Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?

That’s the question from a recent group exploring what washed up on the beach after Hurricane Sally.

long, round brownish invertebrate

Sea Cucumber
Photo by: Amy Leath

They have no eyes, nose or antenna.  Yet, they move with tiny little legs and have openings on each end.  Though scientists refer to them as sea cucumbers, they are obviously animals.  Sea cucumbers get their name because of their overall body shape, but they are not vegetables.

There are over 1,200 species of sea cucumbers, ranging in size from ¾“ to more than 6‘ long, living throughout the world’s ocean bottoms.  They are part of a larger animal group called echinoderms, which includes starfish, urchins and sand dollars. Echinoderms have five identical parts to their bodies.  In the case of sea cucumber, they have 5 elongated body segments separated by tiny bones running from the tube feet at the mouth to the opening of the anus.  These squishy invertebrates spend their entire life scavenging off the seafloor.  Those tiny legs are actually tube feet that surround their mouth, directing algae, aquatic invertebrates, and waste particles found in the sand into their digestive tract.  What goes in, must come out.  That’s where it becomes interesting.

Sea cucumbers breathe by dilating their anal sphincter to allow water into the rectum, where specialized organs referred to as respiratory trees (or butt lungs) extract the oxygen from the water before discharging it back into the sea.  Several commensal and symbiotic creatures (including a fish that lives in the anus, as well as crabs and shrimp on its skin) hang out on this end of the sea cucumber collecting any “leftovers”.

But, the ecosystem also benefits.  Not only is excess organic matter being removed from the seafloor, but the water environment is being enriched.  Sea cucumbers’ natural digestion process gives their feces a relatively high pH from the excretion of ammonia, protecting the water surrounding the sea cucumber habitats from ocean acidification and providing fertilizer that promotes coral growth.  Also, the tiny bones within the sea cucumber form from the excretion of calcium carbonate, which is the primary ingredient in coral formation. The living and dying of sea cucumbers aids in the survival of coral beds.

When disturbed, sea cucumbers can expose their bony hook-like structures through their skin, making them more pickle than cucumber in appearance.  Sea cucumbers can also use their digestive system to ward of predators.  To confuse or harm predators, the sea cucumber propels its toxic internal organs from its body in the direction of the attacker.  No worries though.  They can grow them back again.

Hurricane Sally washed the sea cucumbers ashore so you could learn more about the creatures on the ocean floor.  Continue to explore the Florida panhandle outdoor.

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.

How to Become an Expert Naturalist

How to Become an Expert Naturalist

Have you ever been on a walk, passed a beautiful flowering bush, and wondered what it was?  Well, wonder no more!  You can become an expert naturalist by using an easy smartphone app, iNaturalist.  With one easy download, you can connect with others to identify species and document their occurrence.

iNaturalist is a community of naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists working together to share observations of biodiversity and map the occurrence.  Parents need to know that iNaturalist is an online community that allows users age 13 and older to share pictures and locations of the living things they see around them. While considered very safe, like any online network, teens should be cautious with sharing.

Getting started is easy.  All you need to do is create an account at iNaturalist.org and download their free iNaturalist app to your smartphone (Android or iOS). You can then start making your own nature observations, upload them to iNaturalist where you can share your discoveries with others, and also let other iNaturalist users help identify what you have seen.

iNaturalist is a great way to connect with nature and generate scientifically valuable biodiversity data.  You can use it for your own personal fulfillment, or as part of a group.  You can even use the project feature which allows you to have a central page that displays all the observations made within a location, or all observations made by a group. Why not organize your neighbors, club, or friends and challenge them to post their observations?

Dog vomit fungus (Fuligo septica)

Mystery blob in the garden. Can you figure out what it is? Photo: Laura Tiu

I recently used iNaturalist to identify a bright yellow blob that sprung up in my garden overnight. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what it is.  Why don’t you head on over to iNaturalist.org and see if you can figure it out?  It will be your first step to becoming an expert naturalist.

Share the Shore with Nesting Seabirds and Shorebirds!

Share the Shore with Nesting Seabirds and Shorebirds!

Black Skimmers foraging for fish. Photo Credit: Jan Trzepacz, Pelican Lane Arts.

Black Skimmers and Least Terns, state listed species of seabirds, have returned along the coastal areas of the northern Gulf of Mexico! These colorful, dynamic birds are fun to watch, which can be done without disturbing the them.

Shorebirds foraging. Photo Credit: Jan Trzepacz, Pelican Lane Arts.

Black Skimmer with a fish. Photo Credit: Jan Trzepacz, Pelican Lane Arts.

What is the difference between a seabird and shorebird?

Among other behaviors, their foraging habits are the easiest way to distinguish between the two. The seabirds depend on the open water to forage on fish and small invertebrates. The shorebirds are the camouflaged birds that can found along the shore, using their specialized beaks to poke in the sandy areas to forage for invertebrates.

Both seabirds and shorebirds nest on our local beaches, spoil islands, and artificial habitats such as gravel rooftops. Many of these birds are listed as endangered or threatened species by state and federal agencies.

Juvenile Black Skimmer learning to forage. Photo Credit: Jan Trzepacz, Pelican Lane Arts.

Adult black skimmers are easily identified by their long, black and orange bills, black  upper body and white underside. They are most active in the early morning and evening while feeding. You can watch them swoop and skim along the water at many locations along the Gulf Coast. Watch for their tell-tale skimming as they skim the surface of the water with their beaks open, foraging for small fish and invertebrates. The lower mandible (beak) is longer than the upper mandible, this adaptation allows these birds to be efficient at catching their prey.

Least Tern “dive bombing” a Black Skimmer that is too close to the Least Tern nest. Photo Credit: Jan Trzepacz, Pelican Lane Arts.

Adult breeding least terns are much smaller birds with a white underside and a grey-upper body. Their bill is yellow, they have a white forehead and a black stripe across their eyes. Just above the tail feathers, there are two dark primary feathers that appear to look like a black tip at the back end of the bird. Terns feed by diving down to the water to grab their prey. They also use this “dive-bombing” technique to ward off predators, pets and humans from their nests, eggs and chicks.

Least Tern with chicks. Photo Credit: Jan Trzepacz, Pelican Lane Arts.

Both Black Skimmers and Least Terns nest in colonies, which means they nest with many other birds. Black skimmers and Least Terns nest in sandy areas along the beach. They create a “scrape” in the sand. The birds lay their eggs in the shallow depression, the eggs blend into the beach sand and are very hard to see by humans and predators. In order to avoid disturbing the birds when they are sitting on their nests, known nesting areas are temporarily roped off by Audubon and/or Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) representatives. This is done to protect the birds while they are nesting, caring for the babies and as the babies begin to learn to fly and forage for themselves.

Threats to these beautiful acrobats include loss of habitat, which means less space for the birds to rest, nest and forage. Disturbances from human caused activities such as:

  • walking through nesting grounds
  • allowing pets to run off-leash in nesting areas
  • feral cats and other predators
  • litter
  • driving on the beach
  • fireworks and other loud noises

Audubon and FWC rope-off nesting areas to protect the birds, their eggs and chicks. These nesting areas have signage asking visitors to stay out of nesting zones, so the chicks have a better chance of surviving. When a bird is disturbed off their nest, there is increased vulnerability to predators, heat and the parents may not return to the nest.

Black Skimmer feeding a chick. Photo Credit: Jan Trzepacz, Pelican Lane Arts.

To observe these birds, stay a safe distance away, zoom in with a telescope, phone, camera or binoculars, you may see a fluffy little chick! Let’s all work to give the birds some space.

Special thanks to Jan Trzepacz of Pelican Lane Arts for the use of these beautiful photos.

To learn about the Audubon Shorebird program on Navarre Beach, FL check out the Relax on Navarre Beach Facebook webinar presentation by Caroline Stahala, Audubon Western Florida Panhandle Shorebird Program Coordinator:

In some areas these birds nest close to the road. These areas have temporarily reduced speed limits, please drive the speed limit to avoid hitting a chick. If you are interested in receiving a “chick magnet” for your car, to show you support bird conservation, please send an email to: chrismv@ufl.edu, Please put “chick magnet” in the subject line. Please allow 2 weeks to receive your magnet in the mail. Limited quantities available.

Getting Rid of Chinese Tallow Trees

Getting Rid of Chinese Tallow Trees

Chinese Tallow Tree in Early Spring

Chinese Tallow, also known as the Popcorn Tree, was introduced in the US over 200 years ago.  Ben Franklin sent seeds over in 1772.  Although Franklin was blamed for the invasion in the U.S. Gulf Coast, scientists performed genetic testing and have concluded that the blame actually lies with federal biologists who imported some Chinese tallow trees around 1905.  Popcorn trees have continued to spread throughout the US since then.

For many years, people have planted them in their landscape for shade and fall color.  Once established, they invade natural areas, pastures, wetlands and yards.  They out-compete native and non-invasive trees and shrubs.  In 1998, Chinese Tallow was added to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Noxious Weed list.  Plants on the Florida Noxious Weed list may not be introduced, possessed, moved, or released without a permit.

 

Landowners and homeowners can help with this problem tree by removing and replacing them with a native or non-invasive tree like black gum, maple, dogwood, or crepe myrtle.  Mature trees can be cut down with a saw and the stump promptly treated with an herbicide with the active ingredient, triclopyr amine.  You should try to make the final cut as low to the ground as possible.  You can use a paint brush to apply the herbicide to the stump.  A basal bark application of triclopyr ester plus a basal oil carrier can be used on smaller trees.  Treat the trunk to a height of 12 to 15 inches from the ground, thoroughly wetting it with the herbicide mixture.  Basal bark treatments are only effective on saplings and seedlings less than 6 inches in stem diameter.  Sometimes suckers may sprout from remaining roots.  A foliar application can be used on these sprouts from July to October, before onset of fall color.

 

For more information about Chinese Tallow trees or other invasive weeds, go to:  https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ag148.

Green Infrastructure can Reduce Flooding and Improve Water Quality in the Florida Panhandle

Green Infrastructure can Reduce Flooding and Improve Water Quality in the Florida Panhandle

Flooding and poor water quality are common issues of concern in the Florida Panhandle. Our frequent heavy rains cause water to quickly run off rooftop, parking lot, and driveway surfaces; this runoff water carries with it the chemicals deposited on land surfaces between rain events by direct application (such as landscape fertilizers) as well as through wind and circulation, a process referred to as atmospheric deposition. Surface water that runs off our developed urban and residential landscape is usually routed into stormwater drains and sewers, and then into stormwater detention ponds or directly into surface streams. 

Dry stormwater pond in Escambia County.
Photo: Matt Deitch

Conventional methods for dealing with stormwater runoff is through the use of stormwater ponds. Stormwater ponds allow water to slowly infiltrate into the soil before moving to streams or wetlands via shallow groundwater pathways. Typically hidden behind shopping centers or in the back of residential subdivisions, stormwater ponds attenuate flooding by delaying the time when water reaches the stream and are intended to improve water quality through microbial processes (such as denitrification) or plant uptake, particularly focusing on reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that reaches nearby streams. However, the efficacy of stormwater ponds is highly variable (many do not function as intended), and they often are visually unattractive aspects of a community.  

A backyrad rain garden after installation near Navarre FL.
Photo: Nikki Bennett

Stormwater managers in other parts of Florida are increasingly utilizing a suite of management features termed “green infrastructure” as alternatives to stormwater ponds to reduce floodwaters and improve water quality before it enters nearby streams and wetlands. Green infrastructure, which includes features such as rain gardens, green rooftops, rainwater cisterns, bioswales, and permeable pavers, is designed to slow water down and reduce pollutant concentrations by mimicking natural processes of infiltration and biological uptake at its source—off the rooftops, driveways, roads, and parking lots where stormwater first concentrates. As a result, green infrastructure reduces surface runoff that occurs during storm events, leading to less flooding downstream. With the magnitude of peak flow reduced, stormwater runoff is also likely to carry lower amounts of pollutants downstream. In addition to their capacity to reduce flooding and improve water quality, green infrastructure can have many other benefits. It is often visually appealing, with vegetation typically selected to be visually attractive, appropriate for local conditions, and requiring low maintenance.

Rain garden at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System facility.
Photo: US Air Force

With our frequent rainfall, moderately developed urban areas, and expanding communities, the Florida Panhandle is ideal for using green infrastructure to reduce flooding and improve water quality. Features such as bioswales, rain gardens, and permeable pavement can be added to new development to mitigate stormwater runoff; they can also be added to existing neighborhoods to reduce flooding where roadside areas or other shared spaces allow. In addition to mitigating the effects of rainfall, green infrastructure can also improve property values because of their visual appeal. For green infrastructure techniques to be effective, they require widespread use throughout a neighborhood rather than at a handful of locations; so if it sounds like green infrastructure would benefit your community, talk with your neighbors and reach out to UF IFAS agents to discuss how it could be added to your community!