Groundhog Day is celebrated every year on February 2, and in 2021, it falls on Tuesday. It’s a day when townsfolk in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, gather in Gobbler’s Knob to watch as an unsuspecting furry marmot is plucked from his burrow to predict the weather for the rest of the winter. If Phil does see his shadow (meaning the Sun is shining), winter will not end early, and we’ll have another 6 weeks left of it. If Phil doesn’t see his shadow (cloudy) we’ll have an early spring. Since Punxsutawney Phil first began prognosticating the weather back in 1887, he has predicted an early end to winter
only 18 times. However, his accuracy rate is only 39%. In the south, we call also defer to General Beauregard Lee in Atlanta, Georgia or Pardon Me Pete in Tampa, Florida.
But, what is a groundhog? Are gophers and groundhogs the same animal? Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don’t have a whole lot in common—they don’t even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers, kangaroo rats, and pocket mice. Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels. There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them.
Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.
While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about. In the spring, gophers make what is called eskers, or winding mounds of soil. The southeastern pocket gopher, Geomys pinetis, is also known as the sandy-mounder in Florida.
Southeastern Pocket Gopher
The southeastern pocket gopher is tan to gray-brown in color. The feet and naked tail are light colored. The southeastern pocket gopher requires deep, well-drained sandy soils. It is most abundant in longleaf pine/turkey oak sandhill habitats, but it is also found in coastal strand, sand pine scrub, and upland hammock habitats.
Gophers dig extensive tunnel systems and are rarely seen on the surface. The average tunnel length is 145 feet (44 m) and at least one tunnel was followed for 525 feet (159 m). The soil gophers remove while digging their tunnels is pushed to the surface to form the characteristic rows of sand mounds. Mound building seems to be more intense during the cooler months, especially spring and fall, and slower in the summer. In the spring, pocket gophers push up 1-3 mounds per day. Based on mound construction, gophers seem to be more active at night and around dusk and dawn, but they may be active at any time of day.
Pocket Gopher Mounds
Many amphibians and reptiles use pocket gopher mounds as homes, including Florida’s unique mole skinks. The pocket gopher tunnels themselves serve as habitat for many unique invertebrates found nowhere else.
So, groundhogs for guesses on the arrival of spring. But, when the pocket gophers are making lots of mounds, spring is truly here. Happy Groundhog’s Day.
Pat is the County Extension Director and the Agriculture/Horticulture/Natural Resources agent for UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County while also serving as the Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator for both Franklin and Wakulla counties.
Pat by their outdoor mural at the Extension office.
He earned his doctorate from Texas A&M University in horticulture, a M.S. degree from Kansas State University in horticultural therapy, a B.S. degree in ornamental horticulture/floriculture from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an A.S. degree in ornamental horticulture from Crafton Hills College.
Over his horticulture career that started at age 13 working for Chrysanthemum Gardens in Crestline, CA, he has resided in 10 different states with a wide range of environmental influences (CA, KS, NJ, ME, NY, WA, TX, KY, TN and FL). He has held various positions in his career from teaching adults with developmental disabilities in NJ and ME, designing, installing and maintaining landscapes, landscape construction, being a horticultural therapist in New York City, working for the USDA in WA, teaching in a TX federal prison for his Extension appointment, teaching horticulture in a TN high school and was an university horticulture professor for 14 years in KY after teaching at Kansas State University, Washington State University and Texas A&M University as a teaching assistant. He started with the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in April 2017 as the Sarasota County Residential Horticulture Agent/Master Gardener Volunteer Coordinator and transitioned to the Wakulla County Extension office in June 2020.
Kayaking the Myakka River, FL.
Teaching and greenhouse growing are his professional joys. Florida is the first state where there has not been a greenhouse to play in and he misses it greatly, however Extension does offer many opportunities to share his passion for plants and outdoors with a new group of learners. Otherwise Pat grew up on the beaches and ski resort areas of southern CA and still finds solace today relaxing on the beach or kayaking. He has traveled a bit visiting 49 states with only Hawaii to go. When indoors he would rather be baking or cooking in the kitchen as his second career choice would have been a chef. There is usually a yard full of flowers, herbs and vegetables and he is an extremely proud FSU Seminole Dad to Tara, a 2020 graduate.
Pat wears many hats at the Wakulla office and handles topics other than 4-H Youth Development or Family and Consumer Sciences. Once again he finds himself in a transition adapting to the new horticultural environment of Florida’s panhandle and developing more programs in agriculture and natural resources. Please feel free to reach out to see how the UF/IFAS Extension Wakulla County can be of assistance.
That’s the question from a recent group exploring what washed up on the beach after Hurricane Sally.
Photo by: Amy Leath
They have no eyes, nose or antenna. Yet, they move with tiny little legs and have openings on each end. Though scientists refer to them as sea cucumbers, they are obviously animals. Sea cucumbers get their name because of their overall body shape, but they are not vegetables.
There are over 1,200 species of sea cucumbers, ranging in size from ¾“ to more than 6‘ long, living throughout the world’s ocean bottoms. They are part of a larger animal group called echinoderms, which includes starfish, urchins and sand dollars. Echinoderms have five identical parts to their bodies. In the case of sea cucumber, they have 5 elongated body segments separated by tiny bones running from the tube feet at the mouth to the opening of the anus. These squishy invertebrates spend their entire life scavenging off the seafloor. Those tiny legs are actually tube feet that surround their mouth, directing algae, aquatic invertebrates, and waste particles found in the sand into their digestive tract. What goes in, must come out. That’s where it becomes interesting.
Sea cucumbers breathe by dilating their anal sphincter to allow water into the rectum, where specialized organs referred to as respiratory trees (or butt lungs) extract the oxygen from the water before discharging it back into the sea. Several commensal and symbiotic creatures (including a fish that lives in the anus, as well as crabs and shrimp on its skin) hang out on this end of the sea cucumber collecting any “leftovers”.
But, the ecosystem also benefits. Not only is excess organic matter being removed from the seafloor, but the water environment is being enriched. Sea cucumbers’ natural digestion process gives their feces a relatively high pH from the excretion of ammonia, protecting the water surrounding the sea cucumber habitats from ocean acidification and providing fertilizer that promotes coral growth. Also, the tiny bones within the sea cucumber form from the excretion of calcium carbonate, which is the primary ingredient in coral formation. The living and dying of sea cucumbers aids in the survival of coral beds.
When disturbed, sea cucumbers can expose their bony hook-like structures through their skin, making them more pickle than cucumber in appearance. Sea cucumbers can also use their digestive system to ward of predators. To confuse or harm predators, the sea cucumber propels its toxic internal organs from its body in the direction of the attacker. No worries though. They can grow them back again.
Hurricane Sally washed the sea cucumbers ashore so you could learn more about the creatures on the ocean floor. Continue to explore the Florida panhandle outdoor.
Is this what it sounds like? Fish that do not swim, but drift? Well… yes and no. They can swim, just not very well – they do better by drifting.
The word used most often for any drifting creature in the sea is plankton. Plankton literally means “drifter” or “wanderer”. Most plankton, including planktonic fish, can swim. Some can adjust their position in the water column – rising near the surface at night, sinking deeper during the day.
When you think about it, it is a cool way to make a living out there. With miles and miles of open blue water, the swimming fish must keep swimming. To do this requires a lot of energy, open water fish must consume a lot of high energy food. Drifters just drift. Hang with the currents, enjoying the moment, eating what they can. Sounds pretty good huh?
As you can imagine, there are not many fish who live this lifestyle. Many do after they hatch in their larval stage – but as adults, most live on the bottom, others in the open blue. Let’s meet a couple of the drifters.
The slow moving ocean sunfish.
Now here is one weird looking fish. Large bulbous head, long angular dorsal and ventral fins, and no tail – it’s a swimming/drifting head. These large open water drifters can reach seven feet long, seven feet high, and weigh over a ton. They can hold their position, undulating their dorsal and ventral fins, and move slowly through the water. Often, they will turn on their sides and just hang there. Looking like a floating board or something, small creatures are attracted to them, some of which they eat. Their diet is primarily jellyfish, though they have been known to take small fish, crustaceans, and even algae.
They are related to puffer fish, and actually resemble them early in life, but the resemblance fades quickly as this becomes more head than anything else.
Though rarely seen near shore, they have been, and one was actually spotted inside Pensacola Bay. They occasionally wash ashore dead. One did on Dauphin Island. The staff at the Sea Lab made a mold of the dead creature which is now hanging in the public Estuarium there. Many know this fish by its scientific name – Mola mola – or simply “the mola”. It is a pretty cool fish.
This sargassum fish is well camouflaged within this mat of sargassum weed.
Photo: Florida Museum of Natural History
Sargassum fish are members of a family known as “frogfish” – so you can guess what they must look like – and can guess they are not real good swimmers. Almost completely round, they are blobs in the sea. There are three species in the Gulf, two if which are bottom fish. However, the Sargassum fish is a drifter – drifting with the common seaweed known by its scientific name Sargassum. Sargassum is brown algae that produces air bladders called pneumatocyst. These bladders allow the weed to drift in large mats at the surface where they get sunlight. Some sargassum mats are huge is size and are an ecosystem amongst themselves. Hundreds of miniature fish and invertebrates call this place home – a place to hide in the open sea. It is the home of baby sea turtles, if they can make the trek from the beach alive.
One member of this community is the Sargassum fish (Histrio histrio). It has the typical frogfish shape and look but the coloration matches the Sargassum weed perfectly. Like other frogfish, the first dorsal spine is modified into a “fishing rod” complete with a “lure”. When prey (small creatures in the Sargassum weed) are in view, the Sargassum fish will extend the illicium (as it is called) and actually move it back and forth to make it look like live bait – they are fishing.
Most members of the Sargassum community flee the weed when the currents bring it to close to the beach. However, they hang on longer than you might think. If you are at the beach when the Sargassum is drifting just off the shore – wade out with a small kids dip net and snag a patch. Place in a bucket and see who comes out. You MIGHT get lucky and catch one of these ocean drifters.
Ray Bodrey is in his fifth year as the Gulf County Extension Director. Ray is originally from the “Watermelon Capital of the World” – Cordele, GA, where he grew up on a family row crop farm. His extension areas are Agriculture, Natural Resources (including Sea Grant programs) and Horticulture. He holds degrees in Biology, (B.S. 2006, Georgia Southern University); Agricultural Leadership, (M., 2011, University of Georgia) and Soil & Water Sciences, (M.S. 2015, University of Florida). Ray is also beginning his second year of the PhD program in UF’s Soil & Water Sciences Department. His research concerns strategies for building soil health after timber to pasture land conversion.
Ray’s natural resources programming efforts include teaching courses for the Florida Master Naturalist Program and Panhandle Outdoor Live Water Schools. Ray has also trained and managed volunteers for citizen science programs. These programs include mangrove and diamondback terrapin tracking and monitoring, scallop restoration (scallop sitters) and coastal water quality assessments, through which, the St. Joseph Bay Water Watch Program was established. He is also involved with wildlife food plot on-farm trials and was a team member of the sea turtle-friendly lighting initiative.
Before coming to UF/IFAS Extension, Ray was a member of the Water Quality Program of the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service – Georgia Sea Grant Program for eight years. As a Marine Resource Specialist, Ray’s extension and research centered on nonpoint source pollution activity in coastal surface waters.
When not juggling extension hats, Ray enjoys fishing, hunting, gardening and really, just being in the great outdoors. Growing skyscraper sunflowers, raised bed gardening, home composting and caring for citrus and peach trees are just some of the fun times had around his homestead.
Credits: Clemson University, www.insectimages.org
The hickory horned devil is a blue-green colored caterpillar, about the size of a large hot dog, covered in long black thorns. They are often seen feeding on the leaves of deciduous forest trees, such as hickory, pecan, sweetgum, sumac and persimmon. For about 35 days, the hickory horned devil continuously eats, getting bigger and bigger every day. In late July to mid-August, they crawl down to the ground to search for a suitable location to burrow into the soil for pupation. While the hickory horned devil is fierce-looking, they are completely harmless. If you see one wandering through the grass or across the pavement, help it out by moving it to an open soil surface.
The pupa will overwinter until next May to early-June, at which time, they completely metamorphosize into a regal moth (Citheronia regalis). Like most other moths, it is nocturnal. But, this is a very large gray-green moth with orange wings, measuring up to 6 inches in width. It lives only about one week and never get to eat. In fact, they don’t even have a functional mouth. Adults mate during the second evening after emergence from the ground and begin laying eggs on tree leaves at dusk of the third evening. The adult moth dies of exhaustion. Eggs hatch in six to 10 days.
Adult regal moth, Citheronia regalis (Fabricius).Credits: Donald W. Hall, UF/IFAS
The regal moth, and its larvae stage called the hickory horned devil, is native to the southeastern United States. The damage they do to trees in minimal. Learning to appreciate this “odd” creature is something we can all do. For more information: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/IN/IN20900.pdf