By Dr. Ruscena Wiederholt
Over 35,000 species worldwide are threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Sadly, the Greater Everglades illustrates this phenomenon all too well, containing one of the highest concentrations of species vulnerable to extinction in the U.S. The diverse ecosystem in southern Florida is home to more than 70 endangered and threatened species, while our state has the third highest number of endangered species in the U.S. The classification of “endangered” means a species is in danger of becoming extinct, while “threatened” is a less severe classification, meaning a species is likely to become endangered in the near future. Keep reading to learn about a few of these charismatic species in the Everglades.
A subspecies of the mountain lion, Florida panthers are the last population surviving in the eastern United States. While historically they occurred throughout the southeastern U.S., by the early 1900s, their range had shrunk to less than 5% of its original extent. At the same time, their numbers had plummeted from hunting and habitat loss. By the 1970s, only 20 panthers remained. Fortunately, management strategies have helped boost their numbers to around 230 panthers today. However, they still face many threats, including habitat loss, habitat degradation and fragmentation, and collisions with cars.
Photo by USGS
Florida Leafwing Butterfly
The Florida leafwing butterfly is found only in pine rockland habitat. Aptly named, this species conceals its bright orange coloration by folding up its wings, brown and gray on the undersides, to resemble a leaf. An impressive feat of camouflage, most of their native range of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties no longer supports leafwing butterflies. In fact, this species hasn’t been seen outside Everglades National Park since 2007. Reasons for its decline include destruction of its native pine rockland habitat, habitat fragmentation, fire suppression, insecticide use for mosquito control, and collection.
Photo by Mac Stone
Despite their fierce reputations, American crocodiles are shy and elusive. South Florida is the northernmost extent of their range, where they inhabit coastal, brackish, and saltwater habitats. Long-lived, their average lifespans are 60 to 70 years, and they demonstrate parental care, a very unusual trait for reptiles. Historically, hunting was a big threat to crocodiles, while currently, crocodiles are imperiled by continued (illegal) hunting, habitat destruction, hydrological alterations in their habitats, predation, vehicle strikes, disease, and hurricanes.
This striking black and white falcon is often the subject of folklore in Central and South America. You can find these impressive raptors in open and semi-open country in Florida, as well as the southwestern U.S., Central and South America. Not the least bit shy, they can be found on the tallest tree in the landscape, or walking or even running on the ground. Carrion (dead animals) is their main source of food, but they also prey on insects, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. The main risk to their population comes from habitat loss for urban and agricultural development. It is estimated that 400 to 500 Crested Caracara remain in Florida today.
Leatherback Sea Turtle
Named for their rubbery shell, leatherback sea turtles are the largest of Florida’s sea turtles. One of the biggest reptiles in the world, they can reach up to 6 feet in length and weigh a hefty 1,500 pounds. Leatherbacks are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, and in Florida, they inhabit coastal waters, mainly on the Atlantic coast. Unfortunately, leatherbacks are endangered, and the threats to these sea turtles include hunting, egg collection, habitat loss, and incidental take from commercial fishing. They also feed primarily on jellyfish, and marine pollution (such as balloons and plastic bags floating in the water) can be mistaken for jellyfish and ingested.
Tiny polygala is a small, short-lived herb native to southeast Florida. This species is found in pine rocklands, scrub, and high pine and coastal spoil habitats, which are dependent on fire to maintain healthy conditions. Unfortunately, these higher elevation habitats (10 to 20 feet above sea level) were also prime development locations. Today, less than 2% of the pine rockland habitat necessary to support the tiny polygala exists. The remaining tiny polygala populations are mostly found in protected areas; however, fire suppression and invasive species continue to threaten this rare plant.
Photo by Shalana Gray
Florida Bonneted Bat
The Florida bonneted bat is a unique species found only in South Florida. Their large ears resembling a bonnet inspired their name. With wingspans reaching 20 inches, they’re the biggest bat in the state. In contrast to the ultrasonic calls of many bats, their calls can actually be heard by humans. Active year-round, they roost in cliff crevices, tree cavities, and buildings. Unfortunately, these dark brown bats are endangered by habitat loss and degradation, pesticides, and climate change.
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 and endangered species. Restoration of the Everglades also is South Florida’s greatest tool in mitigating harm from climate change.
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