The Science of Sharks

The Science of Sharks

When one thinks of the Emerald Coast, visions of sparkling water, baby-powder beaches, rental houses and high-rises interwoven with seafood and pizza restaurants appear.  The coast is dotted with fishing boats, pirate ships and dolphin cruises and the beaches are littered with people.  But it is what glides under the water that some people are curious about.  “Are there sharks in the water here?” is a question I often get from locals and tourists alike.  The answer is yes, sharks call saltwater home.  

Sharks evoke a variety of emotions in people.  Some folks are fascinated and list shark fishing and diving with a shark on their bucket lists.  Others are terrified, convinced that sharks only exist to hunt them and bite them while they take a swim.  Unfortunately for the sharks, their appearance plays into this later fear, with sharp teeth, unblinking eyes and sleek bodies. The reality is that most sharks only grow up to three feet in length and eat small shrimp, crabs and shrimp, not humans.  But it is true that bull, tiger and great white sharks are all large species that have been known to attack humans.  

Of the 540 different species of sharks in the world, there are about twelve that call the Emerald Coast home including Atlantic sharpnose, bonnet head, blacktip, bull, dusky, great white, hammerhead, nurse, mako, sand, spinner, and tiger.  They don’t all stick around all year, with some migrating south in the winter, while others migrate north.   

Sharks use their seven senses to interpret their environment: smell, sight, sound, pressure, touch, electroreception, and taste. Most shark attacks occur when a human is mistakenly identified as prey.  There are some easy measures you can take to reduce the risk.   

  • Swim with others, this may intimidate sharks and allows someone to go for help if a bite occurs.   
  • Remove jewelry as it can look like an attractive shiny fish underwater.   
  • Don’t swim where folks are fishing as bait in the water may attract sharks.  
  • Pay attention to any schools of baitfish in the area that may be attracting sharks.   
  • Do not swim at dusk or dawn when visibility may be poor. 
  • Learn how to identify various shark species 

Remember, shark attacks on humans are rare. Reports of stepping on stingrays, jellyfish stings, lightning, dangerous surf conditions and car accidents greatly outnumber the number of shark attacks every year.  

For more information: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/sharks/education-resources/ 

A bull shark being tagged by researchers (credit: Florida Sea Grant).

An Equal Opportunity Institution” 

Marine Open Water Fish of the Florida Panhandle

Marine Open Water Fish of the Florida Panhandle

There is a lot of blue out there… a whole lot of blue.  Miles of open water in the Gulf with nowhere to hide… except amongst yourselves.  Their blue colored bodies, aerodynamically shaped like bullets with stiff angular fins, can zip along in this vast blue openness in large schools.  Their myoglobin rich red muscle increases their swimming endurance – they can travel thousands of miles without tiring.  Some species are what we call “ram-jetters”, fish that basically do not stop swimming – roaming the “big blue” looking for food and avoid being eaten, following the warm currents in search of their breeding grounds.

The open water is a place for specialists.  Most of these fish have small, or no scales, to reduce frictional drag.  They have a well-developed lateral line system so when a member of the school turns, the others sense it and turn in unison – just as the four planes in the US Navy Blue Angels delta do – perfect motion. 

Many are built for speed.  Sleek bodies with sharp angular fins and massive amounts of muscle / body mass, some species can reach speeds close to 70 mph – some can “fly”.  There are fewer species who can live here, as opposed to the ocean floor, but those who do are amazing – and some of the most prized commercial and recreational fishing targets in the world.  Let’s meet a few of them. 

Flying fish do not actually “fly”, they are gliders using their long pectoral fins.
Photo: NOAA

Flying Fish

First, they do not actually fly – they glide.  These tube-shaped speedy fish have elongated pectoral fins, reaching half the length of their bodies.  The two lobes of their forked tail are not the same length – the lower lobe being longer.  Using this like a rudder, they gain speed near the surface and, at some point, leap – extend the large pectoral fins, and glide above the water – sometimes up to 100 yards.  As you might guess, this is to avoid the sleek speedy open water predators coming after them.  You might also imagine that they, and their close cousins the half-beaks, are popular bait for the bill fishermen seeking those predators. 

There are eight species of these amazing fish in the Gulf of Mexico ranging in size from 6-16 inches.  Most are oceanic – never coming within 100 miles of the coast, but a few will, and can, be seen even near the pass into Pensacola Bay. 

The cobia – also known as the ling, lemonfish, and sergeant fish, is a migratory species moving through our area in the spring.
Image: NOAA

Cobia

This is one of the migrating fish local anglers gear up for every year – the cobia run.  When the water turns from 60° to 70°F in the spring – the cobia moves up the coastline heading from east to west.  They have many different common names along the Gulf Coast.  Ling, Cabio, Lemonfish, and Sergeant fish have all been used for this same animal.  This is one reason biologists use scientific names – Rachycentron canadum in this case.  That way we all know we are talking about the same fish.  Whatever you call it, it is popular with the anglers and there is nothing like a fresh cobia sandwich – try one! 

They can get quite large – 5 feet and up to 100 pounds – and resemble sharks in the water, sometimes confused with them.  They seem to like drifting flotsam, where potential prey may hangout, and fishermen will toss their baits all around their schools trying to get them to take.  At times, fishermen have confused sea turtles with cobia and have accidentally snagged them – only to release it, though it is a workout to do so, and they try to avoid it.    

Cobia are in a family all their own.  Their closest relatives are the remoras, or sharksuckers, which sometimes attach to them.  They travel all over the Gulf and Atlantic Ocean. 

Jacks have the sleek, fast design of the typical open water marine fish.
Photo: NOAA

Jacks

This is the largest open water family of fish I the northern Gulf – with 24 species.  Not all jacks are open water, many are found on reefs and in estuaries.  But these are aerodynamic shaped fish, with small scales and angular fins, and built for the open water environment.  They vary in size, ranging from less than one foot, to over three.  This group is identified by the two extended spines just in front of their anal fin.  Several species – such as the amberjacks, pompano, and almaco jacks – are prized food fish.  Others – like the jack crevalle and the blue runner (hardtail) – are just fun to catch, putting up great fights. 

They are schooling fish and often associated with submerged wrecks and reefs, where prey can be found.  The black and white pilot fish is called this because mariners would see them swimming in front of sharks – “piloting” them through the ocean.  They are open water jacks but are more tropical and accounts in our area are rare.

The colors of the mahi-mahi are truly amazing.
Photo: National Wildlife Federation

MahiMahi   

This is the Hawaiian term for a fish called the dolphin (Coryphaena hippurus).  You can probably guess why they prefer to call it by its Hawaiian name.  It is a popular food fish, and to have “dolphin” on the menu – or to say “hey, we’re going dolphin fishing – want to come?” would raise eyebrows – and have. 

The Mexicans call it “dorado”, and that term is used locally as well.  Either name – it is an amazing fish.  With the bull-shaped forehead of the males – they are sometimes referred to as the “bull-dolphin”.  Their colors, and color changing, is amazing to see.  Some biologists believe this may be some form of communication between members, don’t know, but the brilliant greens, blues, and yellows are amazing to see.  They lose these colors shortly after death, so you must see it to believe it – or find one of the popular fish t-shirts. 

Like jacks, dolphin like to hang around flotsam, or large schools of baitfish, looking for prey.  As with many other open water predators, they will sometimes work in a team to scare, and scatter, individuals from the safety of their school.  There are only two species in this family, and both are prized for their taste. 

The Striped Mullet.
Image: LSU Extension

Mullet

This is not one you would typically call an “open water” fish.  But in the nearshore Gulf and estuaries, they are more open water than bottom dwellers – though they do feed off the bottom.  Sleek bodied, forked tail, angular fins, they have what it takes to be a fast swimmer.  Though they do not “fly” as the flying fish do, they do leap out of the water.  Many visitors hanging out around the Sound will hear a fish splash and immediately ask “what kind of fish was that?”  Many locals will respond without looking up – “it was a mullet” – and they are probably right. 

This brings up the age-old question… why do mullet jump?   This was once asked of a marine biology professor.  He paused… thought… and responded saying “for the same reasons manta rays jump”.  That was it… another long pause.  Finally, the students “took the bait” – “Okay, why do manta rays jump?”.  The professor replied, “we don’t know”.  So, there you go. 

Another interesting thing about this fish is its wide tolerance of salinity.  Mullet have been found in freshwater rivers and springs and the hypersaline lagoons of south Texas – they truly don’t care. 

Locally they are popular food fish, and support a large commercial fishery in Florida, but in other parts of the Gulf not so much.  It has to do with their environment and what they are feeding on.  In muddier portions of the Gulf (or our bay for that matter) they have an oily taste and locals there call the “trash fish”.  Even hearing that locals here eat them “grosses” them out.  Local respond by giving it a more “high end” name – the Mulle (spoken with a French accent).  This is actually the Cajun term for the fish.  And let’s step it up a notch by adding that many locals eat mullet row – the eggs.  Yea… getting hungry right?  One of the popular cable food shows came here to try mullet roe.  They said on a scale of 1 to 10, they give it a -4. 

All that said, it is a local icon – with seafood stores selling “In Mullet We Trust” t-shirts, and the popular “Mullet Toss” event held every year on Perdido Key.  It is a COOL fish. 

This Spanish Mackerel has the distinct finlets of the mackerel family along the dorsal and ventral side of the body.
Image: NOAA

Mackerel

When you mention mackerel around here you usually think of one of two fish – the king mackerel (sometimes just referred to as “the king”) and the Spanish mackerel.  But it is actually a large family of open water fish that includes the tuna, bonito, and the wahoo (of baseball fame). 

They are some of the fastest fish in the sea, and several species are ram-jetters.  Sleek bodies, sharp angular fins, they can be identified by the row of small finlets on the dorsal and ventral sides of their bodies near the rear.  Full of red muscle, rich in myoglobin (which can hold more oxygen than hemoglobin alone), these are powerful swimming fish and very popular in the sushi trade.  A bluefin tuna can be 14 feet long, 800 pounds, and bring a commercial fisherman tens of thousands of dollars.  Because of this bluefin tuna are internationally protected and managed. 

Another cool thing about these guys is that some species can control blood flow, and location, to help maintain a higher body temperature – “warm blooded” – allowing them to venture into colder waters of the world’s oceans.  They are one of the big migratory fish we find.  Following the large ocean currents, some species use this to play out their entire life cycle.  Born in the warmer portions of the ocean gyres, they grow and feed in the cooler areas, returning in the warmer currents to breed. 

There are 12 species in this family ranging in size from 1 to 15 feet.  They have the characteristic “dark on top – light one bottom” coloration many animals have.  This called countershading.  It is believed to be used as a form of camouflage in the deep blue – with the darker blue-indigo on top (to blend in with the bottom if look from above) and the lighter silver-white on the bottom (to blend in with the sunlit surface if viewed from the below).  This idea was used by the US Navy during World War II.  If you visit our Naval Aviation Museum, you will see they painted the planes a darker blue on top and a lighter white on bottom.  In hopes that the Japanese pilots would have a hard time spotting them over the Pacific Ocean.  It is also believed to help with temperature control.  The darker side will absorb heat, while the lighter side releases – avoiding over-heating.  Amazing fish, aren’t they? 

Marine Bottom Fish of the Florida Panhandle

Marine Bottom Fish of the Florida Panhandle

We continue our series on estuarine and marine fish and wildlife with fish who live on the bottom.

This longnose killifish has the rounded fins of a bottom dwelling fish.

The Gulf of Mexico is a huge ecosystem.  With 600,000 m2 and an average depth of 6000 feet, there is a lot of “blue” out there for fish to find a home.  But oddly enough, 69% of the species describe in the northern Gulf live on the bottom – what we call benthic fish

This makes since really.  In the “open blue” there are few places to hide from predators and prey.  On the other hand, the seafloor has numerous places to hide – so there they are. 

Most benthic fish have a general body design for living there.  They are generally deep bodied, more rounded – as are their fins.  They have a higher percentage of white muscle which makes them very explosive – for a few seconds.  This is how they live.  Blending in with the bottom, waiting for the prey to get within range and then exploding on it.  This white muscle also gives these fish a distinctive taste, different from the red muscle typically found in the open water fish such as tuna. 

In this environment, the sense of smell is very good.  Many have taste and smell buds extended on fleshy appendages called barbels (the “whiskers” of a catfish).  Many will have their mouth on the bottom side of their head for easier eating – though the predators (like the grouper) will still have it directly in front.  Many will make short migrations into estuaries for breeding, but long open ocean migrations are not common.  There are 342 species of benthic fish in the northern Gulf, let’s look at a few. 

The Anguilla eel, also known as the “American” and “European” eel.
Photo: Wikipedia.

Eels

Something about these animals creeps us out.  Maybe their similarity to snakes?  Maybe the thought they are electric or venomous – neither of which are true.  There are electric eels in the Amazon, but not in the ocean.  They do behave much like snakes in that they have very sharp teeth for grabbing prey and can use them on fishermen if they need to.  There are 16 species of eels in the northern Gulf.  With the exception of the morays – eels live in sandy or muddy bottoms.  Shrimpers frequently haul them up, and some are even known as shrimp eels.  The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) has a cool life history.  They spawn in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, a place known to the sailors as the Sargasso Sea.  It is in the middle of the vortex of ocean currents.  The young that catch the northern currents and head to Europe – there they are known as the “European Eel”.  Those that catch the southern swirl end up here in the United States are known as the “American Eel”.  Their young look like thin pieces of plastic with eyes.  Known as elvers they can be found within Pensacola Bay by the thousands when they arrive.  The growing adults move up stream and spend part of their lives in our rivers and springs, before swimming back to the Atlantic and starting the process all over.  In some areas, there is a commercial fishery for this eel. 

Read more:

https://fws.gov/fisheries/freshwater-fish-of-america/american_eel.html.

https://www.fws.gov/fisheries/fishmigration/american_eel.html.

The serrated spines and large barbels of the sea catfish. Image: Louisiana Sea Grant

Catfish

This is a bottom fish that fishermen love to hate.  Marine catfish (Ariopsis felis) are oily and not as popular as their freshwater cousins as food.  So, when fishermen catch them, they tend to toss them on the beach to die – the idea is that there are fewer to breed – an idea that really does not work – they keep catching them.  One interesting twist on this story is that the ghost crabs in the dunes drag the dead ones towards their burrows where they feed on them.  The skull of the sea catfish is very hard – giving them their other common name “hardhead” catfish, or “steelhead”.  When the crabs are finished the hard skull can be found and the bones on the belly (ventral) side resemble the cross.  It is sold in some novelty stores as the “crucifix fish”.  To add to the legend, when you shake it, it rattles.  This has been described at the “soldiers rolling dice” at the crucifixion.  They are actually loose bones.  These “crucifix fish” are pretty neat, and pretty common. 

 The long “whiskers” (barbels) are for finding food buried beneath the sand or mud.  It is also believed they may have a form of echolocation to detect prey.  As if this were not interesting enough – the males carry the developing eggs within their mouths.  Development takes about two weeks and young fish emerge from dad ready for the world.

One other thing the visitor should know – the serrated spine on the dorsal and the pectoral fins can inflict a nasty wound, even releasing a mild toxin.  Most discover this when they step on a dead one tossed on the beach, or trying to get one off their hook – be careful of this.

Read more:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hardhead_catfish.

http://gcrl.usm.edu/public/fish/hardhead.catfish.php.

https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/269847.

The classic look of a bottom fish. This is the redfish, or red drum.
Photo: NOAA

DrumCroaker

This is the largest family of estuarine fish in the northern Gulf of Mexico – with 18 species described.  The whiting, drum, kingfish, croakers, trout, some perch, and others all belong to this group.  They are popular with fishermen and seafood consumers.  The red drum (redfish) is one of the more popular targets in our area.  Speckled trout (or spotted seatrout) are also a favorite.  Most have the characteristic body of a benthic fish.  Deep bodied, rounded fins, mouth on the belly (ventral) side.  Sea trout have two large “Dracula” looking fangs for grabbing shrimp and other prey.  In most, one has broken off and the angler usually finds only one fang present.  Some species, such as the black drum, will have short “whiskers” on their chins – you guessed it, barbels – and they are used for finding “buried treasure” (food). 

Their common name drum (or croaker) comes from the sounds they produce using their swim bladders.  Swim bladders are large sacs within many fish they can fill with gas and float off the bottom.  The drum-croaker group rub this with internal muscles making resonating sounds that sound like they are “croaking”.  Atlantic bottlenose dolphin can hear this too – and croakers make up a big part of their diet. 

Read more:

http://gcrl.usm.edu/public/fish/red.drum.php.

http://gcrl.usm.edu/public/fish/spotted.seatrout.php.

http://gcrl.usm.edu/public/fish/southern.kingfish.php

http://gcrl.usm.edu/public/fish/sand.seatrout.php

A flounder scurrying across the seafloor.
Photo: NOAA

Flounder

There are actually two types of flatfish in the Gulf – the flounder and the sole.  How do you tell them apart?

Well, they are born as a typical-normal looking fish, but as they grow one eye begins to “slide” across the top of the head to the other side – both eyes are now on one side of the head – weird right? 

In our part of the Gulf, if the eyes slide to the left side – we call it a flounder, to the right – a sole.  There are a FEW exceptions to this rule – but many call the popular flounder the “left-eyed flounder” as opposed to the “right-eyed” one. 

So why do they do this?

If your eyes were placed on each side of a torpedo pointed head, you would have what we call monocular vision.  This type of vision gives you ALMOST 360° range of view… almost.  So even though you can see what is behind you while facing forward, you do not have good depth perception – so you are not sure exactly how far away it is.  You must either rely on other senses to help you out or get lucky.  Having both eyes on one side (or in front like us) you have binocular vision.  You cannot see behind you, but you can tell the distance of the object in front of you.  This is common for predator fish like flounder.  Many would agree that your mother has both! 

With the eyes on one side of the head, they lose color on the other and then lay flat on one side.  They can bury in sand and wait for prey.  Most species have chromatophores in their skin.  These are cells that allow them to change color, like a chameleon or octopus.  So, they can change their color to blend into whatever bottom type they are on.  What an incredible adaptation. 

There are 17 species of flounder, and they are not easy to tell apart – so just call them flounder. 

Read more:

http://gcrl.usm.edu/public/fish/flounder.php.

 

 

Meet the Author: Carrie Stevenson

Meet the Author: Carrie Stevenson

Carrie Stevenson is the Coastal Sustainability Agent for the UF/IFAS Escambia County Extension Office, and has been with the organization almost 17 years.  Her educational outreach programs focus on living sustainably within a vulnerable coastal ecosystem. She helps clientele better understand how to protect and preserve local ecosystems and water resources, wisely use our abundant rainfall and sunlight, and prepare and mitigate for flooding, coastal storms and climate impacts.

Growing up an avid reader and science junkie, a young Carrie aspired to find a career that allowed her to “be outdoors and wear jeans,” and in college sought to become a science writer. When National Geographic didn’t come calling, she found a position as a field-based environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. There, she handled compliance and enforcement cases related to stormwater and wetlands, spending days tromping through the swamps, wet prairies, and newly build subdivisions of northwest Florida. After joining UF IFAS Extension, she spent 6 years as a Florida Yards & Neighborhoods Agent before switching to Coastal Sustainability. Her expertise and articles focus on climate issues, stormwater, hurricanes, native plants, and wetlands.

A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, she enjoys biking, standup paddleboarding, and traveling to national parks with her family. She also has many favorite international outdoor experiences, ranging from hiking glaciers in Canada to snorkeling coral reefs in Belize and watching elephants drink from a South African river. A native of Mississippi, Carrie has lived with her husband in Pensacola since 1999. Carrie earned her master’s degree in Biology/Coastal Zone Studies from the University of West Florida in Pensacola and an undergraduate degree in Marine Science from Samford University (Birmingham, Alabama). She is the proud mom of an Eagle Scout and leads her daughter’s Girl Scout troop. She is a Fellow in the Natural Resources Leadership Institute (NRLI), past president of the Florida Association of Natural Resource Extension Professionals (FANREP), and member of IMPACT 100 Pensacola Bay.

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.

Hey Man – It’s Scallop Season!

Hey Man – It’s Scallop Season!

For some of us this is an annual gathering no different that Thanksgiving or Christmas.  The family all knows the gig – “Kids get your things together – we’re heading to St. Joe!”

Scallopers heading out for a day of fun.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

For others, it is something we do when we can – the stars all align with work and we decide “Hey, Let’s go scalloping!”

 

For some, it is a new thing we want to get involved in.  It is a fun family activity.  Loading up the car with your snorkel gear, maybe choose camping instead of a hotel, maybe just go over for the day – (note: I do not recommend this option – I have done this and it is a LONG day – you will enjoy it more if you stick around and cook your scallops over there).

 

For those who have NO idea what we are talking about – we are talking about that great Florida family activity of SCALLOPING.

 

So, what is scalloping you say?

I guess you know by now that it is fun – and it is.  Scallops are small bivalves that live in the seagrass beds.  You just have to have a mask and snorkel to go find them – and you don’t have to go very deep.  They lay right on top of the grass, their little blue eyes staring at you, and you pick them up.  OH! they can swim! – not very well, but they can swim!  The fun part is that it is a great day on the water, you get to see all sorts of other cool marine life while hunting, everyone is playing and splashing, and the day ends with a really seafood meal – maybe around a campfire.  Good times for sure.

Bay Scallop Argopecten irradians
http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

You may ask – “why do I have to go all the way to Port St. Joe to do this?”

And that would be a good question.

The bay scallop was once found along the entire Gulf coast, and even on part of the east coast, of Florida.  There was a commercial fishery for the guy.  But, overharvesting, poor water quality, and habitat loss, caused a decline.  First, the commercial harvest was stopped.  Then areas of the coast, including the Pensacola Bay area, were closed to recreational harvesting.  Today there are a few regions in the Big Bend area where you can still scallop.  Each region has its own “season” and the closest to us is Port St. Joe in Gulf County.  This region extends from Mexico Beach to St. Vincent Island.  It opens August 16 and closes September 24.

http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/

Because it is a managed recreational fishery now – there are some rules.

–          Each person is allowed 2 gallons of whole scallop, or 1 pint cleaned.

–          Each boat (if you take a boat) is allowed 10 gallons whole, or ½ gallon cleaned.

–          Snorkelers are to have a dive flag and be within 100 feet of it at all times.

–          A fishing license is required to harvest unless (a) you are exempt from having to have one (see FWC’s website on who is exempt), (b) you are wading – your feet never leave the bottom.

To clean them you only need a knife or flathead screwdriver to pry open the shell.  The adductor that opens and closes the shell is the part you eat.  Remove the viscera from around it, keep it cold, and cook when you are done.  Fried, broiled in butter, there are numerous ways to do this.

It really is a lot of fun, and they are really good to eat.

Prepared properly: One of the finest meals you will ever have.

The “everything you need to know scalloping” FWC page can be found at – https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/bay-scallops/.

 

GO HAVE FUN!