Invasive Species Awareness Day a Success

Invasive Species Awareness Day a Success

Steve Johnson UF/IFAS Extension shares Exotic Invaders: Reptiles and Amphibians of Concern in Northwest Florida. (Updated June 7 2018 – 10AM CDT) and


Rick tells us about the ball python, a potential invasive species. Rick also provides an overview of keeping pythons and other snakes as pets.

Holli tells us about the Wildlife Assistance program for homeowners and property owners. Holli helps out find solutions for negative encounters with Wildlife. Most problems are easily solved and she provides a few tips. Holli also tells us about the FWC Pet Amnesty Program for Exotic Pets. Watch to learn more.…/you-conserve/assistnuisance-wildlife

Kira shows off the tokay gecko we found at the Extension office on the front porch earlier in May. The Gecko moved in with Kira and her other reptiles at the Science and Discovery Center.…/nonnatives/reptiles/tokay-gecko

Kira introduces us to Jewel the iguana and Eva, a boa contrictor. She also tells us more about the Science and Discovery Center in Northwest Florida. and


Mike Kennison shares resources and efforts to manage lionfish in Florida waters. Learn more about this Summer’s Lionfish Challenge at…/saltwater/recreational/lionfish/challenge


Derek Fussell with FWC Invasive Aquatic Plant Management talks about Giant Salvinia, a species of concern for Deer Point Lake in Bay County, Florida. Here’s a link to a story about the discovery of giant salvinia in Bay County from 2016…/nisaw-2016-working…


Derek Fussell shares a behind the scene’s view of their new boat for controling aquatic plants in Bay County and Northwest Florida. We will visit with Derek and Jamie later and show some of the aquatic invasives they work to control everyday!



Scott Jackson and Julie McConnell show Air Potato Beetles and discuss vine look-alikes. Schedule for the June 6, 2018 is briefly discussed. More at #invasivespecies






Are Sharks Really Out to Eat People?

Are Sharks Really Out to Eat People?

You might get that impression from the movies but if you look at the data you will see quite a different story. With nearly fifty species identified in the Gulf of Mexico, an encounter with a shark is eminent if you spend much time in our coastal waters. So, let’s get the “scary” stuff out of the way first and finish with the more interesting facts for our much-maligned “toothy” friends.

The Bull Shark is considered one of the more dangerous sharks in the Gulf. This fish can enter freshwater but rarely swims far upstream. Photo: Florida Sea Grant


The most recent data from the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File shows that unprovoked attacks have occurred in 26 of Florida’s 35 coastal counties, from 1882 to present. Florida is the hotspot in the U.S. which makes sense with our 1,300-plus miles of coastline. Volusia County has recorded the most incidents at 299. Brevard County is second (144) and Palm Beach County third (75). Do you have any idea how many people have been in the water in these three counties since 1882? Let’s just say, a lot; if sharks were hunting for people, they would have found more of us by now.


In the coastal counties of the Florida Panhandle, numbers are much lower with Bay County having the most incidents at 9. Numbers drop from there with Escambia at 6, Okaloosa at 4, Gulf and Franklin at 2, Santa Rosa and Walton at 1 and none from Wakulla down through Pasco; remember, since 1882. Species most often involved have been bull or blacktip sharks (20% each), spinner at 16% and hammerhead at 13%. Believe it or not, the next highest is nurse sharks at 7%. Compared to drowning fatalities from 1992-2000, sharks loose, 2 to 135.


Okay, now for some more interesting facts about our Gulf of Mexico sharks. Some of you have heard about the encounter that Grayson Shepard (of Apalachicola) had with a great white back in 2015. If you want to see his amazing video visit this link. Even though great whites are considered a cold-water species, scientists have known for a long time that they do visit the Gulf of Mexico. Their incredible migratory nature has been studied in greater detail of-late. An 8.5 foot juvenile female that was radio-tagged off Hilton Head South Carolina travelled to Nova Scotia Canada before turning around and going south all the way around the tip of Florida and into the Gulf of Mexico. The most northerly “ping” picked up by the satellite receiver was north of Tampa on January 31, 2018. Savannah (her given name) is currently back on the east coast near where she was tagged by researchers. Vist this website to follow Savannah’s incredible journey.

The Great White shark.
Photo: UF IFAS


Another impressive shark species that occurs in our Gulf waters holds the title of “world’s largest fish!” Whale sharks can reach lengths of fifty feet and weigh around 20 metric tons. Most of the sightings in the Gulf have proven to be juveniles but occasional aggregations happen around abundant plankton resources. One chance encounter by scientists from the Mississippi-based Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, documented a large number of whale sharks feeding near the surface. Plankton samples revealed a rich concentration of fish eggs from recent spawning activity of little tunny and crevalle jack. Aggregations numbering near 150 individuals, feeding on abundant plankton, have been reported in the nutrient-rich waters near the Mississippi River drainage.

Sharks in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, just as alligators in our lakes and rivers, deserve our respect and a balanced conservation-minded attitude. They are an incredible resource that have vital connections to many other species in our marine environment. They are also one of the most thrilling creatures on the planet when you get to meet one up close. Just please use some good sense and mind those pearly-white teeth if you catch one on a line. Even a cute little wild mouse will bite you when handled but the outcome is slightly more concerning with sharks and alligators.

Summer is here!! Let’s learn about natural resources indoors!

Summer is here!! Let’s learn about natural resources indoors!

As the heat indicies rise, there a number of organizations that offer great learning experiences about our local Natural Resources!! While it is great to have the outdoor hands-on learning, the afternoon heat can feel suffocating. Here are a couple of nature centers that you can visit to get out of the heat.


Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve is home to the Reserve’s Nature Center, located at 108 Island Drive, in East Point Florida. Inside the air-conditioned Nature Center are many interactive displays and tanks with live local animals. At one end of the center, there is a large mural that takes you from the upper-parts of the Apalachicola River to the Gulf of Mexico, There are many native animals identified on the mural.  There is an area with plenty of artifacts to keep the young and old naturalist busy.


The interactive cultural displays are really interesting and provide much information about the fishing industry that Apalachicola is known for throughout Florida.

The Reserve features a many trails that lead throughout the property and many to the water. The Apalachicola National Estuary Reserve is one of 29 National Estuarine Research Reserves in the U.S.  Each reserve is protected for “long-term research, water quality and habitat monitoring, education, and coastal stewardship.”

The Reserve is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday from 9 am until 4 pm, admission is free.

Photos provided by Chris VerlindeHeading to the west, near the town of Freeport Florida, you will find the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Nature Center. This amazing place will keep you and your family entertained for hours. If you plan to go, the center is only open to the public on Thursday and Friday during June and July from 9 am until 2 pm.  The cost is $8.00 for adults, $5.00 for children ages 3-12 and free for those 2 and under. The rest of the year, the staff are dedicated to teaching local students from surrounding school districts about biodiversity in Northwest Florida. As you enter the exhibit building there is a tribute to the famous naturalist E.O Wilson, whose work is the inspiration for center.  Dr. Wilson is dedicated to teaching others about the importance of conservation of biodiversity. He coined the term “biophilia” which means “the love of all living things.” The exhibit hall features many different displays on the cultural and natural resources in the area. The center features a reptile room, classrooms, an amphitheater, porches to enjoy your lunch and the “World of Wonder Exhibit.” which is a Science on a Sphere – a giant globe that utilizes technology to teach about the planets, our weather, and more.

Animals that can be found at the center include: birds of prey, bobcats, turtles and snakes, a red-cockaded woodpecker, a fox, and chickens. A short walk outside, you will find an authentic cracker house (with snakes!) and an organic garden.

The E.O. Wilson Biophilia center is a wonderful place to visit, check it out soon!!

Our Magnificent Miner; the gopher tortoise

Our Magnificent Miner; the gopher tortoise

Just a decade ago, few people would have known what a gopher tortoise was and would have hard time finding one. But today, because of the protection they have been afforded by the state, they are becoming more common.  This is certainly an animal you might see visiting one of our state parks.

This gopher tortoise was found in the dune fields on a barrier island – an area where they were once found.
Photo: DJ Zemenick

The gopher tortoise is one of only two true land dwelling turtles in our area and is in a family all to its own. They are miners, digging large burrows that can extend up to a depth of 7 feet and a length of 15 feet underground.  However, tortoises are not very good at digging up towards the surface, so there is only the one entrance in and out of the burrow.  The burrow of the tortoise can be distinguished from other burrowing animals, such as armadillos, in that the bottom line of the opening is flat – a straight line – and the top is domed or arched shaped; mammalian burrows are typically round – circular.  Tortoise burrows also possess a layer of dirt tossed in a delta-shaped fan out away from the entrance (called an apron).  Many times the soil is from deeper in the ground and has a different color than the soil at the surface.  The general rule is one burrow equals one tortoise, though this is not always true.  Some burrows are, at times, shared by more than one and some may not be occupied at all.  Many field biologists will multiple the number of burrows by 0.6 to get an estimate of how many tortoises there are in the area.


The tortoise itself is rather large, shell lengths reaching 15 inches. They can be distinguished from the other land dwelling turtle, the box turtle, by having a more flattened dome to the shell and large elephant like legs.  The forelimbs are more muscular than the hind and possess large claws for digging the burrow.  They are much larger than box turtles and do not have hinged plastrons (the shell covering the chest area) and cannot close themselves up within the shell as box turtles can.  Tortoises prefer dry sandy soils in areas where it is more open and there are plenty of young plants to eat; box turtles are fans of more dense brush and wooded areas.


Tortoises spend most of the day within their burrows – which remain in the 70°F range. Usually when it is cooler, early morning or late afternoon, or during a rain event – the tortoises will emerge and feed on young plants.  You can see the paths they take from their burrows on foraging trips.  They feed on different types of plants during different type times of the year to obtain the specific nutrients.  There are few predators who can get through the tough shell, but they do have some and so do not remain out for very long.  Most people find their burrows, and not the tortoise.  You can tell if the burrow has an active tortoise within by the tracks and scrap marks at the entrance.  Active burrows are “clean” and not overgrown with weeds and debris.  Many times, you can see the face of the tortoise at the entrance, but once they detect you – they will retreat further down.  Many times a photo shot within a burrow will reveal the face of a tortoise in the picture.  There is a warning here though.  Over 370 species of creatures use this burrow to get out of the weather along with the tortoise – one of them is the diamondback rattlesnake.  So do not stick your hand or your face into the entrance seeking a tortoise.


Most of the creatures sharing the burrow are insects but there are others such as the gopher frog and the gopher mouse. One interesting member of the burrow family is the Eastern Indigo Snake.  This is the largest native snake to North America, reaching a length of eight feet, and is a beautiful iridescent black color.  It is often confused with the Southern Black Racer.  However, the black racer is not as long, not as large around (girth), and possess a white lower jaw instead of the red-orange colored one of the indigo.  The indigo is not dangerous at all, actually it feeds on venomous snakes and it is a good one to have around.


Federal and state laws protect the indigo, as with the gopher frog and mouse. All of these animals have declined in number over the past few decades.  This is primarily due to loss of the needed gopher burrows, which have declined because the tortoises have declined, and this is due to habitat loss and harvesting.  Again, tortoises like dry sandy soils for digging burrows.  They prefer wooded areas that are more open and allow the sun to reach the forest floor where young grasses and flowers can grow.  The longleaf pine forest is historically the place to find them but they are found in coastal areas where such open wooded areas exist.  The lack of prescribe burning has been a problem for them.  Florida is the number one state for lightning strikes.  Historically, lightning strikes would occasionally start fires, which would burn the underbrush and allow grasses to grow.  In recent years, humans have suppressed such fires, for obvious reasons, and the tortoise community has suffered because of it.  Therefore, we now have prescribe fire programs on most public lands in the area.  This has helped to increase the number of tortoises in the area and your chance of seeing one.


All of the members of the tortoise community are still protected by state, and – in the case of the indigo snake – federal law, so you must not disturb them if seen. Photos are great and you should feel lucky to have viewed one.  Though they could be found anywhere where it is high, dry, and somewhat open – the state and national parks are good places to look.





Meylan, P.A. (Ed.). 2006. Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Chelonian Research Monographs No. 3, 376 pp.

Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What Can You Do to Help?  – Bioaccumulation of Toxins

Restoring the Health of Pensacola Bay, What Can You Do to Help? – Bioaccumulation of Toxins

What is bioaccumulation of toxins?


Our bodies come in contact, and produce, toxins every day. The production of toxins can result during simple metabolism of food.  However, our bodies are designed with a system to rid us of these toxins.  Toxins are processed by our immune system and removed via our kidneys.  Some chemical compounds are structured in a way that they are not as easily removed, thus they accumulate in our bodies over time, often in fatty tissues, and sometimes they are toxic – this is bioaccumulation.

A view of Pensacola Bay from Santa Rosa Island.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Biomagnification takes it a step further. In many cases, the concentrations of bioaccumulating toxic substances in the water may be in low enough concentrations to have little effect on human health.  They are ingested by small organisms in the environment, such as plankton or juvenile marine fish, and – again are at low concentrations.  However, they are accumulated in their tissues and as the next level of the food chain begin to consume them – they too accumulate the toxic compounds in their tissues.  Small fish consume large amounts of plankton and thus, large amounts of the toxins they have accumulated – increasing the concentration within their own tissues.  This continues up the food chain to a point where, in the larger predators, the concentrations of these toxins have increased enough that they now pose a threat to human health – this is biomagnification.


The presence, and amount, of any one bioaccumulating compound varies with species, their size, their age, their gender, their life stage, whether they are mobile or not, their diet, and whether the sample included the skin (which is lipid heavy and a common location for accumulated toxins). In the Pensacola Bay System, about 30 species of marine plants and animals have been analyzed for the presence of these accumulating compounds.


Species collected from Pensacola Bay that were analyzed for contaminants

Plants 3 species of seagrass

1 species of seaweed

Colonized algal periphyton

Invertebrates 4 species of freshwater mussels

Eastern oyster

1 species of brackish water clams

1 species of barnacle

Several species of shrimp

Blue crab

Oyster drill (snail)

Vertebrates 2 species of catfish

5 species of scaienids (drums, croakers, trout)



Several species of flounder

2 species of jacks

Largemouth bass


Striped mullet


Trace Metal Accumulation

Much of what has been studied in terms of metal accumulation has come from shellfish – particularly eastern oysters. Ten different metals have been found in oysters with zinc being in the highest concentration and lead the lowest.  A 2005 study found that levels of arsenic, lead, and nickel collected from mussels collected at selected locations in the PBS were regionally high (meaning higher than other estuaries in the region).  Another study (2003) found that levels of 16 different metals in shellfish were three times higher in Bayou Chico than samples from East Bay.  A 1993 study found that organisms attached to pieces of treated wood in Santa Rosa Sound had elevated levels of metals.  However, another study (2008) found low concentrations of metals in five species of fish collected in Escambia Bay near the I-10 Bridge.


The bioaccumulation potential within plants is less understood than animals. That said – concentrations within seagrass were relatively low when compared to the sediments they were growing in and periphytic algae attached to them.


Total Mercury Concentrations (ng/g – dry weight) for Local Marine Organisms

Lewis and Chaney (2008)

Range (ng/g) Species
0-200 Sediments, seagrass, oysters
200 – 400 Periphytic algae
400 – 600 Mussels
600 – 800 Brackish clams, blue crabs
800 and higher Fish


The above table shows biomagnification.


Comparing trace metal concentrations between Pensacola Bay and other Regional Estuaries

(USEPA unpublished data)

Pensacola Bay, Escambia Bay, Escambia River, Bayou Texar, Bayou Chico, Bayou Grande, Santa Rosa Sound Grand Lagoon (Bay Co.), Mississippi Sound, Old River, Suwannee River, Withlacoochee River, Bay La Launch
Cadmium Higher in PBS; highest in Bayou’s Grande and Texar
Chromium Similar to other estuaries
Copper Slightly elevated in Bayou Chico and Escambia River; highest in Withlacoochee
Total Mercury Much higher in PBS; particularly in the bayous
Nickel Lower in PBS
Lead Higher in PBS; particularly in the bayous
Zinc Higher in PBS; particularly in the bayous


There are higher concentrations of trace metals in PBS and particularly in the bayous.


One of 39 stormwater drains into Bayou Texar.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Non-Nutrient Organic Chemicals

These are compounds such as PCBs, DDT, and PAHs; many are actually families of multiple forms of compounds. Information on the bioaccumulation of these compounds in PBS is less common than those of trace metals.  However, this information is important since they have long half-lives and magnify within the food web.


That said – there are studies on these compounds that go back to the 1970’s. They looked at DDT, pesticides, and PAHs in oysters and croakers.  One study (1986-96) found DDT concentrations in oysters at 60 ppb or less.  A follow up study (2004-05) at those same locations found concentrations between 8-20 ppb.  One study (2008) found the order of accumulating non-nutrient organic compounds with PAHs as the highest and dieldrin at the lowest.  Downward trends were reported (2004-05) for many of these compounds including PAHs and PCBs.


Some of these compounds have entered the PBS via unlined ponds associated with on-land Superfund sites. Creosote and pentachlorophenol were stored for years in such ponds and have leached into area waters such as Bayou Chico and portions of upper Pensacola Bay.  A study (1987-88) found oyster drills sampled in these areas had concentrations 10x higher than reference sites in other parts of the PBS.


So what can we do about this?


The compounds that are there – are there. Many of these trace metals are heavy and sink into the sediments.  There occurrence within the food web has decreased over time and some have suggested the safest thing to do is to leave them where they are.  No doubt, any project requiring sediment movement requires much review and permitting.

To try to remove these compounds would be extremely expensive – hence the Superfund Program. So if we cannot clean the sediments without a lot of labor and money, can we reduce the amount that enters the bay today?

Many of these compounds come from industrial processing of products we really want or need. Reduction of the production of some will be difficult, but there is much industry can do to reduce the chance of those compounds reaching our estuaries – and they are doing this.  Point source pollution (direct discharge from an industry) has reduced significantly since the 1970’s.  Non-point sources (indirect discharge from you and I) is still a problem.  We can choose products that contain less (or none) of the compounds we discussed.  Following an IPM program for dealing with household and lawn pests (see article on Florida Friendly Yards – can help a lot.  As can practices that reduce the amount of run-off reaching our bays.  Reducing your use of lawn watering, using rain barrels, or rain gardens, and planting living shorelines (all mentioned in the FFY article) can certainly help.




Lewis, M.J., J.T. Kirschenfeld, T. Goodhart. 2016. Environmental Quality of the Pensacola Bay System: Retrospective Review for Future Resource Management and Rehabilitation. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Gulf Breeze FL. EPA/600/R-16/169.