Marvelous Animals of Myakka State Park

February 3, 2018

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

Several days after a winter cold front has passed is a spectacular time to visit Myakka State Park, since it tends to be cool but sunny with little wind. Many of the iconic animals are on display, such as the piles of large alligators basking along the river banks. As heterothermic reptiles that need to warm up to properly digest their food, cool sunny days are a perfect time to raise their body temperatures by sun bathing. All of the gators seem very well fed, likely due to the abundance of prey fish such as the invasive African tilapia.

Near the gigantic gators there are often numerous water birds feeding in close proximity. Below the low dam or weir that controls water flow from Upper Myakka Lake, there was an amazing congregation of limpkins. Although they traditionally feed on apple snails, many of these limpkins were eating the large fresh water mussels (likely Florida shiny spike mussels, Elliptio buckleyi) which are common here. Freshwater mussels are unusual (compared to salt water species) in that they remain somewhat mobile as adults and can even migrate up and down the river since their larval stage attaches to the gills of fish such as bluegills, bass and gar ( http://orchidswamp.org/mollusking-in-the-fakahatchee-part-1/ ).

Anhingas, the large freshwater underwater swimming cousins of cormorants, are often seen perched on waterside bushes and trees, sometimes drying their wings after pursuing their food fish. This beautiful male seems to be flaunting his stuff, perhaps to attract females. Indeed when such “gaudy males” are prettier than females, this indicates that females are choosing their mates based on the physical attractiveness of a given male, which reflects his genetic superiority over rival males.

Red shouldered hawks are fairly common in Florida during the winter. Two varieties occur, one that migrates from northern areas for the winter and a paler version that spends the entire year in Florida. During our visit we encountered mainly the pale Florida red shouldered and this individual perched on a power line is even lighter than normal.

So if you visit Myakka State Park, check out the river bridge area, any wetlands which are drying up and contain a high density of food fish, the northern boardwalk, and the weir and enjoy the amazing display of birds and reptiles.

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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