Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Invisible Threat - The Atlantic Bottle-nosed Dolphin

While bobbing in the ocean recently I heard a young boy scream “TIBURON!”

I know some Spanish, but it was the frantic tone in his voice that helped me quickly translate a word that I normally associate with a local golf course or a Hyundai coup. In this case – Tiburon meant “SHARK!”
Neck deep in the Gulf of Mexico, I turned away from the beach and watched a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncates) arc through the water in graceful undulations. I looked down around my feet and watched, just in case, fully prepared to launch myself from the water if anything shark-like stirred beneath me. It didn’t. And there are worse things than sharks in the gulf.

Throughout the summer of 2010, an estimated 5 million barrels of oil streamed from the bottom of the ocean and spread north along the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coast, impacting hundreds of millions of sea creatures including fish, shellfish, sea turtles, birds, manatees and dolphins. Thousands of injured or dead animals were collected as the oil flowed unabated day after day in the largest oil spill in U.S. history. When the leak was plugged and the oil stopped flowing, the threat to wildlife and the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico continued even if the media coverage trickled to a stop.

Apparently the Gulf dodged an unprecedented environmental disaster? According to a government report, as of August 4th when the Deepwater Horizon wellhead was capped, of the estimated 120 million gallons, 17% of the oil was captured, 8% was burned, 8% was dispersed with chemicals, 26% remained onshore and 41% evaporated, dissolved or dispersed naturally. Images of vast oil slicks have been replaced by news of oil-devouring microbes that have perpetually kept natural oil seeps in the Gulf from blackening the waters. While many are quick to declare victory after an agonizing four months of the disaster, I can’t help but be a cynic. I worry that the health of the gulf will continue to be impacted for years to come.

I watch the dolphins swim away and eventually disappear. I can’t see them but I know they’re still there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What is Wrong With This Picture?

I was driving north on SR-29 in the Everglades when a pair of Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) caught my eye as they surveyed the canal for Apple Snails. I pulled onto a bridge spanning the waterway and took a few pictures. If the water in the canal beneath me was clean and clear, I wouldn’t have this irrational fear of falling in, but the narrow concrete wall I’m standing on descends down into the water where there is an amassment of garbage and floating plants that reminds me of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars. I think I’d rather fall into that mess than what I’m looking at. At least I’d have a Wookie to save me.

The culvert was packed with garbage-battered Water Lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). Although listed as an exotic species, Water Lettuce is considered by some as a native plant, having been documented in Florida as far back as 1765. As the name implies, it looks like a floating lettuce plant. Water Hyacinth was introduced to Florida in 1884 and has been a nuisance in our waterways ever since.
Just about everything that had floated down to this point was jammed into a floating trash heap. A soccer ball, a light bulb, ceiling insulation, various glass, plastic and Styrofoam bottles and cups and a bag of dirty diapers. Adorning the bloated bag of baby waste – several thousand flamingo-pink, exotic apple snail eggs.

Although we have native Florida Apple Snails (Pomacea paludos), a favorite food for Limpkin and Snail Kites, several exotic species including those pictured here, have been introduced through the aquarium trade. Exotics out compete the native species and are a low-grade substitute food source.
So what is wrong with this picture? Everything.

I pledge to myself to help clean up messes like these, prevent waste from getting in our waterways and educate people on stopping the spread of nuisance aquatics. As I return to my vehicle, I notice a cup has escaped through the culvert and is floating down the canal.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fly and I

Life is short. Enjoy every moment. Clearly that is what this Common Housefly (Musca domestica) was thinking when it lit upon the radiant, pinkish-purple, rain-kissed Glades Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata). Right?
With only 2-4 weeks to enjoy life as a winged adult, there is so much to see and do! There’s the perfect mate to find – oh those compound eyes! Garbage to locate – does this smell rotten to you? Perfect! And 500 maggots to tend to – the sight would be enough to drive a fly to drink – out of the glass at your picnic.
Through multi-faceted lenses in the eye, the subtle gradient from cherry blossom pink to violet, reflected through massive, coalesced water droplets must look magnificent. The tightly spiraled tendrils of the climbing vine must appear dizzying as it twists skyward and out of sight.
Or maybe a fly landed on a perfectly water-dappled flower just as I took the picture and my attempt to shoo it away cast off the liquid decoration, leaving with a lovely photo of a flower with a fly in it.
Either way, I’d like to believe the fly and I enjoyed this ephemeral moment. The Morning Glory unfurled with the rising sun, stayed open all day as it enjoyed a rare, overcast summer day and a typical Florida, late-afternoon rain shower before it withered up and went to seed as morning glories do.
The fly probably flew off and regurgitated on someone’s BBQ before being swatted.
What a day.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Small Bites - The Yellow Rat Snake

You know you’ve done it. You ate the whole thing. And you can’t believe it. Now you’re trying to digest the 32 ounce steak and a double serving of apple pie (with a slice of cheese) along with the side of vanilla ice cream. You couldn’t help yourself. I do it too, from time to time. I get overwhelmed by the notion that I might never eat again so I better eat everything in front of me.
Snakes do not have to eat every day. Some don’t have to eat every year, but when they do they put themselves in a precarious position during digestion. When I came across this 5-foot Yellow Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) in the Big Cypress National Preserve, it was hard to miss the rat-shaped bulge in its midsection. I could tell it was a male because if it was a female it would have asked “does this rat make me look fat?”

The snake paused. Clearly not blending in. Probably thinking it did. It didn’t even blink. Mostly because snakes don’t have eyelids. Not wanting to disturb the digestive process, I kept my distance while I photographed the constrictor.
I considered what had gone on before. An unsuspecting rodent of some type was seized by the snake, who coiled around its prey and squeezed the life out of it. Once its lunch was dead, the rat snake opened its mouth upwards of 130 degrees and began to systematically swallow the critter whole. Muscles in our esophagus help us get food from mouth to stomach. Snakes don’t have those muscles but instead rely on the movement of the entire body to envelope their prey and get food to where it needs to be for digestion.
I then considered what was in store for the rat snake. The rodent was now riding the reptilian roller coaster of digestion and within the next five days will be reduced to nothing but fur. Inside, the snake’s intestine will grow 2-3 times the normal size, allowing for an increased amount of digestive juices to dissolve the food to nutrients. It’s a meal that may hold the snake over for weeks if not months if no other prey is available.
I better go eat dinner now. Must remember to take small bites.