Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Beyond Breezy

Today’s afternoon beach stroll was more of a forced march into the wind. West central Florida is under a Wind Advisory through tomorrow morning. The high winds (20-25 mph with gusts up to 45 mph) even prompted the closure of the iconic Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which will snarl commuter traffic for anyone heading south from the St. Petersburg/Tampa area. Thank goodness I live and work locally!

On the plus side, I had the beach to myself. Though in places it was hard to recognize my beach under the coating of foam. Some of the foam had a sticky enough composition that it actually picked up sand particles as it rolled along, forming weird, lumpy sand sculptures.

Now I must hit the shower in order to get the sand out of my hair and ears and every other exposed body part!

 

 

Scute

I found this turtle scute on the beach after one of the recent storms. Fear not, my finding of this scute does not imply that a sea turtle died. Aquatic turtles can shed their individual scutes, unlike their terrestrial relatives.

If I was a better researcher I could not only pinpoint the species this scute came from (as each species has uniquely shaped ones) but also its exact position on the carapace. Suffice it to say, it came from one of these three species that frequent Florida’s Gulf Coast: Loggerhead, Green, or Kemp’s Ridley. I omitted the Leatherback as it does not have scutes and also the Hawksbill as it would be recognizable since it is so decorative (items labeled tortoiseshell are derived from this species).

The barnacle cones on both sides of this scute mean that it has been detached for quite some time. I’m surprised that this keratinous structure could survive so long.

Chromatic

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Shell Interior, Myakka River State Park, Sarasota, Florida December 2019

Over 300 native species of freshwater mussels and clams have been documented in the US. Of those, 200 are now either endangered or extinct. All of Florida’s 60 native species are protected to a degree; some are completely off-limits while others have harvest limits of 10 per person per day. The Florida Shiny Spike Mussel (Elliptio buckleyi) falls in the latter category.

There were many of these shells scattered along the banks of the Myakka River during my visit last month. Apparently, the park’s Limpkins find them quite tasty (and more prevalent) than their usual snail fare. I was particularly enamored with the rich, coppery iridescence on the interior of the shells. In case you were wondering, the elliptical shape of the shell is reflected in the Genus name, Elliptio.

Shell No!

Since moving to the Gulf Coast of Florida I’ve been out on the beach every day. My flips come off as soon as I hit the sand and I enjoy meandering along the wrack line, looking for whatever treasures the ocean may have left for me.

I am seldom disappointed, there seems to be no end to the fun discoveries. This recent find, made quite an impression (literally – on the bottom of my foot).  The Florida Spiny Jewelbox (Arcinella cornuta) is an aptly named mollusk, at least as far as the spines go (as for the part about it resembling a jewelry box – I don’t see it, but whatever).

Thankfully, they don’t get much larger than 1 1/2 inches but still, stepping on one is definitely an eye-opening experience!

Crooked One-eye

Came across these Atlantic Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus) exuviae (exoskeletal molts) after a big storm two weeks ago. Contrary to what the common name would have you believe, they are not crustaceans. They are more closely related to spiders than crabs.

In a great example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” horseshoe crabs haven’t changed much in the past 450 million years. Often referred to as a living fossil, the casual observer wouldn’t notice any difference between a modern one and it’s ancient relative.

Not surprisingly for a species with such a long record, they are key elements of their ecosystem: they are known as “walking museums” since their carapaces can host a range of organisms (algae, mollusks, barnacles, etc), their multitudes of eggs feed hordes of birds during spring migration, and the adults are a favored food of the threatened Loggerhead Sea Turtle.

Lastly, a bit about the scientific name (because I’m geeky like that – you’re welcome). Limulus is Latin for askew (though I can’t determine how it describes them) while Polyphemus is one of the Greek Cyclopes in Homer’s Odyssey (based on a mistaken belief that they only had on eye).

 

 

 

Handsome Heron

I was fortunate to be sitting on the bank of the Myakka River when this Green Heron (Butorides virescens) flew in. After assessing me keenly for a few moments, it stalked out to the end of the logjam and settled into hunting position. I waited for awhile, hoping for an action shot, but apparently, I lack the patience of a heron. Fifteen fruitless minutes later, I carefully extricated myself and wished the bird happy fishing.

In certain postures, like when the neck is stretched out, it is possible to confuse this heron with a bittern at first glance (especially with juveniles). Their binomial actually references that similarity, butor is Middle English for bittern, while “oides” means resembling in Greek. Bitterns are nowhere near as colorful, though.

Didn’t the sun highlight this heron’s beautiful plumage nicely?

Itty Bitty

This little octopus (a mere three inches, including arms) was struggling on the beach Monday afternoon. I don’t know why it washed ashore, though part of one arm was missing – perhaps an attack by a predator?

Quick aside, did you know that the correct plural of octopus is octopode? Octopi is incorrect since you can’t Latinize a Greek word. But back to our little guy, I used a nearby shell to scoop it up safely and toss it out in the surf. Good luck, little one!

 

 

Sea Pork

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Sea Pork, Treasure Island, Florida January 2020

Saturday’s wet and windy storm really churned up the shallow water here along the gulf coast of Florida. As a result, all manner of strange things washed ashore, which made today’s beach walk much more interesting.

There were hundreds of gelatinous blobs strewn on the sand. Though most were a pale tan, this coral-colored beauty stood out. My first guess, based on the pattern, was that it was a type of soft coral. An internet search corrected my thinking, sea pork is actually a colonial species of tunicate. It earned its common name because it resembles chunks of meat, not because it is edible.

 

 

 

Shadow Tail

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Eastern Gray Squirrel, Sarasota, Florida December 2019

While bird watching at a park, I came across this attractive squirrel who was people watching. Instead of scurrying off, it was gracious enough to pose nicely for me. The prolific Eastern Gray (Sciurus carolinensis) is the most common of three squirrels found here in Florida (the other two are the Fox and Southern Flying).

While this one wasn’t sporting the biggest appendage I’ve ever seen, the genus name is quite apt; the Greek root words, skia and oura, translate as shadow tail.

 

Lame Limpkin

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Limpkin, Myakka River State Park, Sarasota, Florida December 2019

I felt fortunate to spend a bit of quality time last week with this Limpkin (Aramus guarauna). It is the closest I’ve yet seen one, the others I encountered during my last trip to Florida were much more reticent to being photographed.

Two things I would’ve liked to have experienced: their limping gait (hence their name) and their wailing cry. I’ve read that you can often hear them before you see them. While it shares a common ancestor with cranes, the Limpkin is the only extant survivor of its lineage. Unlike cranes, which are resourceful, unfussy eaters, Limpkins primarily specialize in apple snails (up to 70% of their diet).

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For Perspective, This Bird Stands Over Two Feet Tall with a Wingspan Over 40 Inches

This one’s missing toe may be the result of a turtle attack (the birds often stand on floating vegetation and are therefore susceptible to turtle bites).