Dirty Jobs Abound in the Natural World

Dirty Jobs Abound in the Natural World

Most of us have had the displeasure of hurrying to our car, late for some appointment, climbing in, only to be assaulted by…sniff-sniff…the overpowering stench of doggy poo on a shoe. I can handle many of nature’s nasty smells pretty well but this one nearly gags me. Imagine if this stuff never went away and kept accumulating on the ground. For any of us that have even one big dog, this would be a problem. Heaven help the dog lovers out there with two or more large canines. Well, this article will be paying homage to the unsung heroes of the manure-removal squad, who could give Mike Rowe a run for his money any day. You guessed it, dung beetles.

Dung beetles are most assuredly not the only critters who make their living by what we would consider disgusting means. Carrion beetles, fly maggots, vultures and many other creatures would qualify for an episode of “Dirty Jobs in the Animal Kingdom.” However, the incredible beauty of many species of scarab beetles (the group to which dung beetles belong), resulted in high reverence in the ancient Egyptian culture. In more recent times, humans have realized the benefits provided by dung beetles and have intentionally introduced them in some places to manage dung accumulation in pasture systems. Their tunneling not only takes the dung below for a nutrient recycling function but also brings soil castings to the surface, which reduces soil compaction and improves aeration.

I have seen dung beetles many times, as they work in the yard to reduce my chances of “stepping in it.” Until recently, I have not paid close attention to the incredible beauty of our local species. I had a great opportunity the other day to observe several beetles as they reduced a pile of dog mess to smaller messes and pulled them into their tunnels for long-term storage. The showy, metallic colors of red and green made it apparent why some refer to these creatures as “rainbow” scarabs. They were happy to ignore my presence as I took pictures only inches away from their frenzied activity to salvage their prized doggy treats.

The dung serves as food for both young and adults during periods when they remain underground. Females lay a single egg on what is referred to as a “brood ball” of dung and there may be several of these pre-packaged meals with an egg in the tunnel system made by the beetles. I was able to get some good photos of a beetle as it worked above ground moving dung balls away from the mother lode. It appears to be a species known as Phanaeus igneus, which occurs in our area along with a similar species named Phanaeus vindex. In Florida, Phanaeus igneus tends to occur in sandy soils, while P. vindex prefers clay-type soils. The finely sculptured elytra (hard wing covers) of P. igneus also distinguish it from P. vindex. Eggs hatch into a grub that matures below ground before emerging as a mature adult to continue the cycle.

Dung beetle near burrow entrance

Females of this species are distinguished from males by the lack of a horn.

The dung beetle’s sense of smell is truly a wonder of nature. I have seen them flying in for a sniff test literally within minutes of deposition. Within the next day or two, the only evidence of your pooch’s crime will be small mounds of soil where the excavations took place. I was so taken with these little jewels of the manure pile that you might understand why I think you should be just as amazed. So, the next time you find a fresh pile in the yard, drop down to your knees for a closer look and be prepared to be amazed. If the manure-removal squad has not appeared on the scene yet, give them a few minutes. It won’t take very long. In the meantime, you can be thinking about how you will explain your behavior to your neighbors when they inquire.

Copy Cats Abound in the Insect World

Copy Cats Abound in the Insect World

image showing a wasp mimic that is actually a praying mantis

This praying mantis species mimics a wasp to avoid predation. Photo credit: Erik Lovestrand

When it landed on my hand, the first reaction was to brush it off as quickly as possible. However, something seemed to be slightly odd about this particular “wasp” that made me take another look. First, it was not prone to fly away as I moved my hand up for a better look. It even seemed okay with the interaction as I moved it around for a photo opportunity. There was also something odd about the shape of its body that wasn’t exactly wasp-like. As I looked closer, I realized that its head was very mantis-like and when it began grooming its antennae, I could make out the telltale folded arms that give the praying mantis its name. The yellow and black stripes encircling its abdomen, along with its wing shape and positioning veritably shouted “WASP!” I had never heard of a praying mantis that expertly mimicked a wasp so I did a quick internet search and found that this was a wasp mantidfly (neither a wasp nor a mantis). Mantidflies are grouped by scientists into a separate order called Neuroptera, which includes lacewings, antlions, owlflies, and others. Here are a few other mantidflies that mimic other wasp species.

A simple definition of mimicry would be: similarities between different species of animals.  It is different from camouflage, which refers to an animal resembling an inanimate object, but both are effective forms of deception that generally benefit an animal in some way. Another common insect that would fool most people is the soldier fly. It definitely looks like something that could sting but closer examination will reveal only one pair of wings (a fly trait) rather than two, as bees and wasps have.

Now, not to take you too far into the weeds on this subject, but we should also mention the different types of mimicry that scientists have identified in nature and note an example of each. Henry Walter Bates studied butterflies in the Amazon and described a type of mimicry where one species mimicked the look of another that had some particularly nasty defense to predation. The mimic was lacking the defense mechanism but benefited by predators avoiding it based on its basic appearance. This type of mimicry is now known as Batesian mimicry and a good example are the butterflies that mimic the monarch. Monarchs are toxic because of the milkweed they eat during their larval stage. After a predator eats a few it learns to avoid anything that looks similar, such as a viceroy or queen butterfly. Fritz Mueller was a German zoologist who described a form of mimicry, now called Muellerian mimicry, where multiple species mimic each other and they all have a similar defense mechanism. This spreads the benefit to all that look similar by reducing predation pressure on all.  The third type of mimicry is known as self mimicry, where an animal has one body part that mimics another (i.e. large eye spots to frighten or disorient an attacker), or a body part that may mimic some innocuous thing to fool prey into coming closer. We have a great example of this locally in the alligator snapping turtle. The tip of their tongue has a lure that resembles a worm and is capable of wiggling to enhance its effectiveness in tempting a fish to its doom in the vice-like jaws of the turtle.

Nature never ceases to amaze with the diversity and complexity of adaptations that various animals exhibit to gain an edge on the competition. When it comes to mimicry in the natural world, first impressions are generally wrong. I mean, that’s the point, right?

 

Hydration in the Heat

Hydration in the Heat

GUEST AUTHOR: PRUDENCE CASKEY – 4-H Agent in Santa Rosa County 

The hot, Florida summer is approaching, and we all need to make sure we focus on hydration in the heat.  Dehydration is very common in hot, humid environments. Many people do not drink the recommended amount of water.  Many of us have our coffee in the morning and unless we go out to lunch and someone gives us water, we seldom think about water during the day.  Another confusing concept is how much water we should drink.  Growing up we were told to get eight glasses of water a day. That is 64 ounces.  Let’s see if that adage still holds true today.

Animals are well aware of the need for water.
Photo: Prudence Caskey

How much water should I drink?

The best way to calculate how many ounces of water to drink is to multiply your weight by .67 or 67%.  For example, a person weighing 150 pounds would need 100½ ounces or a little over 12½ cups.  On the other hand, a person weighing 200 pounds would need 134 ounces or 16¾ cups.

 

Is that all the water I need?

No, as you sweat, you lose the water that you have already consumed.  If you are sweating for 30 minutes, you need to replenish your hydration with 12 additional ounces of fluid.

 

What fluid should I drink?

The main thing when it comes to hydration, is to remember, just because it is wet, does not mean you are being hydrated.  Different fluids are absorbed by our bodies differently.  Some alcoholic beverages remove hydration from our bodies as we drink them.  Below is an example of how our bodies absorb some common beverages:

 

  • Water absorbed at 100%
  • Sparkling Water absorbed at 100%
  • Skim Milk is absorbed at 90%
  • Buttermilk is absorbed at 90%
  • Whole Milk is absorbed at 80%
  • Apple Juice is absorbed at 88%
  • Decaffeinated Coffee is absorbed at 90%
  • Coffee is absorbed at 80%
  • Sports Drinks absorbed at 50%
  • Energy Drink absorbed at 40%
  • Wine is absorbed at negative 150%
  • Beer is absorbed at negative 60%
  • Sake is absorbed at negative 180%
  • Liquor is absorbed at negative 300%

 

This is a huge concept to grasp, if you plan on being out at the beach with your friends this summer.  With this example, a well-hydrated 150-pound person consumes the required 100½ ounces of fluid.  Then at a gathering, they have three, glasses of wine.  The standard five ounces per glass would mean they have removed 22½ ounces from their hydration after drinking only 15 ounces of wine.  Be cognoscente of what you add to your coolers this year.

 

What are the signs of dehydration?

There are many signs our bodies will give us to signal dehydration.  Headache, nausea, and muscle pains are common.  However, the most common sign of dehydration is thirst.  That’s right, if you are thirsty, it is your body’s way of letting you know you need fluids.  Just be careful which fluids you chose this summer when you are out and enjoying the Florida sun.

 

Learn more at:  https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/FY1409

Tilefish of the Florida Panhandle

Tilefish of the Florida Panhandle

I am going to be honest and say that I know very little about this fish.  I did not know they even existed until I attended college.  Shortly afterwards, my father-in-law asked “hey, have you ever heard of a tilefish?” – to which I responded yes… He was having lunch at a restaurant in Apalachicola, and it was on the menu.  My father-in-law was an avid fisherman and knew most of the edible species, but he had not heard of this one.  The rumor was that it was pretty good, though my father-in-law chose not to eat it that day.

Tilefish
Photo: NOAA

I have never seen it on a menu, and only a few times in the local seafood markets, but according to Hoese and Moore1 by the late 1970s there was a small commercial fishery for this fish emerging in Louisiana, as was a small recreational fishery.  In Florida, since 2000, there have been 15,435 commercial trips for this fish with an average of 321 each year.  The value of this fishery over that time is $33,118,554 with an average of $689,969.90 each year.  The average price for the fishermen was $2.62 per pound with the highest being $5.14/lb. on the east coast and that in 2022; the Gulf fishermen are getting $4.16/lb. right now.

 

The highest number of landings per county since 2000 was 340 in Palm Beach County in 2000.  Only eight times has there been more than 200 landings in a single year over the last 22 years.  Five of those were in Monroe County (Florida Keys) and three were again in Palm Beach County.  The vast majority were less than 100 landings in a single year, this is not a large fishery in Florida either.

 

Are they harvested here in the Florida panhandle?

Yes… Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Okaloosa, Wakulla, and Gulf Counties all reported landings.  Bay County seems to be the hot spot for panhandle with landings between 50-100 each year since 2000.  Most of the other counties report less than 10 a year and several only reported one.  Again, this is not a large fishery, but it was sold at a restaurant in Apalachicola and is said to be good.  Hence, I decided to include in this series.

 

Hoese and Moore report four species of tilefish in the Gulf of Mexico.  The sand tilefish (Malacanthus plumeri) is a more tropical species.  The tilefish (Lopholatilus cheamaeleonticeps) and the gray tilefish (Caulalatilus microps) seem to be the target ones for fishermen.  Both are reported from deep cold water near the edge of the continental shelf.  FWC reports them from 250 – 1500 feet of water where the temperatures are between 50 – 60°F.  Because of their tolerance to cold water, their geographic range is quite large; extending across the Gulf, up the east coast to Labrador.  They live in burrows on hard sandy bottoms and feed on crustaceans.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration2 reports this as a slow growing – long lived fish, up to 50 years of age.  In their cold environment, this makes sense.

 

This is not a well-known fish along the Florida Panhandle but maybe one day you will see it on the menu, remember this article, and take a chance to see if you like it.

 

References

 

1 Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana and Adjacent Waters.  Texas A&M Press.  College Station TX. Pp. 327.

 

2 Golden Tilefish. 2020. Species Directory. NOAA Fisheries. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/golden-tilefish.

Wildlife on the Beach in February

Wildlife on the Beach in February

It is now mid-winter and much colder than our trip in January.  During February’s hike the temperature was 44°F, compared to 62°F in January.  It was overcast with a cold breeze from the northeast – again, colder.  When conditions are like this I am not expecting to see much.  If I did find something I would expect it to be one of our warm blood friends, mammals or birds, and even they would prefer a day with more sun and less breeze.  But I came to see what was out roaming.  So, a hike I made.

The Gulf front at Park East near Big Sabine.

This month I hiked the Big Sabine area east of Pensacola Beach.  It began with a shore walk along the Gulf and then a transect across the different dune fields to the marshes and seagrasses along the Santa Rosa Sound.

 

There was no one out today.  You could see footprints in the sand, and it had that characteristic “squeak” sound of fresh sand or snow.  The only wildlife I saw on the Gulf side was a group of pelicans sitting on very calm water, obviously enjoying the morning.  However, you could see footprints of mammals that had come earlier.  There are raccoons, armadillos, mice, coyotes, and occasional reports of otters on Santa Rosa Island.  There were a lot of skunks on the island prior to Hurricane Ivan (2004), but I have not seen any since.  There have been reports of bears on the island as well.  I have never seen one, nor their tracks, so do not think they are frequent visitors.  I did find a dead shark tossed up on the beach by a fisherman.  Not sure if they were trying to catch it or not.

A variety of mammals are found on barrier islands. Most move at night and you know they are there only by their tracks.

This small shark was found on the beach during the hike. I am not sure why they did not return it to the Gulf.

As I began my transect across the island I ventured into the secondary dune field, which during summer is extremely hot. This part of the island reminds me somewhat of a desert.  Very dry, open, and at times very hot.  Like the desert it comes alive more at night, but during winter you might see animal movement during the warm parts of the day.  I did see mammalian tracks, which included humans and dogs.

 

 

 

 

This dune field also holds ephemeral ponds which can harbor a variety of life during the warmer months.  Today I only found one blooming yellow-bladder wort as well as other carnivorous plants along the bank such as sundews and ground pines.

Yellow bladder wort is one of the small carnivorous plants that live on our barrier islands.

Sundews are another one of the small carnivorous plants found here.

From the open dune field, you venture into the tertiary dunes and the maritime forest.  Trees grow here but their growth is stunted due to the salt content in the air.  None the less, pine and oak hammocks liter this dune area providing great hiding places for wildlife.  Though we did not see any today, I am expecting to find some as the weather warms.

 

 

 

 

The backside of the island is where you will find the salt marsh.  This brackish wetland harbors its own community of creatures, which were not visible today but will be in the spring.  Between the tertiary dunes and the marsh runs a section of the Florida Trail.  Hikers can walk this section and observe wildlife from both ecosystems.

The larger dunes of the tertiary dune field.

Tree hammocks are common in the tertiary dune fields and provide good places for wildlife.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I eventually reached the Sound and the seagrass beds that exist there.  Today, here was nothing really moving around, though I did find a dead jellyfish drifting in the waves.  As the island wildlife tends to hideout the winter in burrows, the fish move to deeper water where it is warmer.

The backside of these large dunes drop quickly back to sea level.

Many plants in the tertiary dunes exhibit “wind sculpting”. It appears someone has taken a brush and “brushed” the tree towards the Sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scat is another sign used to identify mammal activity in the dunes.

Portions of the Florida Trail cut through the tertiary dune field of Big Sabine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The salt marsh

This holding pond is a remnant of an old fish hatchery from the late 1950s and is primarily freshwater.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seagrass meadows can be found in Santa Rosa Sound and harbor a variety of marine life.

Jellyfish are common on both sides of the island. This one has washed ashore on Santa Rosa Sound.

 

There was little out today other than a few birds.  We will see what late winter will expose next month.

Seahorses of the Florida Panhandle

Seahorses of the Florida Panhandle

Seahorses are one of the coolest creatures on this planet – period.  I mean who doesn’t like seahorses?  People state “I love snakes”, “I hate snakes”, “I love sharks”, “I hate sharks”.  But no one says, “I hate seahorses”.  They are sort of in the same boat with sea turtles, everyone loves sea turtles.  They are an icon of the sea, logos for beach products and coastal HOAs, underwater cartoons and tourist development boards, diving clubs and local restaurants.  But have you ever seen one?  I mean beyond seeing one at a local aquarium or such, have you ever found one while snorkeling on one of our beaches?

 

Most would say no.

 

I have lived in the panhandle all my life and have spent much of it in the water, and I can count on both hands the number of times I have encountered a seahorse while at the beach.  Most encounters have been while seining.  I cannot count on both hands how many times I have pulled a seine net here but very few of them did a seahorse encounter occur.  When they did, it was over grassbeds.  In each encounter the animal was lying in the grass not wriggling like the other fish, just lying there.  It would be very easy to miss them discarding it as “grass”.  It makes you wonder how many times I captured one and did not know it.  When we did find one it was VERY exciting.  My students would often scream “I had NO idea they lived here!”.

The seahorse Photo: NOAA

However, if you tried searching for them while snorkeling, which I have, the encounter rate is zero.  But this makes sense.  These animals are so well camouflaged in the grass it would be a miracle to find one just hanging there.  This is by necessity really.  If you have ever watched a seahorse in an aquarium they are not very “fleet of foot”.  Escaping a predator by dashing away is not one of their finer skills.  No, they must blend in and remain motionless if trouble, like a snorkeler, comes by.

 

But I have seen one while diving.  It was a night dive near the Bob Sikes Bridge on Pensacola Beach about 40 years ago.  We were exploring when my light swung over to see this large seahorse extended from a pipe that was coming out of some debris on the bottom.  I was jubilated and screamed, as best you can while using SCUBA, for my partners to come check this out.  We were all amazed and my interest in these animals increased.

 

When I attended Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) as an undergraduate student, like many in the 1970s, I thought I would get involved with sharks, but I quickly developed a love for estuaries and my interest in seahorses returned.  I made a visit to the library there and found very little in the literature, at that time, which piqued my interest even more.  My senior year we had to complete a project where we had to collect, and correctly identify, 80 species of fish to pass the class.  I asked the crew of the research vessel at DISL if they had ever found seahorses.  They responded yes and took me to what they called their “seahorse spot”.  We caught some.  It was very cool.  And yes… seahorses do exist here in the wild.

 

But what is this amazing animal?

What do I mean by this?  As a marine science instructor, I would give my students what are called a lab practical’s.  Assorted marine organisms would be scattered around the room and the students had to give their common name, phylum name, class name, and answer some natural history question I would ask.  Snails are mollusk, mackerel are fish, jellyfish are cnidarians, and then they would come to the seahorse.  Seahorses were… well… seahorses!  What the heck are they?

 

Many of you may know they are fish.  But over the years of teaching marine science, I found that many students were not sure of that.  The definition of a fish is an animal with a backbone that possesses a scaly body, paired fins (usually), and gills.  Seahorses have all that.  There is a backbone no doubt.  The scales are not as obvious because they are actually fused together in a sort of armor.  The paired fins and gills are there.  Yep… they are fish, but a fish (horse) of a different color.

This seahorse is a species from Indonesia.
Photo: California Sea Grant.

First, they are one of about 13 families of fish in the Gulf of Mexico that lack ventral fins, those on the belly side of their bodies.  Second, they lack a caudal fin (the fish tail) and have a more prehensile tail for grabbing objects.  Third, they swim vertically instead of horizontally as most fish do.  Again, there is nothing about their body design that says “speed”.

 

Another thing I find fascinating about these animals is their global distribution.  You might recall that the initial focus of this series on Florida panhandle vertebrates was the biogeography of these creatures.  Seahorses are found all over the world.  There are over 350 species of them.  But the interesting question is:  how would a seahorse living in the northern Gulf of Mexico reach Melbourne Australia?  It makes sense that being so far apart there would be such differences in looks and genetics that they would be classified as different species, but how did an animal like a seahorse disperse across a large ocean like the Pacific?

Honestly, I can say the same for ghost crabs, which I found on the beaches of Hawaii.  How did they get there?  But that is another story.

 

My best guess was the dispersal occurred at a time when the two continents were closer together.  The Pangea days, or some time close to that period.  And as the continents “drifted” the seahorses remained close to their shorelines and moved apart.  They may have been able to “island hop” across coral reefs to other Indonesian Islands, but those here in the United States were long lost relatives that changed in their appearance and lifestyles due to the large separation from others.  That is my two cents anyway.

 

Hoese and Moore1 list two species of seahorses found here in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  The Lined Seahorse and the Dwarf Seahorse.

 

The Lined Seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) is the larger of the two, reaching an average length of five inches.  This is the one I found near the Bob Sikes Bridge all those years ago.  Like all seahorses they are well adapted to life in debris where they can grab on to something with their prehensile tail and feed on small zooplankton using their vacuum like tube snout.  Like all seahorses, the males have a brood pouch that holds the fertilized eggs producing live birth – another “live bearer”.  They are usually dark in color, but gold individuals have been reported.  Some have filamentous threads on their bodies making them look even more like plants.  Their biogeographic distribution is amazing.  They are found from Nova Scotia, throughout the tropics, all the way to Argentina.  This suggests few biogeographic barriers, other than substrate to hide in.

 

The Dwarf Seahorse (Hippocampus zosterae) – also known as the pygmy seahorse – is much smaller, with a mean length of 1.5 inches.  That would qualify as “dwarf” or “pygmy”.  How would you ever find these?   Other than size, the difference between these two are the number of rays (soft spines) in their fins.  They can be counted, but its not fun, especially with a 1.5” seahorse.  This guy prefers high salinity, actually, I have found that most seahorses do.  This one is more tropical in distribution.

 

There is a third Florida species, the long snout seahorse (Hippocampus redi) that is found on the Atlantic coast, but not in the Gulf.

 

The strange thing about the seahorses in Florida, has been the declining encounters over the last few decades.  For a creature that seems to have few barriers, they have found trouble somewhere.  Maybe the loss of habitat, maybe a population crash due to the common practice years ago of capture and drying out for tourists to buy.  It could be a change in environmental conditions such as salinity in the Pensacola Bay area.  I am not sure.  The more I write this article, the more my interest in this fish returns.  As many researchers and wildlife managers have mentioned, this is an animal who has “fallen through the cracks”.  People notice the changes in sea turtle and manatee encounters, but not seahorses.  Maybe it is time we pay more attention to them and see how they are doing.  I for one would hate to see the decline of this creature here in the panhandle.

 

Reference

 

Hoese, H.D., Moore, R.H. 1977. Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico; Texas, Louisiana, and Adjacent Waters.  Texas A&M Press, College Station, TX. Pp. 327.