Searching for Elusive Wildlife in Pensacola Bay

Searching for Elusive Wildlife in Pensacola Bay

Recently I watched a documentary on TV entitled The Loneliest Whale; the search for 52.  The title grabbed my attention and so, I checked it out.

There are many forms of wildlife that are very hard to find in our area. But we continue to look.
Photo: Rick O’Connor


Seems a decade or so ago the U.S. Navy was doing SONAR work in the Pacific between Washington and Alaska and detected a strange sound coming in at 52 hertz.  They had not herd this before and would continue to hear it in different locations around the northern Pacific.  Their first concern was it was something new from the Russians, but when they showed the graphs and played the recording to a marine mammologist named Dr. Watkins, they found that it was most likely a “biological” – mostly likely a whale.


The problem was that Dr. Watkins had never heard whales calling at 52 hertz.  If it was a whale, it was calling a lot – but no other whales were answering.  Hence the name “the loneliest whale”.  If it was a whale, and no others would talk to it, it was kind of sad.  But who was this whale?  What kind was it?


Word of the loneliest whale spread around the world and many humans made a connection to this animal, possibly because of their own disconnect with their own species.  Stories and ballads were written, and people began to feel for the poor animal that apparently had no friends.


This story caught the attention of a documentary film maker who was interested in finding “52”, as the whale became known.  He solicited the help of other marine mammologists; Dr. Watkins had died.  According to those marine mammologists, this was going to be VERY difficult.  It is hard enough to find just a pod of whales in the open Pacific, much less a specific pod with a specific individual.  But they were excited about the challenge of finding this one animal, “52”, and off they went.


As I was watching this documentary it reminded me of my own search here near Pensacola.  In 2005, I was asked by members of state turtle groups if I could search to see if diamondback terrapins lived in the western panhandle.  This turtle’s range is from Cape Cod Massachusetts to Brownsville Texas, but there were no records from the Florida panhandle.  Did the animal exist there?  I was running the marine science program at Washington High School at the time and thought this would be a good project for us.  So, we began.

Mississippi Diamondback Terrapin (photo: Molly O’Connor)

This small turtle can be held safely by grabbing it near the bridge area on each side.
Photo: Molly O’Connor













The students researched terrapin biology and ecology to determine the locations with the highest probability of finding, and we searched.  I quickly found that the best time to search for terrapins was during nesting in May and June, and that the worst time to do a project with high school seniors was May and June.  So, the project fell on my wife and me.  For two years we searched all the “good spots” and found nothing.  We placed “Wanted Poster’s” at boat ramps near the good spots with only calls about other species of turtles, not the terrapin.


Then one day in a call came in from a construction worker.  Said he had seen the turtle we were looking for.  For over a year we had been chasing “false calls” of terrapins.  So, I was not overly excited thinking this would be another box turtle or slider.  I asked a few questions about what he was looking at and he responded with “you’re the guy who put the wanted poster up correct? – well your turtle is standing next to the poster… it’s the same turtle”.  Now I was excited.  We did some surveys in that area and in 2007 saw our first terrapin!  I can’t tell you how exciting it was.  Two years of searching… at times thinking we might work on another project with a different species that actually exists… reading that the diamondback terrapin is like the Loch Ness monster – everyone talks about them, but no one has ever seen one.  And there it was, a track in the sand and a head in the water.  Yes Virginia… terrapins do exist in the Florida panhandle.  The excitement of finding one was indescribable.


We were hooked.  We now had to look in other counties in the panhandle, and yes, we found them.  As I watched the program of the marine mammologists searching for “52” I could completely relate.


Today, as a marine educator with Florida Sea Grant, I train others how to do terrapin surveys and searches.  I let them know how hard it is to find them and to not get disappointed.  When they do see one, it will be a very exciting and fulfilling day.  Our citizen science program has expanded to searching for other elusive creatures in our bay area.  Bay scallops, which are all but gone however we do find evidence of their existence and spend time each year searching for them.  In the five years we have been searching we have found only one live scallop, but we are sure they are there.  We find their cleaned shells on public boat ramps – by the way, it is illegal to harvest bay scallops in the Pensacola Bay area.  Another we are searching for is the nesting beaches of the horseshoe crabs.  This is another animal that basically disappeared from our waters but are occasionally seen now.  It is exciting to find one, but we are still after their nesting beaches and the chase is on.

Bay Scallop Argopecten irradians

Horseshoe crabs breeding on the beach.
Photo: Florida Sea Grant










I love the challenge of searching for such creatures.  If you do as well, we have a citizen science program that does so.  You can just contact me at the Escambia County Extension Office to get on the training list, trainings occur in March, and we will get you out there searching.  As for whether they found “52”, you will have to watch the program 😊

Batfish of the Florida Panhandle

Batfish of the Florida Panhandle

This is another one of those fish in this series that is not often seen but when you do see one you will ask “what is that?” – So, we will answer the question by including it here.


Like the frogfish we have already written about, batfish are described by Hoese and Moore1 as “grotesque” and they take it a step further by telling us all “ugly” fish (as they say) are grouped into what many call “dogfish”.  As with the frogfish, I am not sure I would use the term grotesque, but they are strange looking.

Juvenile Polka-Dot Batfish (Ogcocephalus radiatus) in the polluted intracoastal waterway in Palm Beach County, FL.
Photo: Science Photo Library

I have only seen a couple in my life.   Hoese and Moore mention they are often brought up in shrimp trawls, and I have seen them while doing trawl surveys at Dauphin Island Sea Lab.  I also found one while snorkeling along a seawall near Gulf Breeze FL.  So, they are out there just not encountered as often, or as well known, or seen as frequently, as many other fish in the Gulf.  Another reason to include this group here.


It is hard to describe what this fish looks like.  They are, as they say, dorso-ventrally flattened – meaning from top to bottom, not side to side – like a stingray.  They have two fins extending from parts of their body that sort of “stick out of the side” and appear to be like webbed feet with which they walk.  Actually, there are these small, modified fins on the ventral side that are used to walk on the bottom – they are bottom dwelling (benthic) fish for sure.  Like their relatives the frogfish they have a modified spine that is used like a fishing lure.  Like the frogfish, the shape of that lure can be used to identify species.  But unlike the frogfish the lure is located between their mouth (which near the bottom of the body and is very small) and a pointed rostrum that extends from the top of their head like a battering ram.  This lure is extended to lure not fish swimming above, as with the frogfish, but small creatures in and on the sand.  Because of this they do not call the lure an illicium but a esca.  These are strange looking fish.


Hoese and Moore list four different species and indicate there are at least three others in the Gulf of Mexico.  Most are associated with the continental shelf of the Gulf and not inland where we might see them snorkeling around.  A couple of species are more associated the continental slope, which drops from the continental shelf to the deep sea.  But the Polka-dot batfish (Ogocephalus cubifrons) is reported as being inshore and is the species I have encountered.


Many species are only described as being from the shelf of the Gulf of Mexico and no other oceans.  Some of them are even more restricted to either the eastern or western Gulf.  This all suggests that batfish do have biogeographic barriers of some sort restricting their dispersal.  Being offshore benthic fish, your first guess would be substrate.  Usually in those locations the temperature and salinities are pretty similar but the material on the bottom (rock, shell, sand, canyons, etc.) are not.  However, several articles mention that batfish can be found over rocky or sandy bottom2,3,4 and the polka-dot batfish can be found in grassbeds as well2.  So, I am not sure what the possible barrier is, but several do have a limited range.  The east-west split could very well be the DeSoto Canyon off the coast of Pensacola.


All of that said, it is a very interesting group of fish that for one species you might encounter while out and about snorkeling or diving in the Florida panhandle.




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 Ogocephalus cubifrons, Polka-dot batfish. 2017. Discover Fishes. Florida Museum of Natural History.


3 The Red-lipped Batfish. 2014.  Ashland Vertebrate Biology. Ashland University, Ohio.


4 Cocos Batfish, Ogocephalus porrectus. 2015. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

A Sea of Christmas Lights

A Sea of Christmas Lights

Most people would agree that this is one of the best times of the year.  Christmas brings great music, great cooking, great family gatherings, and… great lights.  The lighting of Christmas is one of the more beautiful parts of these celebrations and as I thought about Christmas and writing about nature I thought of those lights.

There is nothing like Christmas lights on a tree.
Photo: Molly O’Connor

Nature can produce beautiful lights as well.  Mostly found in the ocean – “phosphorus”, as many called it when I was growing up here, is a beautiful spectacle.  It is hard to see with our artificial lights but in the warmer months of summer at locations far from the artificial lights of people, the sea glows a blue-green color that is amazing.  Many see this light as sparkles in the water as the waves roll by.  Others see it as a stream of light as a fish, or something else, moves around.  In the right conditions, you can see your footprints glow as you step in the wet sand.  I remember diving at night under the Bob Sikes Bridge once in the 1970s when the bridge, and all of the divers, were aglow.  It was beautiful.  This phenomena have amazed scientists for centuries and trying to understand how it is produced was a quest for many.


The term phosphorescence actually means using light to emit light.  Turns out that is not what is happening in this case.  Scientists found that some creatures posses a group of molecules known as luciferins.  The term lucifer means “producing light” or “morning star” and seemed an appropriate name for this group of molecules.  When luciferin is oxidized, the transfer of an electron emits a “cool light” – usually blue-green in color.  Cool meaning that less than 20% of the emitted light is lost as heat.  There is a catalytic enzyme known as luciferase that can increase the speed of this chemical reaction and produce bright light in seconds.  Since this light is produced by a chemical reaction it was called “chemiluminescence”.  However, since this reaction is produced and controlled by living organisms is more widely known as “bioluminescence”.  It is not phosphorescence.

Bioluminescence in the sea.
Photo: North Carolina Sea Grant


There are many creatures that produce bioluminescence.  The famous fireflies are one, but most live in the sea.  The “phosphorus” we are used to seeing is produced by small single celled plants in a group known as dinoflagellates.  When disturbed they emit blue-green light as a flash and then a slow dim.  Fish swimming past, waves crashing on the beach, or boat and propeller pushing through the water will disturb them.  The warmer the sea, the more dinoflagellates there are, the more amazing the light show is.  There are lagoons in the tropical parts of the world where these small plants are trapped due to a small opening in and out of the lagoon.  The entire lagoon can light up when the conditions are right.

Noctiluca are one of the dinoflagellates that produce bioluminescence.
Photo: University of New Hampshire.


But it does not stop with dinoflagellates.  As you descend into the deep ocean the bioluminescence becomes even more spectacular.  All sorts of creatures from jellyfish to squid, to fish, to even fungus and bacteria illuminate.  Some species of luminescent marine animals do not produce the light themselves but rather harbor luminescent bacteria on the skin or specially designed skim pockets to hold them.  Though blue-green is the dominant color, yellows, oranges, and reds have been produced.  It has been suggested that blue-green is much easier to see in the deep so reds and oranges are less likely.  That said, it is believed that some marine creatures will produce those colors to assist in capturing prey.  They can see the red light, but their prey cannot.

The magical lights of the deep sea.
Photo: NOAA


Either way the illumination of the ocean, like the Christmas illumination of our streets and homes, is beautiful and amazing thing.  As you admire the lights on the neighborhood home, find some short videos of bioluminescence online and enjoy the show.  Happy Holidays everyone.

Frogfish of the Florida Panhandle

Frogfish of the Florida Panhandle

Hoese and Moore1 describes members of the frogfish family as “grotesque”.  Well… maybe.  I am not sure I would call them grotesque, but they are sort of gelatinous blobs with reduced or missing scales.  They feel sort of “mushy”.  They have broad shaped fins and a free dorsal spine that serves as a “fishing rod and lure” called the illicium.  Maybe they are a little grotesque…maybe.


Being round with broad fins, this is a very slow swimming fish, if you can call how they move swimming.  So, to survive, they must blend in with the environment to avoid predators and wait for their prey to come within range before pouncing on them.  The illicium lures prey to within range and their “gulp” is like a vacuum cleaner sucking food out of the water.


The family name for the group is Antennariidae, which is appropriate being they have that fishing lure, and is one of the few fish families whose gill opens are behind the pectoral fin.  There are 48 species of frogfish found worldwide and most are tropical and subtropical2.   Hoese and Moore1 indicate there are three species found in the Gulf of Mexico and all three can be found along the Florida panhandle.


The most commonly encountered frogfish in our area is the Sargassum fish (Histro histro).  This small six-inch fish blends in perfectly with the sargassum mats that float in close to shore.  Using its fins to brace itself in the seaweed, this fish uses its illicium to attract a variety of small prey that live in the sargassum community.  As the sargassum mats are blown close to shore the sargassum fish will leave and move to another mat further out.  Finding them on the beach is rare but snorkeling out to a mat just offshore with a small hand net, you might be able to find one by scooping up some sargassum and taking a look.

This sargassum fish is well camelflouged within this mat of sargassum weed.
Photo: Florda Museum of Natural History


The Singlespot Frogfish (Antennarius radiosus) is even smaller at three inches and is found on hard habitats of the middle continental shelf offshore, but occasionally is found along the coastline.


The Splitlure Frogfish (Phrynelox scaber) is five inches in length and not as common on our shelf as the singlespot frogfish.  Those that have been found off our coast were further offshore.


The Florida Museum of Natural History includes the Striated Frogfish (Antennarius striatus) as a Gulf species and resident of panhandle waters3.


The distribution of this group is pretty wide throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean and beyond – suggesting few geographic barriers to dispersal.  The sargassum fish, of course, is restricted where sargassum is found – but sargassum is found in a lot of places.  The singlespot frogfish seems to have a more restricted home range found in Bermuda, the Atlantic coast of Georgia and Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico.  Hoese and Moore does not report this fish in other parts of the Caribbean as the others are1.


They may be grotesque to some, but to others it is an amazing group of fish, much fun in an aquarium, and exciting to find when snorkeling or diving.


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


2 Family Antennariidae – Frogfish. 2012. FishBase.


3 Antennarius striatus. 2017. Discover Fishes. Florida Museum of Natural History.

Iron-oxidizing bacteria: an unusual natural phenomenon

Iron-oxidizing bacteria: an unusual natural phenomenon

Iron-oxidizing bacteria produces an orange color and oily sheen in the floodplains of Congaree National Park, South Carolina. Used with permission from Karen Jackson, ©2020, Clemson University

“Someone dumped oil in the creek behind my house!” I had dozens of people call with that exclamation when I was a field inspector for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s (FDEP) wetlands compliance program. A significant portion of the job entailed responding to concerns and complaints from citizens regarding damage to wetland areas. In the field, I would come across an oily film along creeks in rural, near-pristine conditions in northern Holmes County and in heavily populated neighborhoods in the tourist hot spots of Destin and Panama City. The first time I saw it, I was taken aback. A shiny, rainbow sheen is something you might expect in an oil-soaked parking lot, not a relatively untouched body of water.

The reaction between iron, native bacteria, and oxygen can produce this orange sheen and filamentous material in streams and groundwater (as it exits the soil). Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Thankfully, an experienced colleague explained the workings of iron-oxidizing bacteria to me, and I was able to allay the fears of all those frantic homeowners. All the places I’ve ever seen evidence of iron bacteria on the water were adjacent to wetlands with some level of iron in the soil. The bacteria essentially “eat” ferrous iron, which is common and able to react with other elements in oxygen-free (anaerobic) environments. Wetlands are classic examples of anaerobic soils, and the mucky conditions of a stream floodplain are ideal for iron bacteria. These are naturally occurring, harmless bacteria that gain energy by breaking down iron available in the soil. In addition to the oily film, side effects of iron-oxidizing bacteria can include a swampy odor, a reddish filament, or red chunks of iron. In large amounts, these byproducts can clog wells if present in pipes. This can be problematic and prevent water flow, but the iron and bacteria are not threats to human health

A colleague with Escambia County recently responded to a homeowner call about bright orange water flowing out of their front yard. While not the typical creek location, environmental conditions were absolutely suited for this phenomenon. Their neighborhood is situated adjacent to a large wetland area, and several of the homes have French drains in the backyards that drain out to the street. During heavier rainfalls, excess groundwater enters those pipes, picks up iron bacteria in the soil, and exits to the surface along the road. The red-stained curbs are evidence that iron is common in the local soil.

When touched, the sheen produced by iron bacteria will fracture. This is an easy way to differentiate it from actual oil. Photo credit: City of Kirkland, Washington

While it’s possible someone could dump oil in a backwoods area (and if you do ever see that, report it to FDEP), it is much more likely that you are seeing the natural aftereffects of iron-oxidizing bacteria. To determine the difference between iron bacteria and actual oil, one simple test is to touch the water and its oily film with a stick. If the sheen fractures into small pieces, it’s iron bacteria. If it oozes back to an intact slick (and smells like petroleum), it could very well be oil.

Connecting With Youth Through the Love of the Outdoors

Connecting With Youth Through the Love of the Outdoors

Article by Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

Article by Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.

By Rachel Mathes

My only brother and his family live in Appleton, Wisconsin. Though I’m only able to see my niece and nephews one or two times a year, we have a deep connection through our love of the outdoors.

Zach discovering the joy of nature. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Zach discovering the joy of nature. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Their middle son, Zachary, is a budding naturalist at just four years old. When I visit them, Zach, his brother Connor, sister Cecilia, and I, load up the wagon and go for walks on the edge of the prairie in their neighborhood. We start our walks looking for scat and signs of wildlife. Because the kids are so close to the ground, they often spot wildlife trails before I do. We talk about what animals may be there, what they eat, and how we can help them.

After each walk, we wind down at home with an iNaturalist session. Zach and his siblings help me choose what animal or plant we think we saw with the help of the app’s nearby suggestions tool. A favorite game we play after all our photos are entered into the app is a game we’ve coined, “where’s that animal?” We use the iNaturalist explore feature to find sightings of exciting creatures like wolves and beavers near their home. The kids have learned that even scientists often don’t see the animals they study, just signs of them.

At age three, Zach learned to identify milkweed with impressive accuracy. I pointed out the plant on a previous trip more than six months earlier and he remembered how to find them. Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, is a large leafed species that prefers winters a bit colder than we get here in the Florida Panhandle, but is native in northern states across the Eastern US, including Wisconsin. Zach is often stopping the wagon to scout for monarch caterpillars, finding even the smallest instars and eggs.

Zach learned to identify common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, at the age of three. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

Zach learned to identify common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, at the age of three. Photo by Rachel Mathes.

When I video call the kids from Florida, Zach is often asking to see my fruit trees, vines, and bushes. He knows that we have very different seasons than Wisconsin when I am eating blueberries in May and he’s still knocking frost off his snow boots. In July, he tells me about the raspberries they find in the woods with their dad. We both get a bit of seasonal berry jealousy. On my last trip we planted thornless blackberries in their garden together. It remains to be seen whether the birds will let the kids have a harvest, but the kids will be excited either way.

Though we may live a thousand miles apart, I know my relationship with my niece and nephews will continue to thrive as they explore the natural world around them. One day, I hope to introduce them to the awe of Florida manatees and alligators. Until then, I will relish the time we get to spend together outdoors in nature and on the phone together. I know that Zachary and his siblings will grow up having respect for the natural world and I hope he always exclaims, “Monarch! Look auntie Rachel, a monarch caterpillar!” on our walks together.

Author: Rachel Mathes, Horticulture Program Assistant with UF/IFAS Extension Leon County.