I am writing about this animal because, though it is rare to see them, our terrapin volunteers saw two this past week; and maybe you will too.
The round pupil and vertical jaw stripes indicate this is the nonvenomous Nerodia. Photo: Carole Tebay
The Gulf salt marsh snake is one of those, like the eastern coral snake, that is actually common – just rare to see. It is rare to see because (a) it lives in muddy salt marshes, where we rarely venture, and (b) it is mostly nocturnal – and even fewer of us venture into muddy salt marshes at night.
It is in the genus Nerodia, which includes the common water snakes like the banded water snake (Nerodia fasicata). It is a harmless nonvenomous snake. However, because of where it lives, it is often confused with a cottonmouth and is killed. A common name for this snake in Alabama is “bay moccasin”.
Their name is Nerodia clarkii, but it is a subspecies of this group – so the actual name is Nerodia clarkii clarkii. The other two subspecies are found in Florida. The Mangrove salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) is found from central Gulf coast of Florida, around the Keys to Indian River County on the Atlantic coast. The Atlantic salt marsh snake (Nerodia clarkii taeniata) has a very small range. Originally reported in Volusia, Brevard, and Indian River counties – due to the northern expansion of mangroves, it is believed to only be in Volusia County now. It is listed as THREATENED both federally and with the state. Our Gulf salt marsh snake is found from central Florida to Texas.
The nonvenomous Gulf Salt marsh Snake.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
It is a relatively small snake, only reaching a length of around 15-20 inches, though some have been reported at 30 inches. They possess two long yellowish-tan stripes running laterally the length of its body, the only species of Nerodia to do so. Again, they move at night feeding on small crabs, shrimp, frogs, and small fish. During daylight hours they hide beneath the wrack or other vegetation avoiding herons, egrets, and larger blue crabs. Lacking the needed glands, they cannot desalinate seawater the way sea turtles and terrapins can. All of their freshwater comes from their food and from rainfall.
They breed in the spring, possibly why we are seeing them now, and give live birth to about 10 young in midsummer. They are of moderate conservation concern in Alabama due to the loss of salt marsh. The loss of salt marsh habitat and rise of sea level are their major concerns at this point.
I do need to warn you, though it is a small, nonvenomous snake, they will bite. If bitten, soap and water will do the job. For me, and others, it is actually exciting to see them because of their reclusive nature. If you see one while exploring our intracoastal waters, know that you are not in any danger but rather lucky to see this “mystery of the marsh”.
The Gulf Salt Marsh Snake swimming in a local marsh.
Photo: Carole Tebay
Gulf Salt Marsh Snake – Texas Parks and Recreation – https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/gulfsnake/.
iNaturalist – https://www.inaturalist.org/guide_taxa/776612.
Outdoor Alabama – Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources – https://www.outdooralabama.com/non-venomous-snakes/gulf-saltmarsh-snake.
Atlantic Salt Marsh Snake – N.c.taeniata – U.S. Fish and Wildlife – https://www.fws.gov/northflorida/Species-Accounts/Atl-Salt-Marsh-Snake-2005.htm.
BY: ARIEL BLANTON, RESIDENT DIRECTOR 4-H CAMP TIMPOOCHEE
Have a love for exploring the mysteries beneath the ocean’s surface? Join us this summer for one of 4-H Camp Timpoochee’s Marine Camps! These weeks are full of aquatic learning and other fun activities such as snorkeling, swimming, recreational games, campfires, camp dance, evening activities and more. Sport-fishing sessions will help youth learn about local fish and how to catch them. Marine education activities will be lead by specialists with the University of Florida’s Sea Grant Program and State 4-H Staff, making this week an exciting and hands on outdoor adventure.
Camp Timpoochee Counselors make summer camp a blast.
Photo: Ariel Blanton
Friends you make at camp, you make for life.
Photo: Ariel Blanton
4-H Camp Timpoochee is located on the Choctawhatchee Bay in Niceville, Florida. This premium location offers campers a first-hand experience with Florida’s marine environment from above and below the waterline. You don’t want to miss out one on this camp and spots are filling fast! Our Junior Marine Camps (youth ages 8-13) are being offered July 15-19, 2019 and July 22-26, 2019. Our Senior Marine Camp (ages 14-17) is being offered June 24-28, 2019. To find out more information or to register, visit our website at http://florida4h.org/camps_/specialty-camps/marine/. We hope to see you this summer!
The joys of summer camp!
Photo: Ariel Blanton
Can’t get enough fishing
Photo: Ariel Blanton
Oysters are like snakes… you either like them or you hate them. You rarely hear someone say – “yea, their okay”. It’s either I can’t get enough of them, or they are the most disgusting thing in the sea.
Courtesy of Florida Sea Grant
That said, they are part of our culture. Growing up here in the Florida panhandle, there were oyster houses everywhere. They are as common on menus as French fries or coleslaw. Some like them raw, some like them in gumbo or stews, others are fried oyster fans. But whether you eat them or not, you are aware of them. They are part of being in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
In recent decades the historic oyster beds that supported so many families over the years have declined in production. There are a variety of stressors triggering this. Increased sedimentation, decreased salinity, overharvesting, not returning old shell to produce new reefs, and many more. The capitol of northwest Florida’s oyster coast is Apalachicola. Many are aware of the decline of harvest there. Certainly, impacted by the “water wars” between our state and Georgia, there are other reasons why this fishery has declined. I had a recent conversation with a local in Apalachicola who mentioned they had one of their worst harvest on record this past year. Things are really bad there.
An oysterman uses his 11 foot long tongs to collect oysters from the bottom of Apalachicola Bay
Photo: Sea Grant
Despite the loss of oysters and oyster habitat, there has not been a decline in the demand for them at local restaurants. There have been efforts by Florida Sea Grant and others to help restore the historic beds, improve water quality, and assist some with the culture of oysters in the panhandle.
Enter the Bream Fisherman’s Association of Pensacola.
This group has been together for a long time and have worked hard to educate and monitor our local waterways. In 2018 they worked with a local oyster grower and the University of West Florida’s Center for Environmental Diagnostics and Bioremediation to develop an oyster garden project called Project Oyster Pensacola. Volunteers were recruited to purchase needed supplies and grow young oysters in cages hanging from their docks. Participants lived on Perdido, Blackwater, East, and Escambia Bays. Bayous Texar, and Grande. As well as Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound. The small, young oysters (spat) were provided by the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company. The volunteers would measure spat growth over an eight-month period beginning in the spring of 2018. In addition, they collected data on temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen at their location.
After the first year, the data suggests where the salinity was higher, the oysters grew better. Actually, low salinity proved to be lethal to many of them. This is a bit concerning when considering the increase rainfall our community has witnessed over the last two years. Despite an interest in doing so, the volunteers were not allowed to keep their oysters for consumption. Permits required that the oysters be placed on permitted living shoreline projects throughout the Pensacola Bay area.
Oyster bags used in a bulkhead restoration project.
Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection
We all know how important oysters are to the commercial seafood industry, but it turns out they are as important to the overall health to the bays ecology. A single oyster has been reported to filter as much as 50 gallons of seawater an hour. This removes sediments and provides improved water clarity for the growth of seagrasses. It has been estimated that seagrasses are vital to at least 80% of the commercially important seafood species. It is well known that seagrasses and salt marshes are full of life. However, studies show that biodiversity and biological production are actually higher in oyster reefs. Again, supporting a booming local recreational fishing industry.
This project proved to be very interesting in it’s first year. BFA will be publishing a final report soon and plan to do a second round. For the oyster lovers in the area, increasing local oysters would be nothing short of wonderful.
Young Longleaf Pine
All of Florida’s ecosystems contain pine trees. There are seven native species in the state; Sand, Slash, Spruce, Shortleaf, Loblolly, Longleaf, and Pond. Each species grows best in its particular environment. Pines are highly important to wildlife habitats as food and shelter. Several species are equally valuable to Florida’s economy. Slash, Loblolly, and Longleaf are cultivated and managed to provide useful products such as paper, industrial chemicals, and lumber. All pines are evergreens, meaning they keep foliage year-round. The leaves emerge from the axil of each scale leaf into long slender needles clustered together in bundles. Needles are produced at the growing tips of each branch and remain on the tree for several years before turning reddish-brown and falling off. The bundles are referred to as “fascicles”. The length and number of needles in each fascicle is one way to help identify the different pine species.
A handy rule of thumb is that pines starting with “S” have needles in twos, while pines starting with “L” have needles in threes. And slash pine, which starts with “SL” has needles in twos and threes. The pond pine is also a three-needled fascicle. Pay attention to their length and the number that are held in a fascicle. Because the numbers per fascicle may vary, be sure to check several fascicles to get an overall sense for the plant! Longleaf has the longest needle, measuring over 10 inches. While sand pine has the shortest needles at around 2 inches in length. Pine cones are also a means for identification. Typically the longer the needle, the bigger the cone. But, they also vary in attachment and “spinyness’.
Cone of Loblolly Pine, attached directly to the stem
The outer (dorsal) surface of each seed cone scale has a diamond-shaped bulge, or “umbo,” formed by the first year’s growth. The umbo may or may not be armored with a “prickle,” a sharp point but not quite a spine or thorn, at the tip. As the seed cone continues to grow and expand, the exposed area at the end of each scale grows as well. The larger diamond-shaped area around the umbo, formed in the second year of growth, is called the “apophysis.” The shapes of the prickle, umbo, and apophysis can be helpful in identification. The male and female cones are separate structures, but both are present on the same plant. Pollen is produced by male cones and is carried by the wind to female cones where it fertilizes the ovules. Seeds develop and mature inside the female cones (also called the seed cones) for two years, protected by a series of tightly overlapping woody scales. Some pines open their seed cones after two years to release the seeds, while other pines continue to keep their cones tightly closed past maturity and release seeds in response to the heat of a forest fire.
To learn more about Florida’s pines and helpful hint on identification go to:
Soon, two important ecological surveys will begin in Gulf County, concerning both diamondback terrapins and mangroves.
Florida is home to five subspecies of diamondback terrapin, three of which occur exclusively in Florida. Diamondback terrapins live in coastal marshes, tidal creeks, mangroves, and other brackish or estuarine habitats. However, the diamondback terrapin is currently listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN).
Diamondback terrapin populations, unfortunately, are nationally in decline. Human activities, such as pollution, land development and crabbing without by-catch reduction devices are often reasons for the decline, but decades ago they were almost hunted to extinction for their tasty meat. The recent decline has raised concern of not only federal agencies, but also organizations and community groups on the state and local levels. Diamondback Terrapin range is thought to have once been all of coastal Florida, including the Keys.
Figure 1: Diamondback Terrapin.
Credit: Rick O’Connor, UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant, Escambia County.
Mangroves, a shoreline plant species of south Florida, are migrating north and are now being found in the Panhandle. Both red and black mangroves have been found in St. Joseph Bay. Mangroves establishment could be an important key to a healthy bay ecosystem, as a factor in shoreline restoration and critical aquatic life habitat.
Currently there is a significant data gap for both diamondback terrapin and mangrove populations. Therefore, there is a great need to conduct assessments to learn more about their geographic distribution.
Figure 2. Black Mangrove in St. Joseph Bay.
Credit: Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant, Gulf County.
The Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center is partnering with UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant to assist in surveying and monitoring diamondback terrapins and mangroves in St. Joseph Bay, and we need your help! UF/IFAS Extension & Florida Sea Grant Agent’s Rick O’Connor and Ray Bodrey are providing a training workshop for volunteers and coordinating surveys for St. Joseph Bay. Terrapin surveys require visiting an estuarine location where terrapin nesting sites and mangrove plants are highly probable. Volunteers will visit their assigned locations at least once a week during the months of May and June and complete data sheets for each trip. Each survey takes about two hours, and some locations may require a kayak to reach.
If you are interested in volunteering for these important projects, we will hold a training session on Monday, April 22nd at 1:00 p.m. ET at the Forgotten Coast Sea Turtle Center (located at 1001 10th Street, Port St. Joe).
For more information, please contact:
Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County, Extension Director
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
“The Gulf of Mexico provides food, shelter, protection, security, energy, habitat, recreation, transportation, and navigation – playing an important role in our communities, states, region, and nation. To highlight the value and the vitality of the Gulf of Mexico region, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance conceived an awareness campaign “Embrace the Gulf” for the entire year 2020. The awareness campaign will culminate in a multi-stakeholder, cross-sector celebration of the importance of the Gulf of Mexico throughout the year 2020.” (https://embracethegulf.org/about/)
Join the Gulf of Mexico Alliance as we celebrate the importance of the Gulf of Mexico during the year 2020. The Gulf of Mexico Alliance is a regional partnership that works to “sustain the resources of the Gulf of Mexico. Led by the five Gulf States, the broad partner network includes federal agencies, academic organizations, businesses, and other non-profits in the region. Our goal is to significantly increase regional collaboration to enhance the environmental and economic health of the Gulf of Mexico.” (https://gulfofmexicoalliance.org/about-us/organization/).
The Gulf of Mexico Alliance (GOMA) was established in 2004 by the Governors of the Gulf states, as a response to the President’s Ocean Action Plan. It began as a network of state partnerships that worked together on various strategies related to the GOMA priority issues identified by the Governors of each state. It had strong support from the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. Today GOMA is led by the EPA and NOAA, with 13 federal agencies support the effort. Learn more.
A great blue heron enjoying the Gulf of Mexico.
Photo: Chris Verlinde
To celebrate the year 2020 and the importance of Gulf of Mexico, the Embrace the Gulf campaign was created by the Education and Engagement Priority team. The GOMA leadership supports the idea and the campaign has gathered support from the other priority areas.
There are many ways for you and or your organization to get involved. You can plan an event to celebrate the Gulf of Mexico. You can utilize GOMA marketing resources to promote the campaign. Click here to learn about the available marketing resources.
The E& E team is collecting 365 facts to promote the Gulf of Mexico. You can support this effort by submitting Gulf of Mexico facts using the online form that is located here. Facts will be used on social media, the GOMA website and more. Please support this effort by submitting today!!
Check out this You Tube video GOMA produced to promote the beauty and importance of the Gulf of Mexico. Join us as we celebrate 2020 to Embrace the Gulf!!