Barrier Island Mammals

Barrier Island Mammals

You are probably not going to see them… but they are there.

Mammals are fur covered warm blooded creatures.  Beaches are hot, dry, sandy places.  Just as in the deserts, it would make sense for island mammals to be nocturnal.  We know of their existence by their tracks and their scat.  Rabbit, raccoon, and armadillo tracks are quite common.  Deer, coyote, and beach mice less so.  All that said, some are seen at dawn and dusk and it is not unheard of to see them in the middle of the day – especially during the cooler months.

One question that may come up is – “how did they get to an isolated island?”  Some scientists have a lot of fun trying to solve that mystery.  Some island mammals, like otters, are very good swimmers and would have no problem.  Many barrier islands begin as sand spits connected to the mainland – the mammals ventured out into new territory – set up camp – and either over time, or over night in a hurricane – the spit breaks off and the mammals are there.  And let’s not forget we built bridges – they know how to use them.  Coyotes have been seen walking across the Bob Sikes Bridge from Gulf Breeze.

Another question that comes up – “where are they in the middle of the day?”  Most dig, or find, burrows and dens.  Just a few inches below the surface it is very cool.  Some will find thick hammocks in the maritime forest and “hunker down” for the day.

The sneaky raccoon is an intelligent creature and has learned to live with humans.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Raccoons

The raccoon (Procyon lotor) is one of the more intelligent and fearless of the beach mammals.  Their opportunistic behavior frequently brings them into contact with humans.  They will scurry across your lawn at night looking for insects, cat food, garbage, whatever they can find to eat – and outdoor lights do not seem to bother them.  There are even videos of them reaching into “dog doors” searching.  On the island, their tracks are often found in the marsh areas – where they grab shellfish and are one of the few animals that wash their food before eating it.  They usually like to settle into hollow trees during the day.  But on the island, it is more likely burrows in the sand.

Their tracks might show the presence of a claw (always hard in soft sand – better chance in wet).  The front foot is smaller than the back and they walk with an alternating pattern – usually the front and back foot are close to each other – unless they are running.  The front foot is about 2.5”x2.5” – a little round, and the index from the pad to the tip is thinner.  The hind foot is about 2.5” wide but closer to 4” long.

The scat is cigar shaped and about 3” long.

Read more:

https://myfwc.com/media/1666/livingwithraccoons.pdf.

The bizarre looking armadillo enjoys a walk on the beach.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

Armadillo

Here is an interesting creature.  It doesn’t even look like a mammal – not sure what it looks like.  But mammals they are.  If you find one that has been hit by a car you can see, amongst the armored plating, hairs spaced across the body – they are mammals.   It is one that is sometimes seen roaming in the middle of the day.  They plunge through the leaf litter and bushes of the maritime forest, making a lot of noise, while searching for insects and grubs and crushing them with their peg-like teeth.  They are not from around here – rather from central America – and worked their way into the American southwest and southeast.  They probably reached the island via the bridges.  They are prolific produces – usually having quadruplets of the same sex.  You once found them occasionally in the national seashore – but since Hurricane Ivan, you can find them almost anywhere.  One bothersome fact of this animal – they are known to carry leprosy – which can be contacted by eating the animal, or handling it.

Their tracks are one of the most common on the beach.  The front foot is about 1.8” long and 1.4” wide.  You will see only four toes and claw marks may be seen.  The two middle toes are longer.  The hind foot has a similar pattern, but you will see five toes and they are about 2.2” long.  Most tracks include the tail drag between the foot marks.  These are quite common all over the island.

The scat is round-ish and not very long – about 2”.

Read more:

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW45600.pdf

https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/mammals/land/armadillo/

https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/five-facts-nine-banded-armadillo/.

A coyote moving on Pensacola Beach near dawn.
Photo provided by Shelley Johnson.

Coyote

This is an animal that makes people nervous.  They are one of the larger mammals on the beach, and they are carnivores.  Attacks on pets and children are a concern for many.  However, this is rarely the case.  Studies show that they are actually very nervous around people and tend to stay at a distance.  However, if fed cat food or available garbage, they will lose that fear and problems can occur.  Like most island mammals, they are nocturnal, and diet studies have found the bulk of their meals are rodents – which is doing us a favor.  But, like raccoons, they are intelligent and opportunistic.  If they find an easy meal, like shorebird and turtle eggs – or the chicks and hatchlings – they will take them.  It was once thought they were creatures of the American west and migrated into the eastern United States.  Some scientists have found coyote remains in the eastern US that predate the ice age – so maybe they are just returning home.  There are also reports of humans bringing them here for “fox hunts” – not realizing these were not fox.  Either way, they are in all 67 counties of Florida, and on Pensacola Beach.  They look similar to dogs – but will be thinner and their tails hang down between their legs when they run.  One way to know if they are around is to listen when a siren is going – they tend to howl at these.

Their tracks are very similar to dogs and more people are bringing dogs onto the beach and into natural areas – hard to tell them apart.  The pad at the rear of both the front and back paws of the coyote has three lobes, dogs have two on the front foot.  In general, dog tracks are more round, coyotes typically are long and not as wide.  Characteristic of dog family – the claw marks can be seen.  Keep in mind that tracks are distorted in soft sand – best to look in wet sand.

The scat is also characteristic of wild canines – long and thin (like a hot dog) and tapered at each end (like a tamale).  Coyote scat is usually 3-8” long and may have the characteristic claw scratching marks some dogs do.

Read more:

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW44300.pdf.

https://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/coyotes/.

https://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/profiles/mammals/land/coyote/

The Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse is one of four Florida Panhandle Species classified as endangered or threatened. Beach mice provide important ecological roles promoting the health of our coastal dunes and beaches. Photo provided by Jeff Tabbert

Beach Mouse

Beach mice are like the Loch Ness monster – everyone talks about them, but no one has seen one.  Many locals have lived on this beach all of their lives and have never seen one – but they are there – and they are protected.  The deal with protection is that these are isolated populations on each island.  With no chance to mix genes, they have become “unique” and found no where else.  There are four species in the state listed as endangered – including the nearby Perdido Key Beach Mouse and the Choctawhatchee Beach Mouse.  It is believed the subspecies found on Pensacola Beach is the Santa Rosa Beach Mouse and is not listed as endangered – but is a species of concern (see list in link below).  These little guys dig multiple burrows throughout the dune field but prefer those that are more open and have plenty of sea oats.  They emerge at night feeding on a variety of seeds, fruits, and even insects – but sea oats are their favorite.  It has been suggested they play an important role of dispersing these seeds.  The introduction of new predators, and human development, have put these guys at high risk of extinction.

As you can imagine, the tracks are tiny.  They are round in shape and show claw marks.

Read more:

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/UW/UW17300.pdf.

https://myfwc.com/media/1945/threatend-endangered-species.pdf.

Outdoor Ethics

Outdoor Ethics

Baby terns on Pensacola Beach are camouflaged in plain sight on the sand. This coloration protects them from predators but can also make them vulnerable to people walking through nesting areas. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension

The controversial incident recently in New York between a birdwatcher and a dog owner got me thinking about outdoor ethics. Most of us are familiar with the “leave no trace” principles of “taking only photographs and leaving only footprints.” This concept is vital to keeping our natural places beautiful, clean, and safe. However, there are several other matters of ethics and courtesy one should consider when spending time outdoors.

  1. On our Gulf beaches in the summer, sea turtles and shorebirds are nesting. The presence of this type of wildlife is an integral part of why people want to visit our shores—to see animals they can’t see at home, and to know there’s a place in the world where this natural beauty exists. Bird and turtle eggs are fragile, and the newly hatched young are extremely vulnerable. Signage is up all over, so please observe speed limits, avoid marked nesting areas, and don’t feed or chase birds. Flying away from a perceived predator expends unnecessary energy that birds need to care for young, find food, and avoid other threats.

    When on a multi-use trail, it is important to use common courtesy to prevent accidents. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

  2. On a trail, the rules of thumb are these: hikers yield to equestrians, cyclists yield to all other users, and anyone on a trail should announce themselves when passing another person from behind.
  3. Obey leash laws, and keep your leash short when approaching someone else to prevent unwanted encounters between pets, wildlife, or other people. Keep in mind that some dogs frighten easily and respond aggressively regardless of how well-trained your dog is. In addition, young children or adults with physical limitations can be knocked down by an overly friendly pet.
  4. Keep plenty of space between your group and others when visiting parks and beaches. This not only abides by current health recommendations, but also allows for privacy, quiet, and avoidance of physically disturbing others with a stray ball or Frisbee.

Summer is beautiful in northwest Florida, and we welcome visitors from all over the world. Common courtesy will help make everyone’s experience enjoyable.

Sea Pork: A shoreline oddity

Sea Pork: A shoreline oddity

Sea pork comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Recently I was walking the beach, enjoying a sunset and looking around at the shells and other oddities in the wrack line where waves deposit their floating treasures. Something bright green and oblong caught my eye. It was emerald in color, smooth yet fuzzy at the same time, and firm to the touch. At first, I thought it was a sea bean–a collective term for the many species of seeds and fruits that float to our shores from tropical locations in the Caribbean or Central/South America. The bright green definitely seemed like something botanical in nature. However, the vast majority of sea beans have a woody, protective shell similar to our more familiar pecans or acorns.

I remembered a family member asking about finding a mystery chunk of pink mass she found on the beach a few years ago. It resembled a pork chop more than anything else.

A different variety of sea pork that really lives up to its name. Photo credit: Stephanie Stevenson, Duval County Master Gardener

Looking closer and consulting a couple of resources, I realized we had both (most likely!) happened upon one of the oddest and often-questioned finds on our beaches: sea pork. Ranging in color from beige and pale pink to red or green, sea pork is a tunicate (or sea squirt), a member of the Phylum Chordata, home to all the vertebrate and semi-vertebrate animals. While they look and feel more like a cross between invertebrate slugs or sponges, the tunicates are more advanced organisms, possessing a primitive backbone in their larval “tadpole” form. Despite their blob-like appearance, they are more closely related to vertebrate animals than they are to corals or sponges.

The unusual life cycle of the tunicate. Photo credit: University of Washington, used with permission with Florida Master Naturalist program

During their short (just hours-long) larval stage, the tunicate larvae uses its nerve cord (supported by a notochord similar to a vertebrate spine) to communicate with a cerebral vesicle, which works like a brain. Similar to fish, this primitive brain uses an otolith to orient itself in the water, and an eyespot to detect light. These brain-like tools are utilized to locate an appropriate location to settle permanently. Using a sticky substance, the tunicate will attach its head directly to a hard surface (rocks, boats, docks, etc.) and go through a metamorphosis of sorts. The tunicate reabsorbs its tail and starts forming the shape and structure it needs for adulthood.

As an adult, the organism has a barrel shape covered by a tough tunic-like skin (hence “tunicate”). Adult bodies have two siphons, one to bring water in, another to shoot it out (giving them their other nickname, the sea squirt). The water passes through an atrium with organs that allow it to filter feed, trapping plankton and oxygen. The tunicates will spend most of their lives attached to a surface, pumping water in and out as filter feeders. They may be solitary or live in colonies, and vary widely in color and shape, lending variety to those chunks of sea pork found washing up.

I am still awaiting positive identification from an expert on my green find to confirm that it is, indeed, a tunicate and not an unfamiliar plant. Consulting with Extension colleagues, for now we are pretty confidently going with green sea pork. If you have seen one of these before or something resembling sea pork, let us know! It is fascinating to see the variety and unusual shapes and colors.

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Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the reptiles

Embrace the Gulf 2020 – the reptiles

An eastern cottonmouth basking near a creek in a swampy area of Florida.
Photo: Tommy Carter

When you think of reptiles you typically think of tropical rainforest or the desert.  However, there is at least one member of the three orders of reptiles that do live in the sea.  Saltwater crocodiles are found in the Indo-Pacific region as are about 50 species of sea snakes.  There is one marine lizard, the marine iguana of the Galapagos Islands, and then the marine (or sea) turtles.  These are found worldwide and are the only true marine reptiles found in the Gulf of Mexico.

Sea turtles are very charismatic animals and beloved by many.  Five of the seven species are found in the Gulf.  These include the Loggerhead, which is the most common, the Green, the Hawksbill, the Leatherback, and the rarest of all – the Kemp’s Ridley.

 

Many in our area are very familiar with the nesting behavior of these long-ranged animals.  They do have strong site fidelity and navigate across the Gulf, or from more afar, to their nesting beaches – many here in the Pensacola Beach area.  The males and females court and mate just offshore in early spring.  The females then approach the beach after dark to lay about 100 eggs in a deep hole.  She then returns the to the Gulf never to see her offspring.  Many females will lay more than one clutch in a season.

The largest of the sea turtles, the leatherback.
Photo: Dr. Andrew Colman

The eggs incubate for 60-70 days and their temperature determines whether they will be male or female, warmer eggs become females.  The hatchlings hatch beneath the sand and begin to dig out.  If they detect problems, such as warm sand (we believe meaning daylight hours) or vibrations (we believe meaning predators) they will remain suspended until those potential threats are no more.  The “run” (all hatchlings at once) usually occurs under the cover of darkness to avoid predators.  The hatchlings scramble towards the Gulf finding their way by light reflecting off the water.  Ghost crabs, fox, raccoon, and other predators take almost 90% of them, and the 10% who do reach the Gulf still have predatory birds and fish to deal with.  Those who make it past this gauntlet head for the Sargassum weed offshore to begin their lives.

 

These are large animals, some reaching 1000 pounds, but most are in the 300-400 pound range, and long lived, some reaching 100 years.  It takes many years to become sexually mature and typically long-lived / low reproductive animals are targets for population issues when disasters or threats arise.  Many creatures eat the small hatchings, but there are few predators on the large reproducing adults.  However, in recent years humans have played a role in the decline of the adult population and all five species are now listed as either threatened or endangered and are protected in the U.S.  There are a couple of local ordinances developed to adhere to federal law requiring protection.  One is the turtle friendly lighting ordinance, which is enforced during nesting season (May 1 – Oct 31), and the Leave No Trace ordinance requiring all chairs, tents, etc. to be removed from the beach during the evening hours.  There are other things that locals can do to help protect these animals such as: fill in holes dug on the beach during the day, discard trash and plastic in proper receptacles, avoid snagging with fishing line and (if so) properly remove, and watch when boating offshore to avoid collisions.

 

If we include the barrier islands there are more coastal reptiles beyond the sea turtles.  There are freshwater ponds which can harbor a variety of freshwater turtles.  I have personally seen cooters, sliders, and even a snapping turtle on Pensacola Beach.  Many coastal islands harbor the terrestrial gopher tortoise and wooded areas could harbor the box turtles.  In the salt marsh you may find the only brackish water turtle in the U.S., the diamondback terrapin.  These turtles do nest on our beaches and are unique to see.  Freshwater turtle reproductive cycles are very similar to sea turtles, albeit most nest during daylight hours.

An American Alligator basking on shore.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

The American alligator can also be found in freshwater ponds, and even swimming in saltwater.  They can reach lengths of 12 feet, though there are records of 15 footers.  These animals actually do not like encounters with humans and will do their best to avoid us.  Problems begin when they are fed and loose that fear.  I have witnessed locals in Louisiana feeding alligators, but it is a felony in Florida.  Males will “bello” in the spring to attract females and ward off competing males.  Females will lay eggs in a nest made of vegetation near the shoreline and guard these, and the hatchlings, during and after birth.  They can be dangerous at this time and people should avoid getting near.

 

We have several native species of lizards that call the islands home.  The six-lined race runners and the green anole to name two.  However, non-native and invasive lizards are on the increase.  It is believed there are actually more non-native and invasive lizards in Florida than native ones.  The Argentina Tegu and the Cuban Anole are both problems and the Brown Anole is now established in Gulf Breeze, East Hill, and Perdido Key – probably other locations as well.  Growing up I routinely find the horned lizard in our area.  I was not aware then they were non-native, but by the 1970s you could only find them on our barrier islands, and today sightings are rare.

An eastern cottonmouth crossing a beach.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Then there are the snakes.

Like all reptiles, snakes like dry xeric environments like barrier islands.  We have 46 species in the state of Florida, and many can be found near the coast.  Though we have no sea snakes in the Gulf, all of our coastal snakes are excellent swimmers and have been seen swimming to the barrier islands.  Of most concern to residents are the venomous ones.  There are six venomous snakes in our area and four of them can be found on barrier islands.  These include the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, the Pygmy Rattlesnake, the Eastern Coral Snake, and the Eastern Cottonmouth.  There has been a recent surge in cottonmouth encounters on islands and this could be due to more people with more development causing more encounters, or there may be an increase in their populations.  Cottonmouths are more common in wet areas and usually want to be near freshwater.  Current surveys are trying to determine how frequently encounters do occur.

 

Not everyone agrees, but I think reptiles are fascinating animals and a unique part of the Gulf biosphere.  We hope others will appreciate them more and learn to live with and enjoy them.

Snakes on Our Barrier Islands

Snakes on Our Barrier Islands

Over the last two years I have been surveying snakes in a local community on Perdido Key.  The residents were concerned about the number of cottonmouths they were seeing and wanted some advice on how to handle the situation.  Many are surprised by the number of cottonmouths living on barrier islands, we think of them as “swamp” residents.  But they are here, along with several other species, some of which are venomous.  Let’s look at some that have been reported over the years.

The dune fields of panhandle barrier islands are awesome – so reaching over 50 ft. in height. This one is near the Big Sabine hike (notice white PVC markers).

In the classic text Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes (published in 1981), Ray and Patricia Ashton mention nine species found on coastal dunes or marshes.  They did not consider any of them common and listed the cottonmouth as rare – they seem to be more common today.  In a more recent publication (Snakes of the Southeast, 2005) Whit Gibbons and Michael Dorcas echo what the Ashton’s published but did add a few more species, many of which I have found as well.  Their list brings the total to 15 species.  I have frequently seen four other species in Gulf Breeze and Big Lagoon State Park that neither publication included, but I will since they are close to the islands – this brings the total 19 species that residents could encounter.

 

Leading us off is the one most are concerned about – the Eastern Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous).  Though listed as “rare” by the Ashton’s, encounters on both Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key are becoming common.  There is more than one subspecies of this snake – the eastern cottonmouth is the local one – and that the water moccasin and cottonmouth are one in the same snake.  This snake can reach 74 inches in length (6ft).  They are often confused with their cousin the copperhead (Agkistrodon contorix).  Both begin life in a “copper” color phase and with a luminescent green-tipped tail.  But at they grow, the cottonmouth becomes darker in color (sometimes becoming completely black) while the copperhead remains “copper”.  The cottonmouth also has a “mask” across its eyes that the copperhead lacks.  Believe it or not, the cottonmouth is not inclined to bite.  When disturbed they will vibrate their tail, open their mouth showing the “cottonmouth” and displaying their fangs, and swiveling their head warning you to back off.  Attacking, or chasing, rarely happens.  I find them basking in the open in the mornings and seeking cover the rest of the day.  Turning over boards (using a rake – do not use your hand) I find them coiled trying to hide.  MOST of the ones I find are juveniles.  These are opportunistic feeders – eating almost any animal but preferring fish.  They hunt at night.  Breeding takes place in spring and fall.  The females give live birth in summer.  As mentioned earlier, they seem to be becoming more common on our islands.

 

Eastern Cottonmouth with distinct “mask” and flattened body trying to intimidate.
Photo: Rick O’Connor

This year, while surveying for cottonmouths, I encountered numerous Eastern Coachwhips (Masticophis flagellum).  These long slender snakes can reach lengths of 102” (8ft.), move very fast across the ground – often with their heads raised like a cobra – and, even though nonvenomous, will bite aggressively.  They get their name from their coloration.  They have a dark brown head and neck and a tan colored body – resemble an old coachwhip.  They like dune environments and are excellent climbers.  They consume lizards, small birds and mammals, and even other small snakes.  They are most active during the daylight, but I usually find them beneath boards and other debris hiding.  They have always been on the islands but encountered more often this past year.  They lay eggs and do so in summer.

 

Their close cousin, the Southern Black Racer (Coluber constricta) is very similar but a beautiful dark black color.  They can reach lengths of 70” (6ft.) and are also very fast.  Like their cousin, they are nonvenomous but bite aggressively – often vibrating their tail like cottonmouths warning you to stay back.  They are beneficial controlling amphibian, reptile, and mammalian animals.  They are also summer egg layers.

The southern black racer differs from otehr black snakes in its brillant white chin and thin sleek body.
Photo: Jacqui Berger.

There are a few freshwater snakes that, like the cottonmouth do not like saltwater, but could be found on the islands.  These are in the genus Nerodia and are nonvenomous.  There are two species (the Midland and Banded water snakes) that could be found here.  They resemble cottonmouths in size and color and are often confused with them.  They differ in that they have vertical dark stripes running across their jaws and have a round pupil.  Though nonvenomous, they will bite aggressively.  One member of the Nerodia group is the Gulf Coast Salt Marsh Snake (Nerodia clarkii clarkii).  This snake does like saltwater and is found in the brackish salt marshes on the island.  It is dark in color with four longitudinal stripes, two are yellow and two are a dull brown color.  It only reaches a length of 36” (3ft.), is nocturnal, and feeds on estuarine fish and invertebrates.

This banded water snake is often confused with the cottonmouth. This animal has the vertical stripes extending from the lower jaw, which is lacking in the cottonmouth.
Photo: University of Georgia

Other species that the guides mention, or I have seen, are the small Crowned Snake, Southern Hognose, Pine Snake, Pine Woods Snake, and the Rough Green Snake.  I will mention here species I have seen in either Gulf Breeze or Big Lagoon State Park that COULD be found on the island:  Eastern Coral Snake, Eastern Garter Snake, Pigmy Rattlesnake, Eastern Hognose, and the Corn Snake (also called the Red Rat Snake).  Only two of these (Eastern Coral and Pigmy) are venomous.

 

Last, but not least, is the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotolus adamateus).  This is the largest venomous snake in the United States, reaching 96” (8ft.).  It is a diurnal hunter consuming primarily small mammals, though large ones can take rabbits.  They prefer the dry areas of the island where cover is good.  Palmettos, Pine trees, and along the edge of wetlands are their favorite haunts.  Despite their preference for dry sandy environments, they – like all snakes – are good swimmers and large rattlesnakes have been seen swimming across Santa Rosa Sound and Big Lagoon.  They tend to rattle before you get too close and you should yield to this animal.  The have an impressive strike range, 33% of their body length, you should give these guys a wide berth.  I have come across several that never rattled, I just happen to see them.  Again, give them plenty of room when walking by.

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake swimming in intracoastal waterway near Ft. McRee in Pensacola.
Photo: Sue Saffron

It is understandable that people are nervous about snakes being in popular vacation spots, but honestly… they really do not like to be around people.  We are trouble for them and they know it.  Most encounters are in the more natural areas of the islands.  Staying on marked trails and open areas, where you can see them – and be sure to look down while walking, you should see them and avoid trouble.  For more questions on local snakes, contact me at the county extension office.

 

References

 

Ashton, R.E., P.S. Ashton. 1981. Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida; Part One – Snakes. Windward Publishing, Miami FL. Pp.176.

 

Gibbons, W., M. Dorcas. 2005. Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press, Athens GA. Pp. 253.

Getting Rid of Beach Vitex

Getting Rid of Beach Vitex

Yep,

We are still trying to remove this invasive plant from our area.  For those who are not familiar with it, beach vitex (Vitex rotundifolia) is a category I invasive plant in Florida.  It is current listed as “invasive, not recommended”.  This means you can still purchase it but recommend you do not.

Vitex growing at Gulf Islands National Seashore that has been removed. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor

Why is that?

Well, being an invasive species, it reproduces at a high rate, has few consumers, and causes an environmental issue wherever it grows.  It has the potential to cause economic issues as well.  Beach vitex is from Asia and was brought to the United States as an ornamental plant.  In upland landscapes, it does not seem to be a problem.  However, when first used in coastal dunes it began to show its ugly head.  Vitex begins as a low growing vine and becomes a shrub over time.  It produced a beautiful lavender blossom in spring but then produces millions of seeds in late summer and fall.  The seeds are spread by birds and are viable in seawater for several months.  Dispersed in this way, the plant spreads across coastal beaches of our barrier islands.

 

Once established it forms a taproot with above ground rhizomes extending as far as 20 feet.  It is allelopathic, meaning it produces chemical compounds that kill nearby plants and spreads to cover this new territory.  This includes the common sea oat.  Sea oats have a fibrous root system which are good at trapping sand and forming dunes.  These dunes can protect properties during storm surge.  Beach vitex, having a taproot system, are not as effective.  Though we are not aware of any beach vitex growing on the fore dune in the panhandle, if it does it could impact sea turtle nesting.  We are also not sure whether the local beach mice will eat these seeds.  Thus, displacing sea oats could impact beach mice.

Beach Vitex Blossom. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor

We currently know of one site in Ft. Pickens, two properties in Gulf Breeze, two in Navarre, four on Perdido Key and Perdido Bay, 24 within Naval Live Oaks in Gulf Breeze, and 38 on Pensacola Beach; 70 properties total in the Pensacola Bay area.  One of the properties in Gulf Breeze, and nine on Pensacola Beach (14%) have been removed or treated and have not returned.  One property in Gulf Breeze, one in Ft. Pickens, two on Perdido Key and Perdido Bay, 20 on Pensacola Beach, and 24 in Naval Live Oaks (68%) have been removed or treated but have returned; re-treatments are required and are being conducted.  And one property in Gulf Breeze, two in Navarre, two on Perdido Key or Perdido Bay, and nine on Pensacola Bay (20%) have not been removed or treated at all.  In each of these cases, the plants are on private property.  We hope that these property owners would consider removing the plant and replacing with native dune plants from this area.

 

Elsewhere in the panhandle we are aware of only two locations, one in Okaloosa County and one in Franklin.  We believe the property in Okaloosa has been treated and are not sure of the status in Franklin.  If is very possible that this plant is in the coastal areas of other counties in the panhandle.

 

Recently, volunteers from the Pensacola Beach Advocates and Americorp removed 315 m2 of beach vitex from public land on Pensacola Beach.  That now means all beach vitex on public lands in Escambia County have been removed or treated.  Research shows that repeated treatments may be required for up to five years to completely eradicate the plant from that property, but PBA and Americorp plan to assist Sea Grant with removing this plant from the area.

 

If you believe you have this plant and would like to learn how to manage it.  Contact Rick O’Connor at the Escambia County Extension Office.  (850) 475-5230 ext.111.

Vitex beginning to take over bike path on Pensacola Beach. Photo credit: Rick O’Connor