The Forest Tent Caterpillar, 12 April 2014

Malacosoma disstria, the Forest tent caterpillar;
Gilchrist county, Florida (12 April 2014).

This is a Forest tent caterpillar moth — obviously still in caterpillar form. This is also one of Florida’s most lovely caterpillars. With bright splashes of electric blue, orange, and yellow, not to mention its light, delicate, white fur, I could easily watch one of these little dudes go about its business for an hour. They’re fantastically gorgeous.

Ranging throughout must of North America, Forest tent caterpillar moths tend to swarm and feed together as caterpillars, almost like a community. Apparently they aren’t overwhelmingly destructive to the foliage they feed upon, however. Though they can at times strip the leaves of a tree, those trees tend to recover from the Dionysian festival unleashed by these colorful little noodles of awesome.

 

The Orchard Orbweaver, 07 May 2014

Leucauge venusta, the Orchard orbweaver;
Flagler county, Florida (07 May 2014).
Perhaps now Leucauge argyrobapta.

The Orchard orbweaver, Leucauge venusta, is a fairly nifty (and utterly harmless-to-humans) arachnid traditionally listed as ranging throughout much of North, Central, and South America. In Florida, they are most certainly a small, common spider — quite abundant in yards and parks alike, often tucked upon their tiny, fragile webs strung within bundles of foliage and shrubbery.

Interestingly, while writing this post I caught wind from bugguide.net that the Florida-to Brazil orchard orbweavers appear to be, in fact, a distinct species separate from (yet closely related to) L. venusta. The new species is designated Leucauge argyrobapta. For the time being, I’ll classify this with the traditional Leucauge venusta designation, but as the taxonomic sands continue to change, I may update the classification and sorting of this spider in Florida accordingly.

Source to Consider: Ballesteros, J. A. & Hormiga, G. (2018). Species delimitation of the North American orchard-spider Leucauge venusta (Walckenaer, 1841) (Araneae, Tetragnathidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 121: 183-197.

The Black-dotted Spragueia Moth, 02 June 2014

Spragueia onagrus, the Black-dotted spragueia moth;
Volusia county, Florida (02 June 2014).

The Black-dotted spragueia moth, Spragueia onagrus, is fairly common throughout much of the coastal region of the American southeast. A member of Family Noctuidae, the Owlet moths, this species sports a wingspan of only about 15mm or so; it is a fairly tiny (and easy to miss) species of moth. It’s also a nice, subtle reminder that sometimes it’s good to pause and look more closely at the world passing by around you. That tiny moth you just walked by may indeed be something truly beautiful — in only you pause and look more closely.

The American crocodile of South Florida; 21 March 2015

Crocodylus acutus, the American crocodile;
Monroe county, Florida (21 March 2015).

When you think of Florida big reptilian beasts, you probably think of the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). That certainly makes sense given how many massive alligators we have sprawled out and lumbering across the peninsula. What you might not think of (but probably also should) is the American crocodile, Crocodylus acutus. That’s right, Florida is also home to bona fide species of croc.

The American crocodile ranges throughout the southern portion of Florida’s coasts and the coastal regions of central and South America (plus Cuba and other Caribbean isles). Males can average up to around 20 feet in length or so, which is rather considerable and a bit larger than myself. Females are a bit smaller but still clock in around 12 feet in length, which is also somewhat considerable and later than myself. For contrast, American alligators can average up to around 12 to 15 feet in length. A big, adult male croc, then, is something pretty remarkable (and massive) to behold, and female crocs are still nothing but impressive.

Though crocodiles are generally considered to be more of a global risk to humans than alligators, the American crocodile doesn’t carry too much of a Big-Bad reputation, especially in Florida. The species is a bit more reclusive and tends to hang out in more secluded salt- or brackish-water habitats. Personally, I think an eight foot American alligator that’s been fed by hapless humans poses far more risk to people than a sixteen foot American crocodile quietly scratching out a living on the edge of the Florida Everglades. Attacks in Florida are extremely rare. That being said, they can happen, so people should always be extremely mindful and respectful of the crocodile’s presence.

If you really, really want to see an American crocodile, one of the best places to go is Flamingo on the southern end of Main Park Road in the Florida Keys. Flamingo is home to a fairly stable group of crocs (and mosquitos) that tend to float about and bask near the marina at Flamingo. Though I’ve seen people provide and pour freshwater from a hose to the crocs (which will lean up out of the water to snag the fresh water, as photographed below), I have not seen people actually feeding the crocs — which is probably a good thing. I’d rather these big crocs not associate people with food.

 

There’s Nothing Better than a Big Brown Watersnake in Levy County

Nerodia taxispilota, the Brown watersnake;
Levy county, Florida (30 October 2016).

Located within the Gulf coastal region of Florida (west of Gainesville and Ocala), Levy county is fairly small, quaint, and quiet. It’s not a part of Florida you’ll often find featured on advertisements, bumper stickers, and postcards, but it is a part of Florida well worth discovering and exploring if you want to see some awesome Floridian wildlife. Further, they’ve got some seriously kick ass watersnakes. In a state packed to its gills with non-venomous watersnakes, I can honestly say there’s nothing better than the Brown watersnakes (Nerodia taxispilota) of Levy county, Florida.

With incredible texture, deep dark tones, and ventral patterns to beat the band, I can’t get enough of these Levy county Brown watersnakes. Beefy but mild-mannered, robust but agile and fast, this species is, unfortunately, often confused with the venomous cottonmouth. In reality, however, they’re adept swimmers who are also really good at climbing. It’s not uncommon to find brown watersnakes passing the daylight hours from a perch draped over the water’s edge. One sign of trouble, and they simply slip into the water. Hardly something to be terrified of, right?

The Brown Basilisk in South Florida, 11 June 2017

Basiliscus vittatus, the Brown basilisk;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (11 June 2016).

Native to Central America and the northern reaches of South America, the Brown basilisk, Basiliscus vittatus, is an impressively agile and speedy non-native lizard slowly spreading its way across south Florida. Adults range between one and two feet in length, but, despite their size, Brown basilisks are fairly stealthy. They’ll take a position, often near water, and sit motionless — sometimes seeming to hide in plain sight. And then? Once they’ve been seen? BAM! They take off with more than a little acceleration and velocity. In fact, with thanks to its webbed, enlarged rear feet, the Brown basilisk can even “run on water” for short distances. Some people thus call them it the “Jesus Lizard.”

In south Florida, you can find Brown basilisks fairly easily. If you’re anywhere on the east coast between West Palm Beach and Homestead, just head to the urban canal lines. There’s a decent chance you’ll find some basilisks basking adjacent to the canals and then quickly running away.

The Spectacled caiman in Coral Gables; 21 March 2015

Caiman crocodilus, the Spectacled caiman;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (21 March 2015).

Native to the southern reaches of Central America and the northern half of South America, the Spectacled caiman in a non-native species now found throughout parts of south Florida. Only averaging between four and six feet in length, you can sort of think of this species as a miniaturized crocodilian, so to speak. There’s been a breeding population of Spectacled caimans in the Homestead area for decades, but this one was photographed in Coral Gables, Florida. It was the last thing I expected to find on this particular day.

When I found this caiman (or, really, when it found me) I was actually trolling the edge of a mangrove in Coral Gables for a triple-set of non-native lizards: Brown basilisks, Green iguanas, and Knight anoles. I remember scouring the mangrove line, right at the edge of the water, convinced I would find a Brown basilisk in the limbs, a species I’d seen plenty of in this immediate area. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a small crocodilian quietly slinking in my direction. I assumed at first it was just a young alligator checking me out and didn’t really pay it much attention. The trick was, however, it just kept coming closer. I started to wonder if somebody had been feeding the young gator, which is a very bad thing to do. When people feed gators, they are conditioning these same gators to associate humans with food, which is generally not a good idea. Anyhow, shifting my attention to the small gator, I realized it was not, in fact, a young American alligator at all. It was an adult Spectacled caiman — checking me out. I stepped back from the waterline a few steps and shot some picks. The caiman scoped me out for a few minutes and then silently retreated back into the aquatic tangles of the mangrove habitat.

I’d actually considered heading to Homestead to look for caimans earlier on this trip but punted that side trip for my next sojourn south. Crocodilians may be very cool, but snakes and lizards have always been my main collective focus. Fortunately for me, however, this particular caiman decided to scope me out, saving me the effort.

You never know what you’ll find what will find you in South Florida.

A Backyard Red Rat Snake, 23 September 2016

Pantherophis guttatus, the Red rat (corn) snake;
Volusia county, Florida (23 September 2016).

I do adore finding serpentine visitors slinking about the foliage of our backyard. I came across this smallish Corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) scoping out the shrub line adjacent to the back wall of our home — a fine opportunity to introduce my daughter to yet another non-venomous species commonly encountered throughout peninsular Florida.

 

A rowdy Garter tearing it up at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge; 31 July 2016

Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, the Eastern garter snake;
Brevard county, Florida (31 July 2016).

When it comes to punchiness and unnecessary carnage, some Garter snakes have a bit more kick than others. This individual was indeed one of the slightly-punchy garters I’ve come across in central Florida. Not too big or heavy, but not a kid either, this Garter did not hesitate in striking and chomping the fumbling hands attempting to corral it into a condition of relative calm and sobriety.

For my macro-facial reptile shots, I’m often holding the snake with my left hand and photographing it with my right. I also tend to give each snake plenty of room to be more fluid and flex around when I’m working with them. Well, I do that with the non-venomous snakes, at least… Sometimes, however, this ends up in Snake-meet-Janson-Janson-meet-snake bites. It just goes with the territory, but it’s not something that freaks me out. Every now and then, a snake will deliver a punch of a bite, but usually these “bites” are just quick fire, rapid “taps.” Racers, for example, will often strike and tap repeatedly, but the bites typically aren’t very strong, deep, or serious — even if they may draw a wee bit of blood. I hesitate to even call these kinds of taps “bites.”

As for garters? Oh yeah, wild garters can bite hard and with quite a bit of vigor. They’ll chomp down and sometimes chew, digging deeper into the flesh. Some folks also have an adverse reaction to Garter snake saliva; a deep bite can cause quite a bit of swelling. In other words, when it comes to wild snake bites in Florida, Garter snakes —one of the more popular pet trade species out there— are one of the species you should take a bit more seriously — despite their reputation in the pet trade. The worst biting event I’ve ever had was from a crazed Garter snake back in 2005 or so (more on that later). As for this one, it did bite down a bit, but it wasn’t too heavy. Just enough punch to make it more memorable than most, and certainly a fine reminder that sometimes garter snakes don’t play around at all.

 

The Peninsula Ribbon Snake, 26 April 2012

Thamnophis sauritus sackenii, the Peninsula ribbon snake;
Lowndes county, Georgia (26 April 2012).

This is a Peninsula ribbon snake, Thamnophis sauritus sackenii, photographed in Lowndes county, Georgia. Quite non-novenomous and at times extremely abundant, the Peninsula ribbon snake tends to stick somewhat close to water — bunkering down and slinking through and around the foliage adjacent to or above the shoreline. Though not “watersnakes” properly, they are closely related. Ribbons are also sometimes confused as being Garter snakes — which is a reasonable mistake to make. Garter snakes are classified as Thamnophis sirtalis — a different species to the same genus. They share many similar attributes, but ribbons tend to be a bit shorter, slimmer, and more aquatic. Note also the white “bar” in front of the Ribbon snake’s eye. Though garters sometimes have a whitish patch in the same area, the ribbons typically has a well-defined white bar in front of each eye.

 

Fight! Two Brown Anoles Vie for the Title, 25 May 2012

Anolis sagrei, the Cuban brown anole;
Collier county, Florida (25 May 2012).

This was a fun encounter. Here we have two Cuban brown anoles, both male, tearing each other up for bragging rights, so to speak. Male Cuban brown anoles will battle each other to earn choice perching spots from which to display and attract the ladies. In a sense, this makes Cuban brown anoles sort of like drunken-college-guy stereotypes fighting over each other on Ladies Night in your local college-town bar. Rock on, anole dudes, rock on.

NOTE: I did not see any females anywhere nearby while the males tore into each other, which reminded me of Ladies Night at Bullwinkles in Tallahassee during the early 1990s. File Under: #ParForCourse.

The Mottled Dark Chinned Southern Black Racers of South Georgia

Coluber constrictor priapus, the Southern black racer;
Lowndes county, Georgia (15 March 2012).

For all the color and pattern variations of Florida’s Eastern garter snakes, Banded watersnakes, Eastern rat snakes, and even Florida cottonmouths, one species that simply doesn’t carry too much variation in its adult form is the Southern black racer, Coluber constrictor priapus. As adults, Southern black racers in Florida tend to sport smooth, black dorsal scales with a black face, a slightly lighter (even brownish) nose, and a white “chin” (the scales beneath the lower jaw). I simply don’t see much variation in Florida’s Southern black racers base pattern, but there is one notable exception…

In peninsular Florida, we have a commonly recognized second subspecies of racer: Coluber constrictor paludicola, the Everglades racer, which sports a grayer dorsal pattern. This subspecies ranges throughout stretches of south Florida and —inexplicably— coastal Brevard county in central Florida (the Merritt Island area, home to NASA’s Cape Canaveral). Personally, I’m not sure I buy that the Everglades racer is actually (or, rather, should be) a distinct subspecies. That classification is based on a 1950s publication which based its taxonomical division solely on physical appearance (such as color, luster, and scale counts). I suspect so-called Everglades racers may simply be Southern black racers with a bit more of a grayish dorsal phenotype coupled with other minor variations.

A 2007 study by Burbrink et. al (Phylogeny across a continent: The evolutionary and demographic history of the North American racer) noted that peninsular Florida racers do indeed share a common lineage distinct from those of Georgia, Alabama, and all the rest, and argues no further division of subspecies within the peninsula. Mainstream culture, however, continues to hang on to the Southern/Everglades split in Florida — for the time being. Whatever the case, I’ll have to wait there’s more genetic research and overall consensus negotiating the difference, if any, between the two supposed subspecies.

Now, if we do consider Southern black racers as distinct from Everglades racers, then there truly isn’t much variation in Florida’s Southern black racers. They pretty much always look just like Southern black racers, more or less. The nose is the where most of the variation is, and that’s about it. However, in southern Georgia, the Southern black racers can be quite distinct from their Floridian brethren. From 2011 through 2013, I came across a decent number of Southern black racers that sported a mottled-chin pattern (as seen in this post) — much darker than their Floridian brethren. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this kind of patterning in a south or central Florida racer (though I’m sure they exist here and there).

The Burbrink study referenced and linked earlier also noted that the Georgia racers were of a separate lineage than the Florida racers… If this holds with further testing and verification, the phenotypic variation of the mottled-chin may simply be more common in that lineage of racers — and less so with the Florida lineage (regardless of whether you want to call them separate subspecies or whatever).

Racers can be wickedly common throughout their considerable range. They’re one of the larger serpent species to do really, really well in human-habitated areas. With excellent visual acuity, speed, and dexterity, racers can scratch out a pretty good living in the suburban wilds of our backyards. As common as they may be, however, I’m always thrilled to spot one in Florida — perhaps because I’m hoping to find some kind of variation… maybe something that echoes those gorgeously strange south Georgia racers with the mottled chins.