Archive for ‘Nature Notes’

Daytime Surprise

It must’ve been the clouds that convinced this primarily nocturnal Atlantic Ghost Crab (Ocypode Quadrata) to open its burrow and venture out. Even though they are pretty good at matching their surroundings, these crabs are a favorite food of gulls, hence their preference for the nighttime hours.

As you can tell from the numerous trails around the hole, the species name ocypode (from Ancient Greek meaning “fast feet”) is rather fitting. These speedy critters dine on anything from sea turtle eggs and hatchlings to other crabs to mole crabs (similar to ones I discussed while living on the Oregon coast).

It was fun to catch a quick glimpse!

Helpful Hopper

I disturbed this Southern Toad’s (Anaxyrus terrestris) daily routine with one of my recent digging projects. I was pleased to discover this nocturnal hopper in my yard since they are known to devour roaches and other nighttime creepy crawlies.

As a true toad it is toothless, covered in warts, and sports two parotoid glands. An effective defense mechanism, the toad can secrete a toxin from these glands that deters predation.

Thankfully for dog owners, the Southern Toad’s poison is not nearly as powerful as that of the non-native Cane Toad (now found throughout Florida) or the Sonoran Desert Toad out west. Years ago, I had to rinse out the mouth of a dog that made the terrible mistake of trying to chew on one, Shelby never did that again!

Welcome to my ‘hood, little one. May you live long and prosper!

Things Are Not Always as They Appear

Met this Eastern Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis) in my backyard a couple days ago. At first glance I presumed it was a small snake, thankfully it let me take a photo before moving under my wood pile. A bit of research and I was surprised to learn this was actually one of the two legless lizard species found here in Florida.

The vertical white bars behind the head differentiate this one from the Slender Glass Lizard. The glass part of the name comes from their ability to break or shatter their tail as needed.

Unlike snakes, legless lizards have moveable eye lids and external ear openings but they lack flexible jaws (which limits the size of their prey). While they can reach lengths up to 42″ this one was relatively small (about 15″) so it probably eats mostly insects. A welcome addition to my yard for sure!

Tiny Two-fer

I discovered this petite, maroon beauty growing along the canal across the street from my house yesterday. The aptly-named Cow Pea (aka Phasey Bean Macroptilium lathyroides) is a high-protein legume commonly used as a forage crop for cattle (added benefit for the farmer, it is also a nitrogen fixer which helps replenish depleted soil).

Native to South and Central America, Cow Pea was introduced to Florida for agricultural use but in 2013 it earned a spot on the state’s invasive species list. This adaptable little plant not only self-pollinates but it can tolerate wet locations, sandy or clay-filled soil as well as salty areas. Another key to its success? Two pounds of Cow Peas contains roughly 119,000 seeds – that’s a lot of potential for spreading!

On the plus side, it is favored by local pollinators, including butterflies which some think the flower resembles.

Expertly Entitled

This little crab caught my eye as it swam rapidly past me in the gulf yesterday. Since most of the crabs I’m familiar with tend to walk sideways on land (or the seafloor), my curiosity was piqued.

I used a nearby cluster of floating leaves to gently scoop up the crab and carried it to shore for a quick photo op. The crab didn’t seem all that perturbed by the detour, it occupied its time by chowing down on algae scraped from the leaves.

I’m glad I went to the effort because it was a rather handsome specimen – just look at that opalescent purple! Though I didn’t uncover a wealth of information about the species I was at least able to identify it as a male, Iridescent Swimming Crab (Portunus gibbesii). A very descriptive moniker!

And yes, he was carefully returned to the water afterwards.

Natural Imitation

While we’re still talking about Pen Shells (Atrina rigida), a friend pointed out that this one’s dark spot resembles the tail spot on Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus).

Looks to me like the mollusk had encountered a grain of sand and dealt with the irritating intruder by encapsulating it (essentially forming a small pearl). Nature is endlessly interesting!

Smooth and Shiny

Found this sizable, deceased insect on my back porch a couple weeks ago (it measured at least an inch long). After a bit of searching I was able to identify it as a female Smooth Ox Beetle (Strategus antaeus) – the males of this species sport long horns as do other beetles in that family. It is closely related to the Rhinoceros Beetle I found last year about this time.

I wasn’t able to learn much more about the species, except that the ones found here in Florida tend to grow larger and sport darker colors compared to those living in northern climates. Presumably something to do with the 361 days of sunshine we have down here in this part of Florida?

Danger Cone

I stumbled across this interesting specimen while strolling around the estate of John Ringling in Sarasota earlier this week (more about the estate soon). Fascinated by the twisted symmetry, I thought it was part of an unraveled pinecone but couldn’t spot the source tree.

Thankfully, Jesse the head landscaper was passing by and he pointed out the tree (even better, he gave me permission to keep the segment). The tree was roped off to protect visitors from the falling cones – larger than coconuts, the cones weigh anywhere from 20-40 pounds.

Araucaria bidwillii, commonly known as the Bunya Pine, is not a true pine at all, instead it is one of the last surviving species of the family Araucariaceae (all but one of which reside in the Southern Hemisphere). This particular species is found in Queensland, Australia and, like most native things down under, it has the ability to kill you.

Which reminds me of an excerpt from Bill Bryson’s “In a Sunburned Country”:

[Australia] is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. … If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.

Not only are the falling cones dangerous but you do not want to be near one when the spiked branches start whipping in the wind. On the other hand, the cones do contain large chunks of edible nutmeat, said to resemble the flavor of chestnuts.