A Manatee Christmas

A Manatee Christmas

Here are a few natural things I associate with the holiday season: tangerines in my stocking (or now my kids’ stockings), fresh-squeezed orange juice from a backyard tree, and the chance to see manatees in one of our local springs.

Winter is manatee-viewing season because when the temperature drops, manatees seek the constant 72-degree waters of the springs. As big as they are, West Indian Manatees are sensitive to cold, and it’s a contributing factor to their status as an endangered species. (Other factors are injuries from boats and sadly, a mysterious ailment and a red tide this year that resulted in record manatee deaths).

During periods of colder weather (when the water drops below about 68 degrees Fahrenheit), large numbers of manatees congregate in places like Blue Spring on the East Coast and Crystal River/Homosassa Springs on the West Coast. During cold snaps, you can also find groups of them gathered in the waters next to power plants since power plants constantly pump out warm water.

There’s even a Manatee Viewing Center operated in part by the Tampa Electric Company, which is also a great place to see Tarpon and fiddler crabs and learn about native plants like mangrove trees.

ManateeBecause manatees seek protection in our warmer, inland waters and are by default in close proximity to people, there are protections in place to keep manatees safe and free from harassment. In most places in Florida, people are not allowed to touch manatees. In Blue Spring during the winter season (November 15 through March 15), there is no swimming, snorkeling, diving, or boating allowed, but you can walk out on the docks and watch them float by.

The exception to this rule is Crystal River, where people are allowed to swim with manatees, and there are many charter snorkeling and dive trips allowing tourists to see manatees up close.  There’s some controversy about this exception (as recently reported in this National Geographic article), but it’s a big tourist draw, and people are curious about these gentle giants.

Manatees are revered as well as endangered, and if you look closely, you will find manatee images all over Florida. They’re an integral part of natural Florida and easy to spot during the winter. If you’re in Florida, go see some sea cows this holiday season.

The Unlikely Upside of Reports of Florida Panther Deaths

The Unlikely Upside of Reports of Florida Panther Deaths

pantherOf course it’s bad news that a record number of Florida panthers – 17 – have been killed this year, mainly hit by cars. But wildlife experts and the media are reporting that there is a positive side to this news, and that is simply that the population of panthers is growing. For an animal that people believed would go extinct and is certainly still on the brink of extinction, an increase in sightings actually points to progress. The panther population had dwindled to about 30 panthers statewide two decades ago and now has reportedly grown to between 100 and 160. It’s all due to genetic restoration (breeding Florida panthers with their cougar relatives in Texas) and the conservation efforts of biologists, state organizations, and concerned citizens. Check out this WFTX-TV story on the Florida panther – with a reminder for people in the Collier County panther-crossing areas to observe posted speed limits to protect Florida’s most endangered state symbol.

Learn more about the Florida Panther from the FWC’s Florida PantherNet and the Florida Panther Protection Program.

Image Credits: Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources, Florida PantherNet

In Praise of Vultures

In Praise of Vultures

I’ll be the first one to admit that the vulture is not a favorite bird.

Let’s face it; there’s not a lot of love for the vulture. The two types we encounter here in Florida – the black vulture and the turkey vulture – are protected species, not endangered. But even if they were endangered, I very much doubt you’d see their likeness on t-shirts, or knickknacks, or license plates with “save the vulture” slogans.

Vultures don’t typically grace the covers of nature magazines and you’d be hard-pressed to find a sports team calling itself “the mighty vultures” (although I’d be willing to bet someone, somewhere has used the name just to sound ominous). Vultures are symbolically associated with death, although – interestingly – the ancient Egyptians associated them with motherhood because of the way vultures fiercely protect their young.

VultureoceanIn our culture, however, vultures are not so revered. Vultures have two strikes against them. First, they don’t conform to our ideal of beauty when it comes to birds. Vultures tend to have wrinkly, bald heads, and some types are nearly all black and appear hunchbacked. (There are some vultures – especially the ‘Old World Vultures’ native to Europe, Africa, and Asia – that are arguably more attractive). Second, they eat roadkill (or things that just plain died). Therefore, people find them disgusting.

But, if you think about it, vultures actually do us a service. Vultures clean up our streets. If it weren’t for vultures and other scavengers, we’d have to spend more taxpayer dollars on roadkill cleanup services. They actually keep our cities and streets cleaner and more sanitary. And vultures are actually clean animals since the strong acids in their stomachs kill bacteria and disease (even anthrax). Therefore, what comes out is cleaner than what goes in the vulture.

“Vultures are very important to our environment. Without them, there would be dead animal bodies lying all over,” said Raptor Clinic Technician/Volunteer Coordinator Beth Lott who works with the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, Florida. “I like to think of them as nature’s cleanup crew.”

Vulture,_Turkey_KenSladeBecause vultures are so disliked, they are actually more likely to suffer injuries deliberately inflicted on them by humans, according to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey. The bird rehab facility often receives vultures that have been hit by cars or otherwise attacked. Just like they would an injured eagle, osprey, or hawk, the Audubon center takes them in, nurses them back to health, and releases them, if possible.

“People do injure these birds often – sometimes on purpose,” said Lott. “Vultures are often hit by cars, mainly [because] they eat roadkill, and they are shot fairly frequently as well. We get roughly 40 vultures a year, consisting mainly of black vultures, but we get turkey vultures too.”

Lott says vultures have been given a bad rap. “I am not sure if the Audubon Magazine has ever featured vultures on their cover. I have seen a few knickknacks of vultures, but they are few and far between,” says Lott. Yet vultures are actually one of the most intelligent birds the Audubon Center works with. “They have to be wily,” says Lott.

So the next time you see a vulture at the zoo or even by the side of the road, try to consider its good qualities – its intelligence, its nurturing side, its usefulness as the garbage collectors of our streets. And here’s a thought: vultures could be awfully helpful in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

Photo credits: Don DeBold, Dick Daniels, Ken Slade

Win a Surfboard, Reduce Your ‘Plastic Footprint’ with Surfrider’s October Campaign

Win a Surfboard, Reduce Your ‘Plastic Footprint’ with Surfrider’s October Campaign

In October, Surfrider and Teva are sponsoring Rise Above Plastics Month, with scary facts about plastic and our oceans – and a challenge to everyone to “reduce your plastic footprint.”

Here are a few spooky thoughts from the Surfrider Foundation:

  • Plastics are the most common type of marine litter worldwide, accounting for 90 percent of floating debris.
  • Plastics do not biodegrade, but instead break down into small particles that persist in the ocean, absorb toxins, and enter our food chain through fish, sea birds, and other marine life.
  • In certain places of the ocean, the amount of suspended plastic particles actually outnumbers ambient plankton.

Click here to read Surfrider’s 10 ideas for reducing plastic in your life: http://www.rapmonth.org/10-ways/

One Foot at a Time Plastic-Art Contest

You can also have some fun creating ‘found art’ from a Surfrider beach cleanup event or your own plastic cleanup mission, and enter to win a Timbertek surfboard, Teva sandals, and a Surfrider Foundation reusable water bottle. The last day to enter is Oct. 30! Read about the contest here: http://www.rapmonth.org/ofaat/


Photo credits: Surfrider Foundation

Florida’s Deadliest Fungus

Florida’s Deadliest Fungus

Recently, I went on a mushroom hunt with a retired Miami medical examiner.

Dr. Jay S. Barnhart, who worked with metropolitan Dade County, is pretty much an expert on fungi.

There are many kinds of explorers in the world, and mushroom hunters are a rather niche branch. If you think a medical examiner-turned-mushroom-hunting-hobbyist is odd – well, think about what mushrooms are. They’re decomposers. Yeah. There’s that. They break down compounds in the soil into its most basic elements to be used by plants and other organisms.

Dr. Barnhart led his mushroom expedition along a trail in Brevard Country’s Enchanted Forest Sanctuary, as part of a workshop series put on by the Florida Wildflower Foundation. Before setting off to find a selection of fungi, Dr. Barnhart first gave us a short lesson on the basic features of mushrooms.

varnished_mushroomcroppedFor example, some mushrooms have gills on their undersides, just like the generic white mushrooms you find at the store. Others are called polypores, and they have tiny pores on the undersides of their caps that can be seen through a microscope or magnifying glass.

Because there are so many undiscovered mushrooms, and because many mushrooms look alike, it’s actually difficult to properly identify them, says Dr. Barnhart. Mushroom hobbyists and mycologists identify mushrooms in several different ways: color, smell, location, physical structure, the color of their milk (yes, apparently mushrooms produce colored milk), and the color of their spore prints – which are made by leaving the caps on white and black paper (or sometimes plastic or glass) for several hours until the spores fall off, leaving a colored print.

Another, inadvisable, method is through taste. Why is this inadvisable? Because not only do some mushrooms taste bad, many of them are also poisonous. And – unless you are a mycologist with years of experience and a lot of bravado – you really don’t want to risk death over a wild mushroom. According to MushroomExpert.com, mycologists who do use this method are advised never to swallow (sort of like gargling with Listerine, only with much worse repercussions).

Dr. Barnhart likes to say, “All mushrooms are edible – some only once.”

He passed around several examples of both benign and poisonous mushrooms – all of which looked pretty similar.


One of the most deadly mushrooms is the amanita (there are hundreds of variations, many of which are the most toxic in the world). Here in Florida, we have the white amanita – and yes, it is deadly, says Dr. Barnhart.

The funny thing about the amanita and other poisonous mushrooms is that you can touch them and nothing will happen to you, says Dr. Barnhart. The mushrooms only kill you if you swallow them and they get in your gastrointestinal tract. The amanita’s “cyclic peptide” trashes both your kidneys and your liver, he says.

tree_mushrooms_croppedAfter our little fungi class, we went tromping off through the woods looking for interesting mushrooms for Dr. Barnhart to ID – and especially searching for the elusive white amanita.

We found gilled and polypore versions, turkey tails that only grow on wood, earth stars that actually grow in sand, and hexagonal mushrooms and puff balls. Of course all of these have unpronounceable Latin names too.

Finally, when we were almost to the end of our hike, we found one more, lone white mushroom just popping up from the path.

“We found another one! What’s this one?” someone in our group asked.

Dr. Barnhart, the former medical examiner, examined it. It was white with a partial “veil” covering its gills and a “volva” or cup at its base. It looked like your average lawn mushroom.

It was an amanita.

What a find! We were all excited. One of the ‘hunters’ held it in his hand for photos. Dr. Barnhart reminded us it was perfectly safe to touch them…  just not to ingest them.


I thought of contingencies.  “What if you touched it and then stuck your finger in your eye?” I asked. “How badly do you want to die?” he joked. “No, it has to get into your G.I. tract,” he assured me. Still, I declined to hold it my hand. “No, I’m good.”

“So this would be a good choice if you wanted to poison someone,” a lady in our group bantered. “It would be hard to trace…”

“Do you have any ID with you?” Dr. Barnhart asked.

Living in Florida? Dr. Barnhart is interested in your mushroom finds! Contact him at ruthnjay@cfl.rr.com for details on how to send descriptions, photos, and spore prints or your local fungi.

Photo credits: Christine Janesko

‘Hands Across the Lagoon’ All Point to Pollution

‘Hands Across the Lagoon’ All Point to Pollution

On Saturday, Sept. 28, thousands of people joined hands along seven of Florida’s East Coast causeways for National Estuaries Day. They were participating in Hands Across the Lagoon, an event meant to create awareness about the declining health of the Indian River Lagoon and its effect on marine life.

Participants stood along bridges in New Smyrna Beach, Titusville, Melbourne, Vero Beach, Fort Pierce, and Stuart. Kayakers in Merritt Island also joined in with their own Kayaks Across the Lagoon event.

Hands Across the Lagoon began in 1989. However, scientists say bringing attention to the nitrogen and phosphorous pollution in the Indian River Lagoon is of pressing importance this year in light of the recent deaths of 110 manatees, 69 dolphins, and as many as 300 brown pelicans, according to an article from Florida Today.

Read more here: http://www.floridatoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013130928005

Photo credit: Indian River Lagoon News and Events Facebook Page

Spanish Moss: Stuff (and Stuffing) of Legend


When I was a kid, we lived out in the country, and one of my favorite things to do was roam around the woods next to our house. One of my earliest memories is looking up at the big live oak trees draped with Spanish moss.

To Floridians (and people who live in other parts of the Southeastern U.S.), oak trees swathed in Spanish moss is a familiar sight. Some people might think the wispy gray plant is ugly or scary, but to me, it looks like “home.”


You might not think much of Spanish moss, but its properties and history are pretty interesting.

The plant (yes, it is a plant) itself is misunderstood. Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is not actually a moss. It’s an epiphyte, or an “air plant,” which collects water and nutrients from rainfall and the air (which is why you’ll find it in areas of high humidity). Check out this magnified photo of a fragment of Spanish moss, courtesy of Dr. John H. Lienhard, which shows a scaly exterior “hide” that protects and holds water within.


Some people also believe Spanish moss is a parasite and that it is harming its “host tree.” But Spanish moss is not a parasite and does not feed off the tree – although it can occasionally harm a tree if it blocks enough of the light to its leaves. And here’s a weird fact: Spanish moss is actually a relative of the pineapple.

Spanish Moss in History

Even though we see it as a passive, hanging plant, Spanish moss played an important role as a textile in early civilizations from Florida to Texas. Historical documents show that American Indians all over the Southeast, including the Timucua of Florida, wove the fibers into yarn for clothing. It was also incorporated as a binding agent for dwellings, used as bedding in infant cradles, woven into mats and blankets, and made into shawls, belts, skirts, dolls, and even tea!

And both Indians and early settlers used it as kindling and stuffing for pillows and mattresses.

It’s also reported that Henry Ford used it early on as stuffing for Model T automobile seats, and it was used as filler for furniture and saddles.

SpanishMoss1Spanish Moss as an Ecosystem

In case you want to try “wearing” some Spanish moss yourself, be aware that Spanish moss that is found close to the ground is likely to house chiggers. Chiggers are a type of mite that makes you itch! And according to one researcher, Regina L. Suriel, the plant is also “a microhabitat for various organisms, including rat snakes, different species of bats, and one species of jumping spider.”

So unless you’re prepared to boil or cure the plant like the Indians did, just appreciate it as a natural part of the Southeastern landscape with a long history.

Photo credits: Dr. John H. Lienhard, Christine Janesko


Carocci, M. (2010). Clad with the ‘Hair of Trees’: A History of Native American Spanish Moss Textile Industries. Textile History, 41(1), 3-27. doi:10.1179/174329510×12670196126485

Suriel, R. L. (2010). Spanish Moss: Not Just Hanging in There. Science Activities, 47(4), 133-140. doi:10.1080/00368121003739398