For a slight change of pace, let’s check out the Cardinal airplant, Tillandsia fasciculata, the largest bromeliad airplant to grow natively in Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida. Airplants are epiphytic plants — meaning they grow upon other plants in a non-parasitic fashion. Rather than rooting in and being dependent on the soil, airplants simply soak up most of what they need directly from the air and rain above. It’s a low impact existence for the host plant and a beneficial service for frogs, lizards, and insects that use the Cardinal airplant for water acquisition and sheltering. The Cardinal airplant is also a gift for photographers lumbering about cypress swamps in search of flashy plays of light. Seriously, this is one awesome epiphyte.
A couple of posts back, we checked out a difficult-to-see Florida banded watersnake, Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, photographed along a canal-line parallel to U.S. Highway 29. Now, let’s take a closer look at another such Florida banded watersnake from our wee Spring Break sojourn to South Florida.
Abundant throughout pretty much all of peninsular Florida, the Florida banded watersnake, also referred to simply as the Florida watersnake, is a non-venomous species averaging upwards to three feet or so in length. It can be quite variable in appearance, though it usually maintains the band-like stripe behind the eye as seen in the pictures below.
This is one of Florida’s three “big” freshwater watersnakes, alongside the Brown watersnake (Nerodia taxispilota) and the Florida green watersnake (Nerodia floridana) — all non-venomous. The Banded watersnake is also very closely related to the slightly smaller coastal species, Nerodia clarkii, the Salt marsh snake. Hybrids between N. fasciata and N. clarkii seem to be quite common where I live in Volusia county. As far as diet and habitat, the Florida banded watersnake is less than picky compared to its “big” freshwater compatriots. It’ll eat fish and frogs, living or dead, and may be found basking on shore, in water-strewn reeds, or in branches hanging over the water. You can find them around ponds, creeks, lakes, and streams — and even on the edge of parking lots near ornamental ponds. Really, if there’s fish and/or frogs, there’s a decent chance the Bandeds will give it a shot. I’ve seen plenty around artificial, urban water structures, stuff like apartment ponds, water fountains, and the like. They’re just not too picky.
And if we’re being completely honest, Florida banded watersnakes aren’t too bright, either — relatively speaking… Whereas brown watersnakes are pretty damn good at hiding in branches off the ground and over the water and Florida green watersnakes often bask offshore atop soft, grassy reeds, Bandeds often bask in plain sight… and they’re not always the fastest to react to would-be predators. It’s sort of embarrassing to think about how many Florida banded watersnakes I’ve been able to catch and photograph with relative ease. They just don’t make it that hard, bless their hearts. On the flip side, however, Bandeds will sometimes readily and eagerly strike in self-defense when caught by hand. They’re also quick to smear their musk and feces on perceived threats. It’s a… pungent kind of odor. I guess it’s an odor I’m pretty used to by now.
Anyhow, Florida banded watersnakes really don’t pose any measurable or realistic risk to people if left to their own devices. They’re not aggressive, and they’ll try to escape if you give them a few seconds to figure it out. Heh. Just give them some space and time… and they’ll figure it out. If I had to name a favorite snake species, this would probably be it. I find Florida banded watersnakes to be immeasurably adorable and not-too-bright snakes.
The Grande Glory and Manic Mayhem of Spring Break 2018 continues, only this time we’re skipping forward a click to Thursday 15 May and leaving snakes behind for a moment. Remember, this particular trip to South Florida was half Nerodia watersnake and half Anolis lizard themed, but we still managed to pull in some lizards during the first snake-half of the trip. Indeed, we had a side-mission in Collier county, and that side-mission was to track down some of the “Gray Dewlap” Carolina green anoles, Anolis carolinensis, of south Florida — something we don’t really see in my home territory of Volusia county.
First, a little backstory/context from a generalized perspective:
Anolis carolinensis is generally considered to be Florida’s sole native species of Anolis lizard. At this time, there are somewhere around 400 recognized species within genus Anolis; that’s a lot by any vertebrate measure. Anoles are wickedly adaptable organisms and natively range throughout much of the western Hemisphere — the Caribbean, Central America, and parts of northern South America. Though we do have a number of non-native species in Florida, the Carolina green anole remains our only native species.
Now, one of the fascinating aspects of Anolis lizards (and other species of lizards in fact) is the presence and use of a dewlap — a typically-bright, colorful fold of skin under the chin and along the neckline. Males will often flex the dewlap out (with an accompanying “push up” dance of sorts) to signify territory and/or to impress nearby lady anoles. It’s quite a sight to behold, the male anole macho dance. Further, different species of anoles sport distinctive and relatively specific dewlap designs. A typical Carolina green anole dewlap generally looks like this:
As noted in the caption, that image is a wee bit too contrasty. In natural light, the Carolina green anole’s dewlap is a bit more pinkish and lighter than it looks here (a’la deep red). Regardless, that’s the general gist of the Carolina green anole’s dewlap design. Nothing too fancy; nothing too ornate.
Now, here’s the interesting angle and the subject of this post: In southwest Florida, such as in Collier county, a decent number of A. carolinensis have a slightly different dewlap design. Rather than a light pink base tone, the A. carolinensis dewlaps of southwest Florida can appear slightly greenish or grayish. Though we’ve been to Collier county more than a few times, this was the first time we were able to track down and photograph this distinctive and different pattern:
As it turned out, we were ultimately able to snag and photograph five separate individuals sporting the less-pinkish dewlap. This was the only one still wearing its “green coat,” however, so I’m starting with this one (I’ll talk about the Carolina green anole’s ability to change colors in a forthcoming post). Some of the other gray dewlap anoles we photographed were strikingly different, but more on that later…
Now, I have to address the inevitable taxonomy/classification issue that arises because of this… Some folks consider the “gray dewlap” green anoles of south Florida to be a distinctive subspecies: Anolis carolinensis seminolus, the “Southern green anole.” The typical pink-dewlapped green anoles would then be the nominate subspecies, Anolis carolinensis carolinensis, aka the Carolina green anole or, alternatively, the Northern green anole. At this time, I haven’t really read enough convincing research to justify subspecies designations between the pink- and gray-dewlapped anoles of the United States. In fact, I’ve seen plenty of pink-dewlapped green anoles in the same location where we found our five gray-dewlapped green anoles on this trip. From my (albeit limited) perspective, then, the gray dewlap seems to be a phenotypic trait simply more common in some parts of south Florida than it is elsewhere. Regional variance of phenotypic traits is not uncommon in lizards and in snakes, and I’m not sure we need new subspecies designations for every little phenotypic variance out there… but, then again, I’m not exactly an expert on the genomics of All Things Anolis. I’ll stay tuned in for updates, but for now I treat both pink- and gray-dewlap anoles as simply Anolis carolinensis.
To learn more about Green anoles and their legion of anole species, be sure to check out Anole Annals! For a more specific connection, check out this post responding to another gray dewlap A. carolinensis observation from Collier county. I have four additional not-too-pinkish A. carolinensis individuals lined up and ready to post, some with rather striking dewlaps, all in good time and each with its own angle.
We’ll close with two more profiles of our first “not-too-pinkish” individual:
While some snakes may be rather elusive and difficult to spot, others can be… a bit more obvious. The latter was certainly the case with this beefy and robust Florida cottonmouth, Agkistrodon conanti. This venomous viper was half-on/half-off US Highway 29 — naked, exposed, and flirting with the inertial impact of oncoming vehicles.
Cottonmouths certainly pick up a lot of slack from people. I’ve heard all the stories time and time again. They’re aggressive. They’ll chase you. They’re downright mean. Yatta yatta yatta, and on and on and on. The truth is cottonmouths aren’t any of those things. Yes, they can certainly be stubborn or determined, but cottonmouths simply aren’t aggressive or mean, and they sure as hell don’t waste energy aimlessly chasing people around (or cars for that matter).
When threatened, the cottonmouth will typically try to do one of two things. First, they’ll flee to the water or some other form of cover if that’s available. If a cottonmouth doesn’t think it can do that, it’ll coil up and perhaps take a defensive posture — which is what you see in some of the images on this post. The cottonmouth earns its common name due to this defensive posture. It’ll coil up and gape its white, cottony mouth — presumably to intimidate would-be predators. Being a venomous snake, I know I always feel a wee bit intimidated when I see that mouth (not to mention all that mass, all that muscle). I’m not afraid of cottonmouths, but I certainly treat them with all due caution and respect.
As is always the case, this cottonmouth simply didn’t chase after us. It didn’t even strike at us. It just displayed for a while and then, with a bit of gentle encouragement, made its way into the adjacent canal line next to the road. Nothing to be afraid of, but certainly something to respect.
It was, of course, fantastic finding a healthy, beefy cottonmouth at the beginning of our Spring Break Nerodia/Anolis sojourn — and I’m glad this one dodged the much more menacing threat posed by people driving heavy machinery while facebooking at 70 miles per hour. I guess if you want to be afraid of snakes, that’s your prerogative, but personally…? for myself? Yeah, people ‘driving’ is a hell of a lot scarier to me… When cottonmouths start tweeting while driving cars, that’s when I’ll start being afraid of them. Until that day arises, I’ll give my respect to the cottonmouths and save my fear for the distracted hominids barreling down US Highway 29.
I’ll photograph and appreciate damn near any organism I can manage to come across, but there are two genera that clearly captivate most of my attention: Nerodia watersnakes and Anolis lizards. There’s a cost, however, of loving these two taxa to the point of near-inappropriateness — namely having to spend so much time either looking up or looking down… without falling down.
Though some anoles (such as the Cuban brown anole, Anolis sagrei) spend much of their time scampering about on the ground, many of my favorite species are typically found a bit higher — either at eye level or much, much higher. Thus, the fine art of looking for anoles often entails walking around with your head tilted back, your gaze aimed upwards towards the canopy and foliage above. The grace comes, I suppose, when you get better at not falling down after tripping on something obviously on the ground. Tripping is to be expected. Tripping is inevitable. It’s a part of the game when you’re looking up, up, up. The game is not falling down when you trip…
Watersnakes, on the other hand, tend to loiter about by the water’s edge, and if you’re looking for them from land, that means you’re probably walking around with your head aimed down near the shoreline off to your side — not on the ground before your feet. Sure, some species will climb a bit into the surrounding foliage (especially the Brown watersnake, Nerodia taxispilota), but much of the time you’ll find them right at or adjacent to the shoreline. Once again, the grace comes in learning how to not fall down when you inevitably trip on something any reasonable human being should have noticed in the first place.
And so this spring break trip was going to be the ultimate mega-challenge for my middle-aged sense of balance: Two and a half days looking down for watersnakes followed by two and a half days looking up for anoles. Down, down, down, up, up, up. Bada bah bah.
Our trip officially began when we hit U.S. 29 heading south through Collier county, As nearly any Florida herp fan should already know, this stretch of road can be particularly active with snakes and gators. A long canal line parallels the eastern edge of the highway, and much of the surrounding land/water is protected. Because of this, watersnakes and cottonmouths can be somewhat abundant along Highway 29 from time to time. Sometimes the snakes are easy to spot; other times they’re more hidden. As an example, take a moment and check out this hastily composed iPhone picture. Can you see the snake while looking down from the edge of the canal line?
The snake is there — hidden in plain sight. Zoom in on the crumbled, drying palm in the middle. Can you see it now?
Ah, yes, there it is. This a young Florida banded watersnake, Nerodia fasciata pictiventris, biding its time along the Highway 29 canal line of Collier county, Florida. This snake served as the first of approximately 53 snakes Eric and I would come across in the first 48 hours of our trip. It also served as a lovely reminder that you’ve got to focus in and look closely to find the wee critters hidden in plain sight. Focusing in can have its costs, though…
Of note, and I’ll spare you bloody pictures, I crashed and burned soon after this inaugural snake spotting. Tracing the canal line on foot, I —of course— tripped and wiped out spectacularly, landing on and mangling (yet again) my right knee. I even managed to take off some toe skin. Good god. The subsequent bleeding was extraordinarily impressive (I’m easily impressed), but it was to be expected, I suppose. Indeed, when I’m hunting for snakes or lizards, I don’t worry so much about the organisms themselves. I worry more about myself crashing headfirst into a gravity-and-inertial double-play. I don’t worry about animals. I worry about basic physics.
Needless to say, as I write this, the trip is officially over, but I’m still very much feeling it. My knee is still quite sore, and so too is my neck. Down, down, down, up, up, up. Fortunately, however, though I tripped at least three other times during this particular, um, trip, I managed to keep myself upright the rest of the weekend. At least when I was out looking for wildlife. I’m not sure I can say the same for Saturday night in a South Miami bar… but that’s another story for another time.
In our next post, we’ll check out another Highway 29 snake — only this one will be a slightly easier one to spot.
As I’m writing this on my back patio in Ormond Beach, Florida, an hour or so before the sun will rise on the first Monday after spring break, a few short hours before classes kick back in, I’m slightly bewildered and perplexed on how to handle all the photographs and experiences I soaked up in the past five days.
My field-partner, Eric, and I headed down to south Florida from Wednesday through Sunday. Wednesday through Friday morning were largely spent in the Big Cypress region photographing and working with Nerodia watersnakes and Agkistrodon cottonmouths. Then, Friday afternoon through Sunday evening were spent in Coral Gables for the Anolis Symposium VII — a rowdy and brilliant collective of anologists and anolenthusiastss gathered together to share research, data, stories, and perspectives on the grounds of the beautiful and pristine Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden just south of Matheson Hammock. It was a hell of a trip on all fronts.
Rather than simply posting everything chronologically and as a kind of linear travelogue, I’ll alternate a bit between the Big Cypress and Anolis Symposium stages of the trip and build a kind of cross narrative to give a sense of how and why these kinds of experiences (and organisms) mean so much to me. We’ve got a slew of organisms coming up — ranging from the “big” Nerodia watersnakes and Agkistrodon cottonmouths of south Florida to the Anolis lizards of south Florida, native and non-native alike, not to mention a variety of birds, flora, and other stuff. Most excitingly, we were even able to track down and photograph some of the anomalous, dark-dewlapped Green anoles of Collier county, Florida. Matheson Hammock and Fairchild Garden in Coral Gables certainly didn’t disappoint on the lizard front either… Finally, of course, I’ll also post a slew of images from the Anolis Symposium itself. The anole community of researchers and scholars is, to put it bluntly, a colorful and mischievous group of hominids. It was fantastic getting to meet many of these people in the flesh — after years of virtual communication and social media chatter.
So, with all that being said, let’s start with a simple yet elegant Carolina green anole, Anolis carolinensis, photographed on the grounds of a small municipal park in South Miami this past Friday. Though my focus tends to be on the non-native species when I visit Miami-Dade county and southeast Florida, I always find time to pause and admire our single, solitary native species of Anolis lizard; the Carolina green anole is a slick, adept, and elegant organism — and I can’t imagine “Florida” without them!
As always, if you’d like to learn more about the Anolis lizards, you should certainly check out Anole Annals — the online hub and central nexus for the anole community. Further, you can filter all anole posts featured on Floridensis at this time by searching ANOLIS. Also note that each species represented on this website is linked in the “species list” on the right side of the standard-browser version of Floridensis. Because this website is so new, posts are somewhat scant right now — but they’ll continue to build over time, and I’ve already inaugurally covered all eight Anolis species I’ve managed to photograph in the pseudo-wilds of South Florida.
This is going be a fun romp.
The Fluted bird’s nest fungus, Cyathus striatus, is a small, diminutive, and modest species of fungi. Though most commonly seen in woodland habitats, they are also known to take up residence from time to time in woodchip piles — and that’s exactly where these Fluted bird’s nest fungi were photographed — in an ornamental woodchip “garden” on the edge of our front patio in Valdosta, Georgia. I was certainly delighted when I realized these bird’s nest fungi had taken to growing in my woodchips! The design of the “nest” itself is for spore dispersal. When rain falls at the right angle and hits the interior of the cup, it pushes the spore structures up and out of the cup — thus spreading the fungal spores hidden beneath those blue discs outward. An elaborate and clever use of force and pressure with thanks to falling rain, right?
The Squirrel treefrog, Hyla squirella, is one of Florida’s wide-ranging, native treefrog species. They are also quite variable in coloration and pattern and are sometimes confused as being smallish American green treefrogs (Hyla cinerea). Further, when you see one Squirrel treefrog, the odds are particularly strong that there are many, many more nearby. I tend to find them in rather dense clusters, though occasionally I’ll come across a loner. Though rather small in stature, the chorus and nightsong of Squirrel treefrogs can be damn near deafening — especially after a nice rain and when they’re singing in a collective. This is a species that knows how to throw a good party and make some serious noise!
One of my favorite non-native lizards to track down in South Florida is the Cuban knight anole, Anolis equestris. This beefy tank of a lizard is somewhat abundant throughout various parts of south Florida — especially throughout much of Miami-Dade county. Whereas our native Carolina green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) are fairly small, adult Knight anoles can reach upwards to 12-18 inches in length. They’ve got some mass and kick to them… but that certainly doesn’t limit their agility and speed. A “crown giant” ecomorph, the Cuban knight anole is well adapted to living up high in the foliage and the limbs overhead. Catching one of these puppies for photo-macro goodness simply isn’t the easiest of affairs — but they’re always among the most rewarding (even if they do get a little “bitey” when you try to hold them).
By Poseidon’s rhinestone-adorned trident, what is not to love about the Eastern rat snake (other than its taxonomic status)?
“Other thank its taxonomic status” you ask…? Oh my, yes. There’s more than a little confusion and frustration among the masses when it comes to New World rat snake taxonomy and classification. I’ll leave it to Mike Van Valen’s most excellent blogpost, “The Ratsnake Mess for Dummies,” to describe the nitty-gritty, finer points of the history of the debate, but here’s how it shakes out in my neck of the woods:
Throughout the Florida peninsula, the “Yellow rat snake” is the dominant rat snake you’ll encounter — alongside the “Red rat snake” (aka “Corn snake”) which is a different species altogether, Pantherophis guttatus. Now, the Yellow rat snake is actually the Eastern rat snake, Pantherophis alleghaniensis. In south Florida, however, around the Everglades and such, the Yellow rat snakes take on a more-orangish tone. These south Florida rat snakes are called “Everglades rat snakes,” but really they’re just orange-variants of Eastern rat snakes. “Yellow rat snakes” and “Everglades rat snakes” are simply two color variants of the same species: Pantherophis alleghaniensis. Make sense? So far, so good? Good. Now let’s fuck it all up:
If you head north through the Florida peninsula and start making your way into southern Georgia, the Yellow rat snakes give way to the locally-dubbed “Gray rat snakes.” Now, if you look up “Gray rat snake” on the wikiwiki-wildwild-web, odds are you’ll find something called Pantherophis spiloides, the Gray rat snake. They’ll look a lot like the snake feature here. BUT here’s the thing: the gray rat snakes in Georgia (and east of the Apalachicola River) are just gray-variant Eastern rat snakes, Pantherophis alleghaniensis. Thus, the “gray” rat snakes of south-central Georgia aren’t really Gray rat snakes, they’re actually Eastern rat snakes — just like our yellow-striped Eastern rat snakes in Florida, only they’re gray and blotched instead of yellow and striped. Yes, the “gray” rat snakes of southcentral Georgia are simply Eastern rat snakes that take on a different coloration and pattern as adults from their Floridian brethren of the same species.
Make sense? Maybe. Maybe not. Again, if you’d like to dip your toes into the mouth of madness and learn more about the taxonomic struggle over our New World rat snakes, check out Mike Van Valen’s “The Ratsnake Mess for Dummies.” Also note that none of this madness has anything to do with the Red rat snake, Pantherophis guttatus, also known as the Corn snake (good god).
Anyhow, these photographs are of a gray-variant Eastern rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) photographed in southcentral Georgia. A few years back, I would’ve called this a “Gray rat snake.” Now I’m afraid to even use the word “gray.” 50 Shades of Gray Rat Snake Taxonomy is enough to drive anyone into submission, it seems.
I rather adored this specific
Gray Eastern rat snake. During my two years there, rat snakes were particularly common in this stretch of Lowndes county, and some of them (this one included) had a touch of the striping more typical in the Florida peninsula populations. A bit of a transitional example from the yellow-variant to the gray-variant, if you will… It was also, as you might notice below, a bit reactive and defensive. Honestly, I must admit I get tickled when a (non-venomous) snake gives me a bit of the ole’ defensive mouth hug. I guess there is a little 50 Shades of Gray going on here…?
You’ll see plenty of Eastern rat snake photographs on floridensis in time (both yellow- and gray-variants). This is easily one of my favorite species to work with!
When it comes to photographing wildlife, nature, and various facets of ecology, I’ll work with pretty much anything I come across. Though I may carry a particular bias in favor of Anolis lizards and Nerodia watersnakes, there ain’t much in our natural world I don’t find extremely worthy of my time, imagination, and consideration. It certainly doesn’t take much to impress me when it comes to wildlife, and the Royal starfish, Astropecten articulatus, is no exception. I mean, look at this beautiful creature! This particular species of starfish is moderately common along my stretch of Florida coastline, though you don’t often see them washed up in the surf in such a healthy, robust state. Sometimes, however, the currents and various environmental factors bring them up to the shallows — and when they do show up, the Royal starfish certainly know how to bedazzle the lumbering hominids ambling along the beach. With their deep purple dorsal tone and accompanying orange trim, the Royal starfish is damn near impossible to not notice. Truly a majestic starfish.
From 2011 through 2013, I lived and worked in Valdosta, Georgia. One of the delightful perks of teaching at Valdosta State University was an abundance of Redbelly watersnakes (Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster) living on campus. I frequently found this non-venomous watersnake species loitering about the dominant canal-line creek that cut its way through campus. Though it comes close, this is not a species that typically ranges south to the part of eastern central Florida where I’m from and once again now live. Being an uber-fan of Nerodia watersnakes, then, my time at VSU was certainly a gift on this front. Redbelly watersnake hunt small fish and frogs and are largely diurnal. Though they are entirely non-venomous, far too many people confuse this species with the venomous Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon conanti; Agkistrodon piscivorus) — even though they look nothing alike. Fortunately, most folks at VSU never even noticed them. People have a habit of walking with their eyes glued to their phones these days. From a certain perspective, I guess that’s a blessing for the snakes trying to scratch out a living on a busy university campus!