Final Reflections

March 13th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

With the field portion of the course behind us, students were asked to reflect on portions of the trip that raised questions for them as young biologists or affected their thinking about the natural ecosystems that they experienced during their travels through the sub-tropical regions of southern Florida. Their thoughts and reflections follow, with a few photos that the students took.

Lacie Carter
The habitat that fascinated me the most on this trip was by far the tide pools. The diversity of organisms living in these types of high stress environments mainly include invertebrates and species of algae. I was intrigued by the single-celled alga called Valonia. Several questions arose when I thought about these organisms. 1. Why hasn’t evolution kicked in to make them multicellular? 2. What selection pressures have kept them single-celled? 3. How are they so large but only one cell? 4. Are there other selection pressures acting on this species besides environmental ones? What are they?

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Trevor Floyd
A state of tourism and citrus is truly a state of unique habitats largely unknown to the masses. The impact of human development on ecosystems has been made clear in south Florida. Small refuges deemed reserves or parks are what is left of native, undisturbed flora and fauna. The Key’s coastal waters house the third largest reef in the world. A system of small, calcium carbonate secreting animals creates a habitat for organisms ranging from bacteria to sharks. Snorkeling a very minute area of the reef was still enough to understand the sheer importance of the habitat for millions of species.

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Holly Grand
Florida is home to a wide variety of birds – diving birds, wading birds, and birds of prey for example. Obviously, all of these types of birds have one important characteristic in common: flight. This allows the birds to travel from island to island in the Florida Keys in search of food or a place to nest. Other Florida animals – the Key Deer, for example – cannot do such things and are often restricted to one island (possibly a few more). The flight of birds allows them to utilized every aspect of the Florida Keys.

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Alison Gailey
Throughout this trip, we have had the chance to visit many “protected” areas. Consistently, each place was noticeably impacted by humans. The house and wall at Lignumvitae State Park is a specific example. Also, in general, paths were always constructed for people, through the habitats. So even the most natural, preserved ares have obvious human influence.

Cynthia Hanson
I think the biggest theme that has really hit me this trip is how much impact a small characteristic of an area can have on the sort of organisms that live there. The most evident example in Florida (is) the presence and nature of water in any given area. The sandy soils of the Florida scrub that have a hard time holding water look completely different form the flooded swamps in the lower lands of the Everglades. Each has plants and animals specifically adapted to the environment present. Florida is especially fascinating in that it has so many different habitats so close together, but because of some small feature (such as elevation of amount of water), each habitat is unique. This point was definitely emphasized during our visit to Corkscrew Wildlife Sanctuary when the boardwalk took us across a field from a pine flatwood to a cypress forest. The change in elevation was only a couple of feet, but the boundary of each habitat was very distinct, each with its different collections of flora and fauna, each creating a unique and magical atmosphere.

Dan Klarr
What amazed me was the ferns in the cypress swamp. These plants have been around for millions of years, all over the globe, and yet in this one instance they have adapted to growing in standing water.

Jordan Kus
The thing that most inspired me on this trip was our viewing at Clyde Butcher’s gallery. The pictures he takes are beyond anything I could describe. These pictures have a great potential to help save and preserve many natural and endangered habitats. If people could only appreciate the beauty of these areas, maybe they will be more apt to help preserve them. I think Clyde Butcher’s work can really help bridge the gap between the naive tourists of the land and the people that know exactly what they have on hand. This land is worth saving.

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Rachel Leads
I found the adaptations of the plants in the Florida Scrub to be one of the most interesting things we learned. Most notably, the difference between Florida Slash Pine and Sand Pine adaptations. Slash Pines’ branches start farther up the tree so they are not damaged by fire. Sand Pines’ branches are close to the ground which is necessary so the comes are exposed to fire because Sand Pines’ reproduction is dependent on fire. While these two species of pine occupy the same habitat, they have adapted differently.

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Heather Nobert
Mangroves have many interesting adaptations to survive in brackish to saline waters. Perhaps the most interesting synapomorphy is that the propagules germinate on the tree and then float for a significant amount of time before taking root. Their ability to remain in the water, as well as the immediacy with which they can establish themselves, leads to their abundance in southern Florida, as well as their habitat diversity.

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Lannis Smith
I was most interested in how the water level affected the amount of wildlife, specifically in Corkscrew. The amount of fauna was indeed low, seeing only one or two herons and only one alligator. However, the increased water level in the Everglades didn’t seem to bother any of the fauna. I’m curious as to why in some areas animals are more sensitive to water levels than in other habitats.

Ashley Terwilliger
I found the the Scrub Jay very interesting. It is adapted to live only in the scrub and now the scrub habitat is endangered. This adaptation is now dangerous to the species and the Scrub Jay is now endemic to the decreasing Scrub habitat which is being destroyed by human growth and development in Florida.

Chris Wardlaw
Probably the thing which had the most profound impact on me during this trip was the fragility of some of these ecosystems. Whether due to lack/excess of water or extremes of temperature, the flora and fauna (specifically insects on this trip) can be nearly non-existent. This makes one think strongly on the effects of the human on the habitats around us.

Ashli B. Wilson
There are a variation of habitats and animals in Florida. Humans have destroyed acres upon acres of habitat for these animals. However, some animals have found a way to stay alive through all our destruction. This fact gives me hope that with our help, the animals and their habitats can be saved. We can elevate the highways to let the water flow naturally as it once did before we subdued Mother Nature.

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Samantha Yackel
I found it interesting that the Anhinga resembles a wading bird or a predator bird more than a typical water bird, such as a duck. The feathers do not have oils to dry, so they have adapted by drying in the sun, but their feet are webbed. It seems slightly contradictory. The abundance of fish in the water must have influenced their adaptive features. Stabbing their fish with a sharp beak must have made it easier to catch the fish or influence the survival rates of those birds who used this method.

David Zailo
To me, the most interesting part of the trip was seeing cryptic coloration first-hand with the Brown Anole in Corkscrew. On multiple occasions, I would be looking carefully at a tree or shrub from less than a foot away attempting to identify it, only to be startled by an anole peering right back at me! Amazing!

SeaWorld

March 13th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

Friday, we had a change of pace. Instead of driving through and visiting different parks and sanctuaries, we visited SeaWorld in Orlando to see animal rescue operations and talk to some of the senior staff about the conservation efforts of one of the largest animal businesses in the world. Several of the Albion family who were in Florida for the break met us at SeaWorld, including Jackie Masternak and family, and Freyja Davis and family.

We started out with Julie, head of the aviary.

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Jordan Kus and Davide Zailo stand next to the Macaw cages as she talks about the birds and their role at SeaWorld. We were also informed of the role SeaWorld staff play in rescue efforts for injured birds.

Our next stop was in the on-site microbiology and chemistry labs at SeaWorld where water quality and clinical procedures are continuously underway to maintain the holding facilities and diverse populations of aquatic organisms throughout the park.

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The class looks on as Jacob talks to us about his role in animal health and rehabilitation at SeaWorld. This lab processes water samples from more than 40 separate holding systems every day, and countless amounts of blood work from their display and rehab animals. The on-site lab has turn around times of hours, allowing the veterinarians and other staff to better care for their animals.

Dan, the reptile lab manager, gave us a short presentation about sea turtle rescue at SeaWorld.

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The cold winter that Florida experienced this year impacted sea turtles from Florida’s shallow, inshore waters especially hard. During January and February of 2010, the State of Florida collected almost 4500 turtles from the beaches that had been affected by the cold. Most of the turtles were “cold stunned,” meaning that the cold weather had almost shut down their biological processes. The heroic staff at SeaWorld worked around the clock to revive these turtles so they could be released back to the wild. New and novel ways of warming animals and holding such a huge population challenged the staff and the facilities, but resulted in very successful efforts and return of large numbers of animals back to the wild following their successful rehabilitation. Of particular surprise to the students was to learn that SeaWorld neither receives nor applies for outside funding for their rescue and rehabilitations efforts. These animals are not used for display purposes, but are rehabilitated for eventual release back into natural areas. “This is part of our DNA, our reason for existence” explained Gary Violetta, one of SeaWorld’s Zoology Department Directors and the organizer of Albion’s visit.

An important part of the rehab facilities at SeaWorld is the manatee rescue and rehab.

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The class stands at the edge of the manatee pool while Steve tells us about some of the cases that they have seen. He told us about some of the “cold sunned” animals that they had taken in this winter in addition to the animals that are victims of encounters with boat propellers. Thankfully all of the animals were saved and all but one had been released back into the wild.

This was our first day in Florida that the weather didn’t agree with us. As we moved between the different exhibits and areas, we were continually drenched with rain and cold breezes.

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The class at the edge of the manatee pool. We were waiting for a manatee to swim up to the edge so he could be in the picture, but the rain and cold weather made me take pity on the students and snap the photo without the star attraction.

Attached to the main pool is a smaller “hospital” pool, where manatees with more severe injuries can be isolated for easier treatment.

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Holly Grand – a long-time member of “Save the Manatees” – and Ashley Tewiliger stand at the edge of the pool while the patient sticks his nose above the level of the water.

We didn’t talk to the dolphin rescue people, but we couldn’t resist going to the edge of the pool and taking some photos. These charismatic marine mammals seem to thrive on the attention they receive from guests!

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Chris Wardlaw, Rachel Leads, Ashley Tewiliger, Jessie Masternak, John Davis and Lannis Smith take some photos of the smiling dolphin.

The day wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the large shark tank at SeaWorld.

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Ashli Wilson, Lannis Smith and Rachel Leads stand at the edge of the shark tank while Dan explains about tank maintenance. Visitors to SeaWorld can walk through the tank in a large tunnel and see the sharks and rays swimming above them.

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We then moved to the interactive shark learning area where there was a large pool with several bamboo sharks for people to touch. Dan Klarr and Cynthia Hanson tentatively stick their hand into the pool and feel the side of this shark.

The purpose of these exhibits is to educate people about sharks through hands-on interactive exhibits. For example, did you know that only ten people a year – worldwide – are killed by sharks? Compare that to over 100 who are killed by deer and you can start to realize that the threat to humans is very low.

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Alison Gailey, with David Zailo and Jon Davis in the background, look at an aquarium with a shark egg case hanging on the side. You could see the small baby shark moving around inside the egg case, waiting to break free.

After this informative tour, we then were allowed in the park to wander around and look at the exhibits. Even with the rain, we still enjoyed our time in the park. One of the star attractions was the ray petting pool where you could buy some small fish and feed the rays by hand.

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Ashli Wilson reaches in and feels the wings of a small cownose ray.

The rainy day did not seem to dampen the spirits of the students who braved the downpours for the final activity of the trip.

Archbold Biological Station

March 11th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

Today, we continued our exploration of Florida’s scrub lands with a visit to the Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid. Archbold manages about 5000 acres of sand pine scrub in the Lake Wales Ridge area. The Ridge is the highest point in the peninsula, rising about 200 feet above sea level. It is basically a large sand dune that is home to many rare organisms, including the Scrub Jay and many species of animals and plants, including the rare mint, Dicerandra frutescens, which we tracked down today. The well-drained sand not only makes it a natural habitat for these animals, but also very important to the agricultural community of Florida.

The weather was a little bit grey with rainshowers threatening, so we started our time at the park with a guided tour of some of the scrub lands that they manage. Our tour guide was the extremely knowledgeable Rick LaVoy, Education Coordinator for the station.

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Heather Nobert and Rachel Leads listen to Rick as he talks about the different types of oak that are found in the Florida Scrub.

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Jordan Kus and Ashli Wilson lead the class on the narrow pathway past some of the oak trees which often reach only two meters in height.

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Lacie Carter and Sam Yackel, with Chris Wardlaw in the background, admire the dry, subtle beauty of the Scrub.

One of the most entertaining inhabitants of the scrub is the Florida Scrub Jay. This bird is listed on the Federal Endangered List due mostly to shrinking habitat. It was a definite treat to see this guy in his natural habitat today!

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When one of these guys show up, you can be sure that the cameras come out!

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We continued our walk and learned more about the different plants and animals that are found in the area. The area is heavily managed and Archbold does frequent burns to simulate the conditions that were found in Florida before it was heavily settled.

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Rachel Leads and Heather Nobert walk through an area that was burned only four years earlier. You can see how the pines in the background don’t have many green needles close to the ground.

There are also two different species of bay that are native to the area.

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Although you can cook with them, Lannis Smith and Heather Nobert can attest to their typical bay scent.

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Cynthia Hanson smells another species of bay while Ashli Wilson and Jordan Kus look on.

We jumped in the vans and headed up to the top of the ridge to view another microclimate. Unfortunately, while we were there, the skies opened up just a little.

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Alison Gailey doesn’t let a little rain get in the way of taking photos!

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Trevor Floyd and Heather Nobert find a small specimen of Dicerandra frutescens, the rare Scrub mint.

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Cynthia Hanson, Lacie Carter and Heather Nobert gather around a small, fuzzy plant. Thankfully, Professor Skean came over and identified it as a member of the carnation family.

We then got back in the vans and headed to a place where there is a high concentration of gopher tortoises, another Federally Listed Endangered Species. When Rick jumped out of the van, he saw the head of one in a burrow. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the tortoise had disappeared from view.

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We waited patiently outside the burrow and looked into a few others, but didn’t see another one today. The class came back to the station and went down to the classroom to talk to Rick LaVoy a little bit more. He brought out a couple of indigenous snakes that he had for display.

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Rick shows off a Pine Snake as Holly Grand, Alison Gailey, Jordan Kus, Rachel Leads and Sam Yackel hopes that the two foot reptile doesn’t get away.

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He also brought out a juvenile Scarlet King Snake that is only about two years old. Professor McCaffrey was lucky enough to be able to hold this beautiful animal for about fifteen minutes.

We left the Station at about 11:30AM and headed north to Orlando. We stopped at the Florida’s Natural visitors center to learn more about the role that agriculture plays in conservation and land use in the Florida peninsula.

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The class sits in the auditorium waiting for the informational movie to start.

We got to the hotel in the middle of a rainstorm, which we hope doesn’t last until tomorrow. We head over to SeaWorld for a behind the scenes tour of the animal rescue and research labs.

Corkscrew and Albion Alums

March 10th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

Today we started out at an almost leisurely 8AM. It felt so decadent to be able to sleep until until 7AM or later for some of us. But the later start didn’t mean that we saw anything less. Today, we toured the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Blair Audubon Center. This amazing park was established to save the largest remaining stand of bald cypress in North American in 1954. Consisting of almost 6000 acres of wildlands, the main attraction is a 2.25 mile walk on a raised boardwalk through several different habitats; each one is important to wildlife and plants.

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Professor Skean and Heather Nobert at the beginning of the trail in the Pine Flatwoods.

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Davide Zailo looks through his binoculars, trying to spot the elusive snail kite with pond cypress in the background. Several swallowtail kites were seen in formation over the swamp.

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Lannis Smith and Chris Wardlaw stop in the wet prairie to try to photograph a spider on its web.

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Davide Zaile, Lacie Carter and Jordan Kus smile for the camera with the sawgrass in the background.

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Trevor Floyd idles on the boardwalk past a stand of pond cypress. Even though the trees look dead, if you inspected the branches closely, you could see the needles starting to bud. With the cold that Florida experienced this winter, it seems like everything is taking a little longer than usual to green up.

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The landscape slowly transitions from pond cypress to the larger bald cypress. The contrast of the landscape with what we saw on the Keys was quite striking. In the Keys, there were typically only a few species of plants that were highly specialized for their environment. In these swamp lands, it seems like you could count 50 different species of plant, just on one tree!

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The standing water was deep and clear and, if you were still, you could watch the fish swim past.

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Alison Gailey and Sam Yackel scan the undergrowth of the bald cypress swamp for birds and other critters.

As we were walking off the boardwalk, we passed through an area where a prescribed burn was taking place. The role of fire in maintaining certain habitats, especially pinelands, was discussed in class prior to the field trip. Corkscrew, a National Audubon Society sanctuary, has managed its wilderness areas through prescribed burns for decades. Witnessing a managed burn was demonstrable evidence for the students of the importance of this practice.

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Even though we could have stayed in the sanctuary for a few more hours, all good things must come to an end. We left Corkscrew and made our way north to to Alva, one of the small farming communities just outside of LaBelle, where we had lunch with Lois and Leon White; Lois is a former mayor of Albion. Also at lunch was Elkin Isaac for whom the Elkin Isaac Research Symposium was named, and Albion College Trustee, Carolyn Aishton. We ate lunch in Leon and Lois’s wonderful backyard where we were invited to eat several types of citrus right off the trees. We were accompanied by an owl and numerous indigo and painted buntings, truly dressing up the afternoon!

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Lacie Carter and Heather Nobert relax in the lounge chairs while digging into the juiciest grapefruit they have ever tasted.

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Ashley Tewiliger, Alison Gailey and Sam Yackel sit in the front yard watching Lois’s bird feeders to see the cool birds including painted buntings, indigo buntings, and many types of warblers on their way north to Albion to herald the arrival of spring.

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Trevor Fisher and Davide Zailo hunt among the leaves of an agave plant for a small green anole.

After a wonderfully relaxing lunch, we had to say good-bye to our newly-met Albion friends.

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We continued our journey north to Lake Placid through the citrus groves and cattle pastures. It is amazing to think that only 150 years ago, this entire area once looked like Corkscrew does now. We arrived at the conference center at about 4:30PM, just in time for a friendly (and slightly competitive!) volleyball game on the shores of Lake Placid.

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Trevor Floyd and Rachel Leads look on as Ashli Wilson puts up the ball.

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Cynthia Hanson gets under the ball as Chris Wardlaw looks on.

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Davide Zailo and Dan Klarr end up in the sand as Jordan Kus saves the point.

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Holly Grand laughs as Rachel Leads and Ashli Wilson go for the save.

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Cynthia Hanson at the net.

For some people, the volleyball game held little appeal.

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After dinner, Professor Skean set up a tropical fruit tasting for us! We tried black sapote, eggfruit, granadilla, mango, sapodilla, tamarind, dessert bananas, several kinds of citrus and three different kinds of avocado. Most agreed that the ugli fruit was pretty good and we’d eat it again, but the black sapote was a definite bust.

Tomorrow, we are heading to Archbold Natural Station on the Lake Wales Ridge to see some of the last remaining plants of the disappearing Florida scrub. If we are lucky, we might see a Florida Scrub Jay while we are there!

Everglades National Park

March 9th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

Today, we had a full day of the Everglades National Park. Of course, to make it up to the mainland in time to accomplish all that we had in mind, we had to leave Mote at o-dark thirty this morning. I’m sure most of the students didn’t realize until this morning that 5:00 comes twice a day!

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The River of Grass

We made it to the Everglades by 7:30AM, in time for a quick breakfast and an even faster morning briefing before we headed out to the Anhinga Trail. This walk through the swampy land of the Everglades is a treasure trove of biological diversity. The trail is usually packed before sunrise with birders and photographers hoping to catch sight of that special species to round out a list. As we headed into the park, several alums of the class that were in Florida over Spring Break joined us.

The first sight of an alligator in the water sent the students to the rail, cameras snapping away.

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You can just barely see the small alligator on the right, in the shadow of the trees.

As we moved further down the trail, we moved into the high grass area.

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Lannis Smith and Chris Wardlaw walk down the wooden boardwalk above the Everglades.

At one point, we saw an anhinga eat a bowfin, a fish native to the Everglades. (Video by Professor Skean.)

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Heather Nobert and Rachel Leads consult their field guide for help in identifying a small plant in the water.

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Professor Skean uses the moment to lecture on some aspect of plant life in the Everglades to Heather Nobert, Ashley Tewiliger (in the purple), Sam Yackel, Brandon Walters and Dan Klarr.

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Davide Zailo and Lacie Carter pose with an alligator in the background. By this point, the alligator count was in the teens and the novelty was starting to wear off.

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Holly Grand and Ashli Wilson relax as the birds in the grass sing.

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Chris Wardlaw, Dan Klarr, Sam Yackel and Ashley Tewiliger pose for a photo on an outcrop of the boardwalk.

At one point, as we were watching the alligators in the water below, hoping to see one eat a fish, we were interrupted by a strange noise. We quickly moved over to the wallow where there was a large concentration of alligators. (Make sure to turn up your volume to hear the alligators. If you have headphones, you might want to put them on so you can hear the students’ reactions a little better.)

Dr. Carrier loves the trail for the wildlife and photographic opportunities. A few of his favorite photos of the day follow.  In the dry season (November to June), wildlife congregates around areas where water is relatively deep compared to the shallow sawgrass areas of the true Everglades.  Many of these areas are established and maintained by alligators, hence the name “gator homes.”  The Anhinga Trail is such as example, and huge numbers of gators were encountered all around the trails.

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The animals are accustomed to human visitors and they tolerate cameras well.
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North America’s only stork, the wood stork, also ranges to south Florida, and several of these endangered birds were sighted along the trails.
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Many wading birds are drawn to gator holes, and several species use these deeper ares to nest or to hunt for food for their young.  Herons and egrets are common and are also seemingly oblivious to their human voyeurs.
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A rare encounter with a feeding gator.  An unsuspecting Florida gar serves as food for one of the resident gators.
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After the show was over, we moved on to the next trail, the Gumbo Limbo Trail. This trail is a walk through one of hammocks on site.

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Professor Skean points out a magnificent specimen of poison ivy to Heather Nobert, Cynthia Hanson and Ashley Tewiliger. (Don’t worry, none of us touched!)

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Lacie Carter touches the bark of the Gumbo Limbo tree. This tree is also known as the “tourist tree,” for it’s peeling bark – like several of us – and its red color.

After we finished at Everglades National Park, we loaded up in the vans and drove west through the park on the Tamiami Trail. We stopped at the levies to talk about water management in Southern Florida.

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The large water locks are shown in the background as Ashley Tewiliger, Lacie Carter, Jordan Kus, Rachel Leads, Sam Yackel and Davide Zailo look over the canal.

We made it to Naples at about 5:30PM.  When we pulled in with the vans a small white car stopped and the door opened.  Out stepped Albion President Donna Randall!  She said “Hi” to us and explained that she was down for meetings with alumni in S Florida.  Neither of us had any idea she and the class would be staying in the same hotel.  Today would have been an excellent day to purchase a lottery ticket for those so inclined.  We had a leisurely evening, reviewing photos and getting caught up on sleep. Tomorrow we head to Corkscrew Wildlife Sanctuary in Immokalee.

Dry Tortugas

March 8th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

It seems like everyday we are getting up just a little bit earlier. This morning we were on the road by 6AM, heading to Key West to catch the ferry out to the Dry Tortugas. The Dry Tortugas are a cluster of seven islands about 78 miles west of Key West. They were first described by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and named for the large sea turtle population. Originally described as eleven islands, some have been reclaimed by the sea through hurricanes and the changing currents.

The islands have a long history as a stopover for ships and during the Civil War, the Union forces started work on a grand fort that would protect the southern coastline of the United States. The Civil War tie extends to the assassination of President Lincoln. John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg was set by Dr. Samuel Mudd who was later convicted of conspiracy for providing medical attention, and was confined to the prison at Fort Jefferson. He later replaced the Fort’s physician, who died during a yellow fever epidemic, and was eventually pardoned for his actions in providing care to the stricken. The islands were also an important stopover for commerce that eventually made its way up the Mississippi River.

The boat ride out to the islands is a long two and half hours and some of the students used this time as a chance to catch up on those precious minutes of sleep lost in the morning:

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Trevor Floyd, Dan Klarr and Davide Zailo are all finding the most comfortable napping positions they can.

The rest of the students took advantage of the bracing morning air and rode in the bow for as long as they could stand the cold. The weather did cooperate and the strong north winds subsided for the day, making our voyage free of seasickness!

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Lacie Carter, Jordan Kus, Rachel Leads, Ashley Tewiliger, Sam Yackel and Ashli Wilson in the front of the boat, the Yankee Freedom II.

Once we arrived at the Dry Tortugas, it was time for the obligatory group photo.

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The first thing that we did was take the short historical tour of the grounds. The island is 17 acres with the fort taking up a whopping 12 of those acres.

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Jordan Kus, Cynthia Hanson, Ashli Wilson, Dan Klarr, Lannis Smith and Chris Wardlaw stand in the masonry fort, paying attention to the tour guide.

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The interior parade grounds of the fort are planted with many native trees. In this photo, Dan Klarr and Lacie Carter identify a buttonwood tree as Lannis Smith looks on.

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Davide Zailo and Trevor Floyd pose on the walls with the interior of the fort in the background.

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The fort was built to be part of the southern defenses in the Civil War and was equipped with many cannon. As Dan Klarr shows, they have all been decommissioned.

After the tour of the grounds and a quick lunch, it was time to get in the water for some snorkeling. Even though the water temperature was only 66 F, these students didn’t let that get in their way!

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All geared up and ready to hit the reef!

In 2007, the waters around the Dry Tortugas were designated as a Research Natural Area. This designation prohibits fishing or anchoring in the waters. Dr. Carrier’s research is based in the Tortugas and worked to establish a preserve for the mating sharks he studies, a protection that was granted in 1998. This protected area, along with the adjacent Tortugas Ecological Reserve, creates the largest marine reserve in the US. The area is known to be a hatchery area for several species of marine animals, including fish, sharks and birds. It is hoped that this protected area will build up and protect spawning areas for a wide variety of fish.

On this trip, we had a special guest with us, Wes Pratt. Pratt and Carrier have been collaborating on studies of shark behavior and reproduction for almost 20 years. In the time that it took us to get ready to get in the water, Wes had already found a nurse shark for us to tag.

(Don’t do this at home folks. Carrier and Pratt are a trained scientists who have worked with nurse sharks for 40 years and know how to capture these little beauties without hurting them. If you see a shark while snorkeling, do the right thing and admire from afar. Don’t try to touch!!)

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Dr. Carrier, Pratt, and Trevor Floyd with the newly netted female nurse shark.

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Before too long, Dr. Carrier starts explaining to the group what type of information is usually gathered and calling for volunteers to help him and Pratt with the measurements and the tagging.

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One piece of information that needs to be recorded for each shark is the weight. Here, Jordan Kus helps Dr. Carrier and Pratt to get a mass on this shark.

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The length of these animals is also important for later estimates of growth rates. Rachel Leads and Heather Nobert measure the length from tip of snout to tip of tail while Dr. Carrier steadies “Britony” (as the newly found shark was christened). Pratt, Trevor Floyd and Alison Gailey look on.

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In this photo, Cynthia Hanson takes a small skin sample from the dorsal fin of the shark under Pratt’s expert direction.

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After all of the necessary measurements and samples are taken, the shark is tagged with a permanent tag that will later aid in identifying the animals when it is next encountered. Tagged animals allow investigators to examine growth and migration, and sharks in the Tortugas are often caught many times, many years apart, in very nearly the same area!

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The class with the newest Briton.

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Britony (the nurse shark) was a trooper throughout the entire process but it was time to let her go. Pratt, Dr. Carrier and Trevor Floyd untangle her from the net before releasing her back to the wild. The information gathered here today will add to our growing understanding of these apex predators.

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Even with the excitement with the shark, we still found time to study the botanical beauty of the island. Ashli Wilson, Lacie Carter and Jordan Kus admire the sea grapes.

Tomorrow we are leaving the Keys for the Everglades. It’s another early morning, with lots of driving. We’ll be stopping by the Anhinga Trail and Gumbo Limbo Trail at the edge of the Everglades to observe the differences in the natural habitats and hopefully see some alligators! We also plan to visit the studio of a well-known Everglades photographer, Clyde Butcher, as we continue our study of south Florida, its biology, its natural and cultural history, and its incomparable artistry; truly liberal arts at its best!

Lignumvitae Botanical Park

March 7th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

Today, we got to see a real treat – Lignumvitae Key State Botanical Park. The park is located on the Key of the same name and is accessible only by boat. The island has been spared the development of the rest of the area and includes the best example of rockland hardwood hammock (subtropical broadleaf forest) in the Keys. Lignumvitae is a tropical tree of the Caribbean that is found natively in a few hammocks in the Florida Keys. The dense, dark-grained, oily heartwood of this species was traditionally used in making boat propeller shafts and is so heavy that it sinks in water. Before we headed out, Professors Carrier and Skean reminded us about the history and the flora and fauna we were about to see.

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Professor Carrier gives us all a short lesson on the history of Lignumvitae Botanical Park while Davide Zailo, Sam Yackel and Dan Klarr look on.

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Professor Skean takes over and reminds us of the botanical uniqueness of the area we are heading out to see.

We had to take a short ferry ride leaving from Robbie’s, a local fishing tour company. While we were waiting, the tour guides gave us fish to feed the pelicans.

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One of the pelicans puts on a display for the fish in Holly Grand’s hand while (from left), Alison Gailey, Cynthia Hanson and Ashli Wilson look on.

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Even though the sun was shining, there was still a chill in the air. From left, Chris Wardlaw, Lannis Smith, Holly Grand, Sam Yackel, Ashli Wilson, Heather Nobert, Rachel Leads and Ashley Tewilliager are bundled up against the wind, waiting to leave the dock.

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Once we got to the island, Ranger Jerry took good care of us. He led us on an hour and half walk around the island, pointing out the different trees and bushes that are unique to the area.

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Also on the island is a nesting pair of ospreys. Ranger Jerry told us that the same pair had been returning to the site for the past six years, raising over 12 chicks there during their years in residence. Chris Wardlaw has his binoculars trained on the nesting site, to the right of the house. Even from this distance you can get a feel for the size of the nest!

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The park is named for the Lignumvitae tree (Guiacum sanctum). Alison Gailey, Trevor Floyd and Cynthia Hanson stand beneath the twisting and gnarled branches of an old tree.

In addition to the trees and other plants, we saw several arachnids. Lannis Smith stopped to get some close-up photographs of the next to invisible webs and their tenants.

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The favorite subject was a small, red spider with an unusual body. Below you can see the front and the back of the creature.

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On the island were the ruins of an old wall that runs east-west, built from the coral of the island.

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Dan Klarr walks past a blolly tree covered in spanish moss.

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After our tour of the hardwood hammock was over, we posed for picture in front of the National Champion (largest in the U.S.) shortleaf fig tree.

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After we finished with our tour, we got a short lecture from Bill Schwicker, a friend of Professor Carrier, who builds wooden boats by hand.

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Here you can see Bill in his boat, VIVA. Viva is a shoal draft (shallow water) boat that was originally designed for use on the northern waters around New Haven in the early 1800′s. The “Sharpies,” as they are known, made their way into south Florida around the early 1900′s, and Capt. Billy’s restorations have been featured in Wooden Boat magazine. Even though they were invited aboard, none of the students took him up on his offer, probably afraid they might mar the boat!

After a late lunch, we headed back to Mote for a little free time. Some students went out for another spin in the kayaks, some braved the cold water for some snorkeling, but most of them took the time to write in their journals and upload photos from the day.

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Lacie Carter, Trevor Floyd, Davide Zailo and Holly Grand work on their journals, while Professors Carrier and Skean gather around the latest photos of the day.

Next up? Tomorrow is a really early day because we are heading out to the Dry Tortugas, about 70 nautical miles west of Key West. But before we all turn in, we are going to make S’Mores around the Keys bonfire!

Tide pools, sandy beaches and a little fun

March 6th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

Today was our first day of exploring the flora and fauna in the Florida Keys. The first stop after breakfast was the tidal pools around Big Pine Key. Exceptionally low tides and a north wind combined to expose a vast area of the intertidal zone.

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Even though it might not look like much, the detritus around the high tide line is an important part of the ecosystem. It is full of beneficial bacteria and organic matter which will eventually break down and become part of the soil. Much of the nutrients wash into the shallow near-shore waters making it an incredibly rich nursery grounds for shrimp, crabs, and many of the ornamental reef fishes and commercially valuable fish species of the nearshore reef systems.

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Rachel Leads smells a handful of the stuff while Jordan Kus and Trevor Floyd look on. The smells are very much like the rich soils often seen in the dense forests of Michigan.

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Professor Skean delivers a lecture on the differences between the various species of mangroves to the class. We moved out to the tidal flats and spent a great deal of time looking in all of the tide pools for stranded fish, crabs and algae.

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Cynthia Hanson and Dan Klarr look on as Davide Zailo picks up a small crab out of the tide pool.

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Ashli Wilson is skeptical of the Valonia that Heather Nobert is holding. Valonia is a singled celled alga that can grow to be the size of a golf ball!

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Jordan Kus looks on Professor Carrier shows off something.

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Lacie Carter and Cynthia Hanson are engrossed in the small crabs and shells that they find in one of the tide pools.

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One of the true finds of the day was a small sea urchin in one of the small pools.  Watch as Professor Carrier lets Sam Yackel, Cynthia Hanson and Ashley Tewilliger hold the echinoderm.

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Lannis Smith has some fun with a basket sponge that she found on the rocks.

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Heather Nobert was in charge of the species report on mangroves. Here, there is a black mangrove on her right and a red mangrove on her left. The different types of mangroves are usually found in very different habitats. Finding these two together on the rocky substrate was a surprise!

After the fun at the tide pools, we took a trip to learn more about the mangroves and see them on the Gulf side of the island. The area is extremely diverse and is a great habitat for horseshoe crabs, which are more closely related to spiders than crabs!

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Sam Yackel shows off a complete molt that she found among the roots of the mangroves.

After lunch, we headed to Bahia Honda State Park. This park is well known for its beautiful beaches, and has been named “America’s Best Beach” twice in the past twenty years. Little do people realize, but the white sands were actually brought in to create these beautiful expanses.

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In addition to the beach, the park hosts a nature walk that exhibits the diversity of plant life and the adaptations they have made in order to thrive in this environment.

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Professor Skean points out one of the many types of small trees called “stoppers” to the class.

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Two students sneak away through the mangroves to see what lives among their roots.

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Even though the skies were blue, the weather is a little chilly. As you can see, most of us are in long pants and long sleeves. This winter has seen record low temperatures, and both underwater and terrestrial habitats have been strongly affected by the temperature stress. Fish kills were reported to be widespread, and many of the plant communities also seemed to be adversely affected. Very few invertebrates (spiders, butterflies, etc.) have been seen so far. SeaWorld, on our itinerary for later next week, reported hundreds of stranded sea turtles and manatees that have been taken to SeaWorld for rehabilitation.

A short drive brought us to No Name Key, where Trevor Floyd delivers his species report on the Australian Pine, an invasive species brought to Florida in the late 1800′s to help control beach erosion and as an ornamental. Now considered a pest, eradication programs have been undertaken to control its spread.

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We drove around the island (“No Name Key”) which has no water or utilities from the mainland. Dr McCaffrey explained the use of solar arrays used to capture and store solar energy and to heat water as we observed how they have integrated solar and other alternative energies into their homes. In addition, we saw several of the critically endangered Key Deer.

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It’s hard to believe that these guys only stand 3 ft tall!

Then it was back to Mote for a couple of hours of relaxation before we start again tomorrow.

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Ashli Wilson and Alison Gailey take a spin in a tandem kayak under the watchful eye of Professor Carrier. His Coast Guard training was on display as he counseled them on “safe kayaking” and shallow water navigation.

Some of the students took the time to report in their journals about things they had seen and their impressions of the area.

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Lacie Carter uses her computer, while Cynthia Hanson writes the “old-fashioned” way.

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Professor Skean, Heather Nobert and Davide Zailo are surrounded by camera gear while they look at the photos shot earlier in the day.

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The fact that most of the Keys are considered endangered means that very little wood is available for a bonfire… So we capped off our cookout with a bonfire, Florida Keys style, to take the 60 degree chill out of the evening!!!

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Safe and sound in the Keys

March 5th, 2010 by vmccaffrey

The morning started for us today before 3:30AM. We had to catch an early morning flight out of Detroit in order to make it down to the Keys before it got dark. Everybody was on time and we made it to the airport and through security in plenty of time.

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Some of the students decided to grab a short catnap, and some decided to break open the books for a quick study session before we boarded the plan. The flight was supposed to leave at 7:15AM, but was about 45 minutes late leaving. But thanks to the magic of air travel, we only arrived about 10 minutes late into Fort Lauderdale.

We picked up the vans and got the luggage stowed and hit the road, only stopping once for some food. We drove past the Everglades and got our first glimpse of the River of Grass. We then headed into the Keys and drove to Summerland Key, where we’ll be for the next four days.

We arrived at Mote Marine Labs, where we’ll be staying for the next couple of days in time to take in the sights.

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Wonder what they are all looking at?

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The gorgeous view from the rooms, of course!

Dr. Carrier spent some time laying the ground rules for the time here.

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It’s been a long day of travel and we are all pretty tired. Tomorrow we head out to examine some of the local habitats including coastal mangroves and pine/thatch palm rocklands on Big Pine Key, and we plan to end the day by taking a close look at some of the tide pools in the area. Most of the day will focus on areas with highly endangered species, of course including Key deer and many rich and lush botanical sites.

Species Reports

March 3rd, 2010 by vmccaffrey

Only two days until we head out!

Besides the readings for the class, students have been hard at work on species reports and presentations. We’ve been hearing about all sorts of things including:

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The gopher tortoise (by Ashli Wilson), and the:

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Scrub Jay (by Lacie Carter).

The students become our resident experts on these species and might be called on in the middle of our travels in the Keys and Everglades to remind us about the fact of these creatures.

Other species have included cypress trees, manatees, Key deers, zebra longwings, horseshoe crabs, word stork and corals.