We had a phenomenal day in the Everglades seeing over 20 different wild animal species before heading to the Everglades Outpost to meet rescued and rehabilitated animals. Read on to learn more about our day!
The second of our spring day programs in Miami was our Exploration: Everglades program. We were so fortunate to not only have a gorgeous, sunny day, but to see over 20 wild species of animals with our phenomenal scientist and naturalist guide, Dylann Turffs.
We started off on Anhinga trail and to our surprise and delight saw our first alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) of the day in the trail’s first 10 feet! It quickly became apparent that we would need an “alligator counter” to tally how many we saw over the course of the day, which totaled 24 – 30 (there may have been some double-counting issues)! As we moved along the trail, we saw an Anhinga bird drying its feathers in the sun with its wings outstretched. Unlike most other birds that coat their feathers in oil to repel water, anhingas don’t have waterproofed feathers. Since they spend so much time in the water, their feathers and dense bones help to make them better underwater hunters. But because wet feathers are so heavy, they have to dry them out before they can fly again.
Continuing along the trail and looking down into the shallow swamp water, we saw a peninsular cooter turtle munching on yellow spatterdock flowers while spotted gar, largemouth bass, and invasive cichlids and tilapia swam below. We took a shade break on the trail, and discussed how scientists like Dylann perform alligator nest surveys to count hatchlings and monitor the population. While these surveys require small teams of people to count the hatchlings and stand guard in case mama gator returns for alligators, crocodile surveys can be done independently because the mothers are so docile! It was fascinating to learn about the many differences between alligators and crocodiles, including behavioral differences and how to tell them apart. For example, did you know that South Florida is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist in the wild? Now you do! Before we left Everglades National Park, we saw an (admittedly strange looking) Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox) on the side of the trail, using its claws to dig through gravel and dirt to make a nest. She quickly realized that directly next to the pedestrian walkway was not a suitable place for her precious eggs, and retreated into the water where she uses her snorkel-like nose to breathe while the rest of her body stays underwater.
For our second trail of the day, we walked along the forested Gumbo Limbo trail, named after the incredible Gumbo Limbo tree (Bursera simaruba), a native plant to South Florida. Its unique red bark hangs loosely on its trunk and peels offs – one of the reasons it’s nicknamed the “Tourist Tree” after sunburnt tourists. This peeling bark functions to keep vines from growing up the tree, and its wide roots make it wind-tolerant, which is a helpful feature considering the frequency of hurricanes in South Florida! We finished off the Gumbo Limbo trail by looking at a Burmese python skin that Dylann had brought with her. We laid it on the group and took a measuring tape so see just how massive this animal was. It came in at just over 12 feet – which is small compared to the maximum recorded length of 18’8”! Since this animal is invasive and grows so big, Burmese python control is a big issue in Everglades National Park. These pythons are ravenous, and their population is having a negative effect on the rest of the Everglades ecosystem by taking out a lot of the smaller mammals including raccoons, foxes, rabbits, and birds, which are all a food source for native alligators and Florida panthers. So how did these animals get introduced into the Everglades when they’re native to South and Southeast Asia? By exotic pet owners that couldn’t handle them anymore and irresponsibly released them into the park.
Following this trail, we enjoyed a shaded lunch at the Park and then ventured on to the Everglades Outpost Wildlife Rescue Center. We decided to contrast seeing wild animals at Everglades National Park with captive and rescued animals at the Outpost to highlight both our human impact and responsibility in saving mistreated individual animals and whole species that we’ve endangered. The Florida panther is a perfect example of this. After intensive hunting in the late 1800s and subsequent habitat destruction (loss of habitat), degradation (loss in quality of habitat), and fragmentation (loss of continuous habitat) since then due to urbanization of South Florida, there are an estimated 100 – 180 Florida panthers left in the wild. If this number seems low to you, know that this is a significant improvement compared to their record-low population of 22 in the wild in the 1950s! Thanks to effective conservation work, which included bringing in 8 female Texan cougars in 1995 to help boost the population in both numbers and genetic diversity, the population is no longer on the brink of extinction. However, it is still considered to be an endangered species, and most certainly still faces most of the same threats that lead to its extreme population declines. It’s considered to be incredibly rare to see a Florida panther in the wild (some Everglades National Park rangers have worked there for decades and not seen one!), which is why it was so special to get to see a rehabilitated female Florida panther at the Everglades Outpost. The Outpost is also home to a Florida black bear, tigers, peacocks, wolves, donkeys, gators, crocodiles, and snakes. All of these animals were taken in either after being abandoned as exotic pets, designated “nuisance animals”, or abused as performance animals. We got to meet and touch a beautiful juvenile alligator with our guide Taylor, before finishing off our program with meeting and holding a juvenile Burmese python. Having seen and measured the 12 foot skin that Dylann brought to show us earlier in the day, it was incredible to see how small these massive animals start out!
We’d like to thank our awesome participants for their engagement and enthusiasm throughout the day, as well as our incredibly knowledgeable guide Dylann Turffs, volunteer Instructor Dr. Catherine Macdonald, and talented photographer Christian Pankow. Thanks to all for making our first ever Exploration: Everglades program a huge success!