You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Florida’ tag.

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There are many mythological creatures which give color to American regional folklore.  Champy the lake monster is said to haunt Lake Champlain.   Mothman (or a colony of mothpeople) are always reputedly flying over the accursed town of Point Pleasant, West Virginia (a very nice river town with a history of horrible occurrences which would make Stephen King add some episodes to Derry’s history). Bigfoot skulks around the American West and, despite not being real, he is so omnipresent that apparently he (or possibly an 8 foot tall man in a ratty fur coat) threw a hunk of opal ore at my uncle back in 1979!  This doesn’t even get into the legends of the Native Americans, who made up truly chilling monsters like the cold hungry wendigo [shudder].

And then we have Florida…

Although a folklorist who looked social media in contemporary America might initially conclude that the Sunshine state’s supernatural monster is the horrifyingly maladroit & depraved “Florida Man”, alas it seems that that particular troglodyte is all too real.  Apparently the made-up cryptozooiod man-beast native to Florida is a hairy simian creature known as the “skunk-ape” (a.k.a. the “swamp cabbage man”, the “stink ape”, or the “myakka ape”). The skunk ape descends from a magnificent monster of Seminole legend called the “Esti Capcaki(which apparently means something like giant cannibal man).  The Esti Capcaki was huge, hirsute and ate human beings, but was also known for an overpowering stench.  The skunk ape is a diminutive version of the same, who is alleged to hide out in dense swamps and nasty exurbs.

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Anyway, to point this post towards contemporary relevance, the skunk ape has acquired a new role in the age of coronavirus! The Florida theme park “Gatorland” has introduced a skunk ape mascot in order to promote proper social distancing during the pandemic.  The hairy monster man lurks in underbrush or waste places until he spots park goers who are failing to remain 6 feet apart, whereupon he leaps into the limelight and berates them with feral grunts and unhappy simian body language.  Skunk ape’s female spokesperson also appears and reminds visitors to keep their distance in plain and somewhat lawyerly English.

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At this juncture, it is unclear what Skunk Ape thinks of masks (I suppose I could reach out to his spokesperson and inquire, but frankly I am not going to do any actual journalism unless it involves actual remuneration).  Likewise it is a bit unclear whether skunk ape’s public sanitation drive will work in any way whatsoever. What is clear is that our monsters and our mummers are always lurking around in the psychological shrubs waiting to leap out in moments of turmoil or duress.  This is definitely such a time and I hope you are taking precautions to keep yourself safe from the all-too-real troubles which are currently stalking our land.  Be safe out there! Don’t make me call in the skunk ape!

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Ok…here is one more bee story.  The blue calamintha bee (Osmia calaminthae) is an ultra-specialized bee which is found only upon a particular ridge of hills in Central Florida.  Or that is the way that things used to be: the shiny metallic blue bee has not been spotted since 2016 and it was presumed extinct. Above is a sad picture of a museum specimen.  The bee’s trademark shiny blueness is fading because of, you know, impalement and death and extinction and stuff (although, in fairness, it seems like the bee’s exoskeleton is blue, but its fuzz is grayish white).

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But wait! This story turns out not to be over after all.  On March 9th, a researcher at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Chase Kimmel, discovered a living blue calamintha bee.  The busy little insect was rubbing its furry head on Ashe’s calamint flower in order to collect the pollen.  Since then, additional blue bees have been spotted, so the species is hanging on. The first bee was not a Martian manhunter style “last-of-its-kind” survivor.

Unfortunately, scientists and ecologists have not been able to further study the insects due to troubles in the human world…or maybe that is fortunate. Perhaps the last blue calamintha bees just need some privacy and human free bee time to rebuild the shattered kernel of their population.  Let’s wish them well, and I will follow up with more information as it becomes available.

 

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As our civilization swiftly declines due to incompetent leadership, exploitative economic practices, and overuse of natural resources, it is worth looking back through history at some of North America’s other societies to see how they solved the problems of food, housing, and defense.  Most complex civilizations rely on a base of agriculture in order to assure a food supply for their population (and agricultural concerns then become enshrined in society’s fundamental compacts–as in feudalism or slave-based latifundias or what have you), yet some civilizations have formed in locations so rich in natural resources that urban societies can be built without agriculture. Such is the case with the Calusa civilization of southern Florida, AKA “the shell people.”

Calusa society was built upon a single animal…literally!  The fisher-folk constructed enormous artificial islands (and other aquatic structures) out of oyster shells.  These edifices were built over generations out of hundreds of millions of individual shells.  The greatest artificial islands seem to date from around 1300 and 1400 A.D.  The Spanish wrote compelling descriptions of the Calusa capital at Mound Key, where the Calusa chief (or king?) had a ceremonial palace/keep capable of holding 2000 people which was built atop a massive man-made island which loomed ten meters above sea level.

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From their capital, the warlike Calusa ranged north to what is now Tampa, east to Lake Okeechobee, and south through their heartland in the keys down to the thousand islands.  The Calusa people were impressive traders who obtained goods through vast extended trade circles and apparently they were even more noteworthy warriors (“Calusa” means fierce). Yet what is most striking to modern researchers is that they were apparently pioneers of aquiculture.  Some of the great constructions made of oyster shells seem to have been water corrals, where schools of fish were driven to be stored live for later consumption.  The largest watercourts were several times the size of an NBA basketball court and were probably used to hold schools of mullet, pinfish and herring.

The estuarine fisheries of the Calusa seem to have been robust (witness how many oysters they harvested!) and they successfully withstood Spanish hegemony for 200 years, yet disease and colonial wars took a heavy toll and the society was conquered by Creek and Yamasee raiders early in the 18th century.  Shortly afterwards the Spanish Empire ceded its Florida lands to Great Britain and the British forcibly evacuated the last remnants of the tribe to Cuba.

 

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Usually news from Florida is pretty weird or disturbing, so it is nice to have a feel-good story for a change!  Recently a camper hiking in Ocala National Forest spotted something which hasn’t been seen in Marion County since 1969–a beautiful rainbow…snake. The rainbow snake (Farancia erytrogramma) is a secretive Colubrid snake which is rarely seen since it lives most of its life underwater or underground.  The snakes live on eels, minnows, tadpoles, and amphibians which are eaten live.  Not only are rainbow snakes fossorial/aquatic creatures of the underworld, they also tend to live in the most remote portions of densely forested swamps (which may explain why it has been so long since anyone has seen one in this region just north of  Orlando).  The snakes grow to a maximum size of 90 to 165 centimeters (2.5 to 5.5 feet) and are non-venomous.

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The rainbow snake sounds like a Disney creation (or a primordial deity) but its common name is really just an acknowledgement of its beautiful coloration.  The rainbow snake is black, but it has gorgeous bands of brightest yellow and scarlet running vertically down the entire length of its body.  Additionally some specimens has bright white/cream rings running horizontally across these stripes (or buttermilk outlines around scales).  the whole creature looks like a fancy trapper keeper from 1989!

I’m not the only one who remembers these things, right?

Because they live in blackwater creeks, cypress swamps, or deep inside mud flats, it is difficult to assess the population health of rainbow snakes and whether they are being out-competed  (or straight-up eaten!) by competitors like invasive constrictors and pythons. However the fact that they are being spotted in old habitats seems like fairly encouraging news–particularly in a news cycle where the stories of furtive wild creatures grows increasingly bleak.

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Last week I blogged about the end of the desmostylians, a group of aquatic mammals driven into extinction by competition from the gentle (but implacably hungry) manatees. Since then, I have been worried that people are going to think I am anti-manatee. That is why I would like us all to take a moment to say farewell to Snooty the manatee, the world’s oldest captive manatee who died on Sunday (July 23, 2017) a day after his 69th birthday party. Since 1949 Snooty has been entertaining and educating visitors to the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. His death was not a result of old age, but was instead a tragic accident involving the failure of a protective hatch which closed off a maintenance-only section of the aquarium.
Apparently in the modern era, manatees in the wild usually live less than 10 years (due largely to aquatic mishaps) but a few lucky individuals have made it into their 50s. In his late 60s, Snooty was going strong and was an active, intelligent, and gregarious manatee until that cursed hatch failed. This makes one wonder how long manatees actually live when they don’t get run over with speedboats or eaten up by Portuguese conquistadors (and it also leads to other troubling thoughts about humankind’s interactions with other living creatures). I interacted with the late Ivak the walrus and Grandpa the lungfish, but I never had the chance to see Snooty. Yet I am still upset by his loss. I worry about the future of animals in our ultra-competitive dangerous world where even the world’s most respected and well-cared for manatee can have a fatal accident in his own tank. Let us say farewell to poor Snooty and keep working to better the lot of his brothers and sisters in captivity and in the wild.

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

Back in the beginning of September I put up a short entry about a pet king cobra which escaped a terrarium in central Florida.  The post was meant to satirize our sad national obsession with celebrities and compare the fatuous cult of celebrity with our fascination with poisonous snakes.  Unfortunately the satire did not quite work since poisonous snakes really are fascinating (and since a #*&*ing king cobra actually did get loose from a lunatic’s house in Florida).

I really don’t like celebrity.  It is a serious problem which humankind has and it makes us do all manner of deeply stupid things (although I am willing to change my stance…if I get really famous).

Sigh...

Sigh…

Anyway, savvy readers were left asking, hey, is there still a king cobra on the loose? Whatever happened to the poor snake?  Answers were not forthcoming until yesterday, when a woman who lives in a house near the cobra’s owners was putting laundry in her clothes dryer.  She heard a sad hissing from under the machine and decided to call animal control. Soon the renegade snake was back in captivity (in the nick of time too, since a tropical king cobra would be unlikely to survive winter in central Florida.

Artist's representation of Florida suffering from severe snakebite

Artist’s representation of Florida suffering from severe snakebite

A CNN article about the snake’s recapture contains this incoherent but strangely plaintive paragraph

Valerie Kennedy, the wife of “Airplane Repo” star Mike Kennedy, told FOX411 the snake “was found last night at 11p.m. The poor thing was in pretty bad shape. His eyes are fogged over. He hasn’t eaten a thing since he was captured.”

Now children at the local school will be allowed back outside for recess and “Airplane Repo” star Mike Kennedy (the snakes owner, I guess?) will be able to hang out with his immensely toxic pet (who sounds like he needs to scarf down some rats).  It’s a happy ending for everyone…although I am leaving my clothes in the dryer for now.

Drawing by John Erickson

Drawing by John Erickson

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah)

Exciting celebrity news for Central Florida today! A king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) has decided to forgo its native range—the forests in India and Southeast Asia–and pay a visit to Orlando, Florida.  The king cobra is the world’s longest venomous celebrity with a length of up to 5.6 meter (18.5 feet) (although the one “visiting” Florida is a mere 2.2 meters (8 feet) long).  Unlike many other celebrities, king cobras are known for intelligence, sensitivity, and potent neurotoxic venom.  They (king cobras) also have the ability to rear up the anterior 1/3 of their body, extend their hood and growl loudly. The creature escaped decided to visit Orlando when a tree limb dislodged by a storm crashed open its terrarium.

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King cobras are known for hunting smaller snakes and large rodents.  A ten man team is desperately trying to capture the celebrity before it bites anyone or escapes into the wider ecosystem (like Florida’s famous albeit disreputable pythons).

Hold on…my editor is frantically mouthing that King Cobras are not part of America’s celebrity culture—apparently they are only revered in Hindu and Hinayana Buddhist societies and Christians deplore them (and all other snakes) as taboo. King cobras have never been featured on “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars” (although I think it would really spice up those extremely formulaic shows).

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It is important to distinguish between celebrities and dangerous poisonous snakes, I have failed to do that here and I am exceedingly sorry. Please be sure to make this distinction in your own life (except when feeding rats to Sean Penn).

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Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva)

Our nation is being invaded!  The intruders number in the millions.  They are wiping out entire ecosystems, destroying electronics, and setting fires.  Fortunately the invading species, Nylanderia fulva, is rather small:  each individual measures only 3.2 mm (.12 inches).  In 2002 the ants arrived on America’s Gulf Coast from Argentina or Brazil where they live naturally. These ants are called Nylanderia fulva because of their brownish yellow fulvous color, but in America they are more commonly known as crazy ants (thanks to their erratic and non-linear walking patterns) or Rasberry ants—in honor of Tom Rasberry a Texas exterminator who discovered them in Texas.

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The crazy ants have spread extensively in Texas and Florida and they have footholds in Mississippi and Louisiana.  They are highly successful foragers and hunters of small arthropods and, like some other ants, they farm aphids (!).  Nylanderia fulva is capable of forming extremely large hives with multiple queens—which gives them surprising immunity from many common American insecticides and ant-killing chemicals.  They are out-competing native fire ants and changing the micro-fauna of the areas where they are flourishing.

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For whatever reason, crazy ants are attracted to electronics.  Because of their small size, they climb inside all sorts of switches, circuit boxes, and electric gizmos.  If an ant stumbles into a transistor and dies, its corpse emits a chemical which causes fellow hive members to rush to the scene (this is an evolutionary strategy for fending off attackers).  Unfortunately, the reinforcement ants are themselves electrocuted which causes a grim feedback scenario.  These ant death spirals can cause electronics to become disabled, or switch permanently on/off, or just catch fire (since they are jam packed with electrified ant corpses).

Ah Florida…sultry weather, orange groves, glistening beaches, pouting beauties, and palm trees…but also walking catfish, killer snakes, and now giant mollusks!  The semi-tropical peninsula is prey to wave after wave of exotic animal invaders.  The most-recent problem creatures are giant African snails, immense land snails that can grow up to 20 centimeters (8 inches) long. There are three extremely similar species of giant snails which come from West Africa: the giant African snail (Achatina fulica), the giant Ghana tiger snail (Achatina achatina), and the margies (Archachatina marginata).  Each snail has a brown swirly shell and grows to be about the size of an adult’s fist.

Archachatina marginata

The giant snails eat over 500 varieties of plants—including the majority of agricultural and ornamental species.  They also have a taste for stucco and siding so some Floridians now awaken to discover that huge mollusks are literally devouring their houses.  The snails are hermaphrodites and can lay up to 12000 eggs per year.  They can survive freezing temperatures.

Authorities continue to investigate how the snails got into the country but increasingly the evidence points to…voodoo.

In the Yoruba creation myth, the entire world was once water.  The god Obatala possessed a magic snail shell which contained earth. Acting on instructions from the supreme divinity Olódùmarè, Obatala cast this land upon the oceans, thus creating the continents.  Obatala then molded the land into men and beasts–but he possessed an artist’s temperament and thirst. As he crafted the Earth and its inhabitants he drank so much palm wine that his mental clarity became dulled and he made big parts of existence wrong.  Eventually he passed out altogether and his brother Oduduwa was left to finish the work and patch up the errors as best as he could.  Unfortunately big parts of humanity were assembled incorrectly and these flaws remain in evidence everywhere…

Obatala

Anyway a mainstay of Obatala worship is the sacrifice of snails (in memory of the primordial snail shell which contained the first earth).  Apparently one of Obatala’s worshippers illegally brought some giant African snails into Florida for religious reasons and they escaped from him.

So, to recap, a smuggler who worships a drunken deity brought giant hermaphrodite snails in to Florida as a religious devotion to his addled god.  Unfortunately the snails escaped and they are now eating people’s homes. Argh! What is wrong with us?  I’m going to go drink some palm wine…

Next time please just light a votive candle!

I’m going to expand upon yesterday’s post about invasive animals in Florida.  Pythons are indeed large aggressive predators, but it isn’t as though they chose to move to Florida like Aunt Edna when she retired.  Enthusiasts brought them from Burma.  The pythons escaped or were set free and they found a way to survive.

Florida’s groves of tasty, tasty oranges are hardly natives either.  Over long centuries, Spaniards carefully hybridized trees that bore perfect sweet fruit.  They then carried saplings across the oceans from the fragrant orchards of Iberia.

Fresh-squeezed, Ice-cold, Juicy…what was my point again?

We humans are ourselves an invasive tropical species from Africa.  As we have explored the world, we have encountered all sorts of useful and interesting plants and animals.  Thereafter we took those friends with us.  Dogs, ducks, and dairy cows, roses, rye and rice–all of our favorite living things are invaders of a sort.  Sometimes we make bad or dubious friends (pythons? really?) but our existence depends on the grains we harvest, the fruit we grow, and the animals we farm.  Such is the price of our success.  If we all returned to fishing, hunting, and gathering, we could expect to remove three or four zeros from our total population number of six billion.

The story of invasive species however extends far beyond humankind’s symbiotic alliances and restless propensities.  A couple of quick examples will clarify this point.  Like the pythons, Florida’s native manatees have a great deal of trouble with cold weather.  Every winter, many starve to death in the warm outflows from power stations where they shelter (or they freeze outright).  They must have expanded their range northwards as the ice ages ended.  The armadillos that live on the panhandle are edentates who began trekking out of South America during the Pliocene (3 million years ago) when the Ismuth of Panama formed and rejoined the sundered Americas.

This story goes on and on and gets bigger and bigger: flowering plants showed up from elsewhere, so did mammals and reptiles back in the Paleozoic Era.  In fact, if you go back far enough all life-forms are invaders.

Well, maybe some of us...

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