Dazzled by Florida’s Critters

January 15, 2012

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson


Just after arriving in Florida for the winter season in late October, an early blizzard is sweeping the northlands and I am dazzled by the array of fabulous creatures that are still active in Florida. The photos shown here are from several days of roaming in the parks near Englewood, FL.

In Wildflower Preserve I saw a honeybee nectaring on a primrose willow, which is neither type of plant, but is related to the evening primroses. Some people consider this an obnoxious marsh plant since it is commonly associated with high nutrient sites affected by human activities. But it is only telling us that we have done a poor job of taking care of our water quality- it is not the fault of the plant.

I have been startled by the number of plants in bloom in pine flatwoods this late in the season. This female scoliid wasp was nectaring on a paintbrush on a cool morning in Manasota Scrub Preserve. This species is a parasitoid on subterranean grubs of beetles, such as the large scarab larva shown. These beetle grubs burrow during their larval life and are avidly sought by moles and white ibis that probe for them in lawns. They emerge as the spectacular male ox beetle shown with horns like a rhinoceros. These are used for combat between males in a display of reproductive ardor quite unexpected in an insect.

An insect that should not be touched is this caterpillar of the Io moth which was found in Amberjack Preserve. Moth larvae with spines or hairs should always be avoided since they are often noxious. This creature has a double means of protection- it is camouflaged by its green coloration but will protect itself if found.

A bizarre reptile found crossing a trail in Wildflower Preserve is this island glass lizard. It seems to be a snake but has eyelids and external ears. It has a very long tail- longer than the body (can you see where the cloacal opening is at the junction between the two parts)? It is famous for breaking apart at this point, leaving a thrashing tail for the predator to eat while the body escapes.

I observe many interesting animals from my back porch and the wood stork shown here was standing in my neighbor’s yard. Notice the pink feet which seem to be an anomaly. What function could they possibly serve? Watch wood storks feeding and you will obtain your answer. They often shuffle their feet while walking in shallow water with their partially open beak just in front. Apparently the startling pink feet scare up small prey which attempts to flee, but some are caught by the rapid closure of the beak. Stranger than fiction perhaps?

So while many visitors to Florida are toasting themselves on the beach or enjoying a theme park, I recommend visiting one of your local parks and looking around for some of Florida’s fabulous critters.

Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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