A Naturalist Returns to Florida

November 5, 2014

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson






I would have to say that I have never seen a natural area, in contrast to most urban landscapes, that I did not find interesting. But as frost rapidly envelops our Virginia Blue Ridge farm, my thoughts turn to warmer climates where there will still be flowers and more active animals. So it is a joyous occasion for our fall migration to our winter domicile in SW FL. These photos record some of the things I have seen during our first two weeks near Englewood, FL.

Beetles (Coleoptera) are the most abundant animal group in terms of species. One of my favorites is a dung, scarab, or rhinoceros beetle that is found around mammalian poop. If you want to find them, visit a farm as I did recently and I was amazed to see a number of rainbow scarabs floundering in a sheep drinking water tank. The male has a long horn and is iridescent in a remarkable panoply of colors. Such a prismatic sheen can be found in some burrowing species and is apparently due to micro-striations of the integument which decrease the sticking of soil or dung. Such structural colors (as in the throat of hummingbirds) as distinct from hues due to pigments vary due to the direction of light and are thus very difficult to photograph. The beetles also fly readily and this may explain my intense concentration while I hold one on my hand. These beetles roll up balls of dung, bury them and lay eggs on them. Certainly it is ironic that such an amazing animal is associated with such a peculiar food source; the disgust factor did not prevent the ancient Egyptians from worshiping them.

Butterflies of a variety of colors have been numerous and I show four different species that illustrate the wide variety of leps that are flying in this area. The little metalmark is small but striking and is shown here nectaring on a hemp plant, Mikania, in a ditch along the road. The Dorantes long-tailed skipper has distinctive extensions of the hindwings and is here shown nectaring on Jamaican porterweed, one of the most attractive exotic flowers for butterflies. The whirlabout skipper is tiny and is here sipping nectar from a native cow pea. This viceroy butterfly is perched on a willow tree which is its larval food plant; as a result its caterpillars and adults are toxic and are involved in a Muellerian mimicry complex with two other kinds of toxic leps the milkweed specialists (monarch, queen and soldier) and the passionvine specialist, the Gulf fritillary.

I was checking on happenings at Wildflower Preserve and found this female Florida softshell turtle basking on one of the rafts constructed by volunteers. Since constructed ponds tend to be deep and lack basking logs, such rafts can provide great habitat for reptiles and birds.

As we passed Celery Fields in Sarasota we stopped briefly and I was pleased to see a young purple gallinule feeding on flowers and seeds of alligator flag (Thalia) that was planted in created wetlands. This success is something we hope to repeat at Wildflower when the wetlands are restored.

Finally I visited the Spit which is a beach extension on northern Palm/Knight Island and was rewarded by close views of a male osprey (note all white chest) standing precariously on a stake put up to separate shorebird nesting areas. Note the huge talons on this bird, the better to catch and hold slippery fish.

So wherever you find yourself this fall, enjoy the natural world !

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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