Most people have heard about bug-trapping plants that sustain themselves by digesting and absorbing nutrients from bugs that they catch. This gives them the ability to grow in soils of low fertility that most other plants cannot tolerate. Good examples of this in our Florida Panhandle area include several species of pitcher plants, Venus flytraps (non-native), bladderworts, sundews and butterworts. Some trap their unsuspecting prey by “trickery” with the temptation of sweet but sticky droplets. Others draw prey by the allure of various scents and as the bugs crawl down a narrow passage for the “treat”, one-way hairs prevent them from crawling back out; the “trick.”
One-way hairs is the strategy employed by the Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia littoralis), surely one of the oddest looking flowers on the planet. Also called the “calico flower,” this non-native species of Aristolochia, superficially resembles the Dutchman’s pipe that the famed Sherlock Holmes smoked.
A side-view of the still-closed petals and bulbous reproductive chamber.
The plant is listed as a category II invasive on the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council’s 2017 List of Invasive Plant Species. Florida also has three native species of Aristolochia, some of which are important larval foods for the pipevine swallowtail. However, there are several non-natives that are actually toxic to butterfly larvae. All of the plants contain a chemical compound called Aristolochic acid, which is considered a strong carcinogen and has been linked to cancer in people who have used this plant as an herbal remedy. The plant has also been found to be a potent kidney toxin and many people have required renal transplants or dialysis as a result of using herbal remedies containing aristolochic acids.
Aristolochia is not alone in the world of bug attracting plants or fungi when it uses a fragrance resembling rotting meat as bait. The unique feature of this plant comes in the trapping strategy that is employed. When a fly is lured down the one-way, hairy tube into the bulbous chamber that serves to hold it’s captor, the flowers reproductive structures are encountered. During the fly’s exploration of the chamber, with no way out, pollen granules adhere to the fly’s body. Amazingly, within a day or so, the stiff hairs blocking the tubular entrance to the prison gradually relax or breakdown, allowing the fly to escape. Scientists who study these flowers all concur that a fly must have a very short memory because it isn’t long before the recent captor ventures into another Aristolochia trap to complete the flower’s pollination process.
Tiny hairs lining the tube leading to the chamber prevent escape, for a time.
The flower itself is an amazing structure of graceful lines, purplish-brown calico patterns and a bulbous reproductive chamber. However, the story behind the marvelous reproductive strategy of the plant is the hidden gem. Be aware though, that this is not a plant that would be recommended for our Panhandle flower gardens due to its habit of invading wildlands. Oh, now that you’ve struggled through this entire article trying to pronounce Aristolochia in your head, here is how you say it: uh-wrist-oh-low-kee-uh. Good luck with that.
Dog Star nights Astro Bob
The “Dog Days” are the hottest, muggiest days of summer. In the northern hemisphere, they usually fall between early July and early September. The actual dates vary greatly from region to region, depending on latitude and climate. In Northwest Florida, the first weeks of August are usually the worst. So, get out before it gets hotter.
In ancient times, when the night sky was not obscured by artificial lights, the Romans used the stars to keep track of the seasons. The brightest constellation, Canis Major (Large Dog), includes the “dog star”, Sirius. In the summer, Sirius used to rise and set with the sun, leading the ancient Romans to believe that it added heat to the sun. Although the period between July 3 and August 11 is typically the warmest period of the summer, the heat is not due to the added radiation from a far-away star, regardless of its brightness. The heat of summer is a direct result of the earth’s tilt.
Life is so uncertain right now, so, most people are spending less time doing group recreation outside. But, many people are looking to get outside Spending time outdoors this time of year is uncomfortable, potentially dangerous, due to the intense heat. So, limit the time you spend in nature and always take water with you. But, if you are looking for some outdoor options that will still allow you to social distance,
try local trails and parks. Some of them even allow your dog. Here are a few websites to review the options: https://floridahikes.com/northwest-florida and https://www.waltonoutdoors.com/all-the-parks-in-walton-county-florida/northwest-florida-area-parks/ Be sure to check if they are allowing visits, especially those that are connected to enclosed spaces.
Other options may include zoos and aquariums: www.tripadvisor.com/Attractions-g1438845-Activities-c48-Florida_Panhandle_Florida.html
Or maybe just wander around some local plant nurseries:
Cooters are one of the more commonly seen turtles when visiting a freshwater system. They are relatively large for a freshwater turtle (with a carapace about 13 inches long) and are often seen basking on logs, rocks, aerator pumps, you name it – and often in high numbers while doing so. They spook easy and usually leap into the water long before you reach them. But because of their beautiful smooth shells and large size, they can be seen from a distance – looking like wet rocks on a tree limb.
A “River Cooter” seen basking on a log in Blackwater River.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
They are in the genus Pseudemys (same as the Florida red-bellied turtles) and this genus is found throughout the southeastern United States. However, from there the breakdown of species becomes a bit challenging. There has been much debate how many species there really area, and how many are subspecies of those species. There are two distinct species for sure – the “River Cooter” (Pseudemys concinna) and the “Pond Cooter” (Pseudemys floridana). From here is gets a bit weird.
The “River Cooters” are just that – friends of rivers. They like those with a bit of a current, sand/gravel bottoms, basking spots, and grasses to eat. They have been found in estuaries, even with barnacles growing on them, so they have some tolerance for saltwater. River cooters can be distinguished from their “Pond Cooter” cousins in having a more aerodynamic shell (presumably for their habit of living in faster flowing rivers) with yellow-orange markings that form concentric rings on each scute (scale) of the carapace. Some of these seem to form a backwards “C”. Their plastron is yellow-orange but will have black markings along the margins of each scute.
This river cooter is basking on a log on the heads waters of the Choctawhatchee River in Alabama.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
The “Suwannee Cooter” is believed to be a subspecies (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis) found in tannic rivers from the Ochlockonee just west of Tallahassee south to the Tampa Bay region. It has only been found in rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico. A couple of records have been found in rivers flowing towards the Atlantic, but it is believed these were relocated by humans.
The “Eastern River Cooter” is found from the Ochlockonee River west to Mobile Bay – possibly as far as Louisiana. There has been a suggestion that the one west of Mobile Bay is the “Mobile Cooter” (Pseudemys concinna mobilensis) but the naming of this group, again, has been a bit crazy.
As mentioned, “Pond Cooters” are fans of slow-moving waters with muddy bottoms. Unlike river cooters, pond cooters will travel over land other than to lay eggs. Many of their “pond” selections dry up and they must find new habitat. Like river cooters, pond cooters feed on vegetation so aquatic plants are must and they also like to bask in the sun on logs with many cooters basking at once.
A pond cooter in a canal within the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
Physically they differ from river cooters in having a slightly domed shell near the head end. The yellow markings are not concentric, but rather are in straight lines and their plastrons are an immaculate beautiful yellow – with no markings on the margins. They do however have black circles on the bottom margins of their carapace. These are usually round with a small yellow spot in the center – resembling an “o”.
There is believed to be two subspecies of this group. Pseudemys floridana floridiana (the “Florida Cooter”) and Pseudemys floridana peninuslaris (the “Peninsula Cooter”). Told you it was all weird. The Florida cooter is found in the Florida panhandle and the Peninsula Cooter has been found all the way to the Florida Keys – though it does not seem to be common in the Everglades.
Add to the quagmire of species identification – there is hybridization between not only the types of pond and river cooters – but BETWEEN the pond and river cooters. So, if you live in the eastern panhandle where all of these seem to converge – just call them “cooters”!
They have an interesting nesting habit. When the females approach an open sunny sandy spot, she will dig a hole to lay about 20 eggs, but she will also dig two “satellite” nests on either side – and maybe place an egg or two in there. It is quite understood why they do this, but they do. They also may come to the beach up to five times in one year to lay eggs.
A pond cooter digging a nest on someone’s property.
Photo: Deb Mozert
Because of their high numbers and large size, this has been a favorite food item for humans for quite some time. Due to this, and the practice of shooting them off their basking spots, and alterations of river systems lower the habitat quality for the river cooters, their numbers have declined. The Suwannee Cooter in particular has been hard hit and is a species of concern. Due to this it no longer allowed to harvest them (or their eggs) from the wild. Because it is so hard to tell the Suwannee from other species/subspecies of cooters – ALL cooters are now protected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Another note – they do not eat fish. The young will eat worms and insects, but the adults are strictly herbivores. Many pond owners want to shoot them thinking they are eating the stocked fish by the landowner. They will not eat the fish – you are fine.
I think these are amazingly beautiful animals to see glimmering in the sunny on their basking logs as you explore our local rivers and wetlands. I hope you find them just as cool and appreciate them.
Buhlman, K., T. Tuberville, W. Gibbons. 2008. Turtles of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. 252 pp.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Freshwater Turtles https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/wildlife/freshwater-turtles/.
Meylan, P.A. (Ed.). 2006. Biology and Conservation of Florida Turtles. Chelonian Research Monographs No.3, 376 pp.
WOW… is all I can say, when I step outside at night of late and become immersed in the spectacular chorus of calls from breeding frogs and toads near my Wakulla County residence. The sound reverberates to the level where it sometimes feels like it is echoing inside one’s head. Recent heavy rains have awakened local species to the notion that there is no time like the present for pro-creation; given the fact that many of the shallow, depressional wetlands in our region will only contain water for a short window of time.
This may seem like a drawback to the life style of frogs and toads that depend on these wetlands but nature has a way of surprising us with incredible adaptations for survival. For instance, the eastern spadefoot toad (Scaphiopus holbrookii) can actually survive through several years with no water available for raising their young. They do this by remaining buried in the ground, only emerging after heavy rains that collect in depressions. Tadpoles metamorphose into small toads within 28 days so by the time the pool goes dry they are likely long-gone. Female spadefoots will lay over 2,000 eggs at a time so the number of progeny that can emerge from a small depressional wetland is phenomenal. I recall seeing black stains across roadways all over the County about a month after one of our tropical storms. Baby spadefoot toads were dispersing by the millions from hundreds of shallow pools across the region and local roadways were one of the hazards they faced on their journey.
Another advantage to amphibians breeding in ephemeral (temporary) wetlands has to do with the fact that there are no fish to prey on the tadpoles. This is not a requirement for all species, as some have chemical defenses (bad taste) that limit predation, but others could not successfully breed in permanent bodies of water.
Some of the species I have heard calling lately include squirrel treefrogs, green treefrogs, Cope’s gray treefrogs, southern toads, cricket frogs, and a few others I have not identified yet. If you have never made an effort to identify the night calls of frogs and toads, you don’t know what you are missing in your local environment. Some are quite difficult to separate but many of very distinct and once you put the call with a name you won’t ever forget it. Take a moment to listen to one of my favorites, the southern toad; the origin of a beautiful, high-pitched trill that you most likely have never paid much attention to. This website (The Frog Blog) is a great resource to learn more calls. Be sure to listen also to the southern cricket frog call that sounds like two marbles clacked together, and Copes’ gray treefrog, which many might mistake for a bird as they call from high in the tree canopy.
Cricket frogs are one of the smallest vertebrates on the planet.
The cacophony of sounds on a warm summer’s night can seem chaotic and random but if you spend a little time sorting out the musicians, you are sure to develop a deeper appreciation of the symphony, along with a better understanding of the well-orchestrated cycles of nature in your Panhandle backyard.
They call it a slider…
Maybe because they slide off a tree trunks into the water? Honestly, I really don’t know – but sliders it is.
They are very common pond turtles all across the eastern and mid-west portions of the United States reaching as far west as New Mexico. Within this range there are two subspecies: The Yellow-bellied Slider (Trachemys scripta scripta) and the Red-Eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). In Florida, only the yellow-bellied is native and it is only found in northern Florida. The red-eared slider is found throughout our state but is non-native and considered by some to be invasive.
The distinct yellow patch on the cheek helps identify the yellow-bellied slider.
Photo: Molly O’Connor
Sliders are mid-sized emydid turtles and found in almost any type of water body. They prefer water bodies with slow currents, lots of sun, and plants – but have been found in retention ponds, rivers, golf courses, you name it. The shell (carapace) is rounder than the other common pond turtle called the cooter. Their shells are usually between 3 – 11 inches long, with females being larger. They have a slight keel running down the middle of their shell and the back margin is slightly “toothed” or serrated. The “belly” shell (or plastron) is usually yellow (source of their common name) as juveniles and forms dark blotches with age. The body is a dark green or black color with fine yellow stripes. The yellow-bellied slider will have a large yellow patch in the cheek area, which is easy to see from a distance. The red-eared has a small red patch behind and above the ear area. The carapace will be green as a juvenile and become darker as an adult. There will be beautiful patterns of yellow in the shell that fade with time. Older sliders will have faded shells all together and the yellow markings on the head and body will fade as well. They call this a melanistic phase.
Sliders are most active during daylight hours and are known to spend some time on land. They can be seen frequently basking on tree stumps and logs and can be aggressive towards each other. Red-eared sliders are known to be aggressive in aquaria.
They are omnivores. Young sliders are carnivorous feeding on small worms and insects. The adults switch to plant diet. Many sliders are shot, or destroyed in other ways, by locals thinking they will eat all the fish in their ponds – they will not.
Males are usually smaller, typically not having carapace lengths greater than 10 inches. Mature males will have extended “fingernails” or claws on their forelimbs. Mating takes place in the water and females have been known to travel up to 1500 feet from the water seeking good nesting habitat. Once found, they may dig a couple of “trial” nests before laying 5-20 eggs in a real one. They lay up to 3 active nests/nesting female/year.
Numerous animals will consume the turtle eggs and hatchlings. Adults have been consumed by alligators, minks, raccoons, otters, and gars.
Within their range, they are considered common but are still protected by Florida law. You may not have more than one slider/person/day from the wild and cannot use for commercial purposes. The red-eared slider is considered non-native and it is illegal to release non-natives into the local environment.
These are beautiful turtles and we hope that if you have not already seen one, you will get to soon.
Have you ever been on a walk, passed a beautiful flowering bush, and wondered what it was? Well, wonder no more! You can become an expert naturalist by using an easy smartphone app, iNaturalist. With one easy download, you can connect with others to identify species and document their occurrence.
iNaturalist is a community of naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists working together to share observations of biodiversity and map the occurrence. Parents need to know that iNaturalist is an online community that allows users age 13 and older to share pictures and locations of the living things they see around them. While considered very safe, like any online network, teens should be cautious with sharing.
Getting started is easy. All you need to do is create an account at iNaturalist.org and download their free iNaturalist app to your smartphone (Android or iOS). You can then start making your own nature observations, upload them to iNaturalist where you can share your discoveries with others, and also let other iNaturalist users help identify what you have seen.
iNaturalist is a great way to connect with nature and generate scientifically valuable biodiversity data. You can use it for your own personal fulfillment, or as part of a group. You can even use the project feature which allows you to have a central page that displays all the observations made within a location, or all observations made by a group. Why not organize your neighbors, club, or friends and challenge them to post their observations?
Mystery blob in the garden. Can you figure out what it is? Photo: Laura Tiu
I recently used iNaturalist to identify a bright yellow blob that sprung up in my garden overnight. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what it is. Why don’t you head on over to iNaturalist.org and see if you can figure it out? It will be your first step to becoming an expert naturalist.