By Dr. Ruscena Wiederholt
Are you uninterested in the mysterious power of the Florida panther, or the timeless beauty of a soaring great egret? Seeking more unusual creatures in the Everglades? Look no further, the diverse ecosystem contains dozens of imperiled species, numerous invasive species, and a few outlandish animals. Read below for some fun facts about unusual Everglades critters.
Six-Spotted Fishing Spider
These large spiders are aptly named after the Greek god of the sea, Triton, through their scientific name, Dolomedes triton. Instead of using spiderwebs to capture prey, they actually hunt or “fish” on the water. These specialized spiders rest their legs on the water’s surface to sense ripples from prey. Once detected, they run across the water to kill their prey, including fish, frogs, insects, and tadpoles. With the aid of venom, prey up to five times their body size is fair game! While spiders get a bad rap as menacing, creepy crawlies, most are harmless and often eat insects we consider pests. In fact, they’re not insects at all, belonging to a different taxon including scorpions, ticks, and mites.
Belonging to a taxon meaning “horse” and “sea monster” in ancient Greek, seahorses are, in fact, delightful little fish. One of three seahorse species in the coastal waters of South Florida, lined seahorses live in coral, mangrove, and seagrass habitat. Good fathers, male seahorses actually care for the eggs. Females deposit eggs into the male’s brood pouch, where he fertilizes and carries them until they hatch. Unfortunately, these charming fish are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Coastal development, marine pollution, trade for aquariums and traditional medicine, and catch from fisheries are the main threats to this species.
Hiding in plain sight, this species is nearly indistinguishable from the familiar American crow. The best way to tell them apart is through their calls; the fish crow sounds more nasal, while the American crow has a harsh caw. Fish crows inhabit beaches, marshes, estuaries, lakes, rivers, agricultural fields, and urban and suburban areas. Found in the eastern and southeastern U.S., their range has expanded northwards and inland in recent decades. Crows belong to the family of corvids, noted for their remarkable levels of intelligence. Corvids use and construct tools, can recognize individual humans by their faces, and themselves in a mirror.
North American River Otter
These lively mammals are comfortable both on land and in the water. Preferring freshwater habitats, they’re found throughout Florida, excluding the Keys. A top predator, they build their burrows on the banks of rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, and swamps. Renowned for their playfulness, they wrestle and chase each other, slide down riverbanks, play hide and seek, and even juggle objects in their paws. These activities are thought to improve their hunting skills and social bonding. The primary threats to these diverting mammals are habitat loss and pollution.
Massive reptiles are an everyday thing in Florida, but gargantuan amphibians, too? Yes, Florida houses the greater siren, one of the largest salamanders in North America, reaching nearly a meter in length. This monster of a salamander has both gills and lungs, allowing them to breathe underwater and in the air. They inhabit wetlands, and if conditions dry out, they burrow into the mud and aestivate. Impressively, this period of dormancy can last for years. As a predator, they eat primarily invertebrates, including insects, snails, crayfish, and spiders. In turn, they’re preyed upon by a variety of top predators, including American alligators, large wading birds, and snakes.
Florida has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of established, non-native reptiles and amphibians in the world. One good example is the spectacled caiman, which arrived in Florida via the pet trade in the 1950s. Originally found from southern Mexico to northern Argentina, their sensitivity to cold temperatures prevents them from expanding northwards in the U.S. Spectacled caimans are a problem, since they prey on native birds, small mammals, fish, and reptiles, and also compete with American alligators.
Armadillo means “armored” in Spanish, since these little mammals are covered in segmented bony plates. Despite this layer of protection, they still fall prey to animals like panthers, alligators, black bears, or large raptors. Contrary to popular belief, they can’t roll into a ball when threatened, although other species of armadillos can. Originally found south of the border, by the late 1800s, they had expanded their range into the U.S. Humans then introduced them to Florida as early as the 1920s. Forested or semi-open habitats are their preferred habitats, and they eat insects, invertebrates, and plants. Interestingly, females always give birth to identical quadruplets, either all female or all male.
The Everglades Foundation’s mission is to restore and protect America’s Everglades. Restoration is the only measure that will increase the southerly flow of freshwater needed to stabilize the critical habitats that are home to many threatened, endangered and unusual species.
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