded Tulip Snail (Cinctura lilium hunteria) shell. Carefully, I picked it up and turned it over. Most of the time when I find gastropod shells they are still in use by the sea snail. Other times they have been claimed by hermit crabs. In either case, I fling them back into the water so they can go about their lives in the sublittoral zone.

As decorative as it was, I was thrilled that this three inch long shell was devoid of inhabitants. There’s a lot going on with this shell: a thin, brown line spirals around the whorl while mauve and blue-gray streaks contrast against a creamy white background. Talk about eye-catching!

It now has a prominent place among my ever-growing shell collection. Did you know? A shell expert is a conchologist (if you were a researcher working with the live animals you’d be a malacologist).