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.
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.
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.
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.
Cynthia Hanson and Dan Klarr look on as Davide Zailo picks up a small crab out of the tide pool.
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!
Jordan Kus looks on Professor Carrier shows off something.
Lacie Carter and Cynthia Hanson are engrossed in the small crabs and shells that they find in one of the tide pools.
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.
Lannis Smith has some fun with a basket sponge that she found on the rocks.
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!
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.
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.
Professor Skean points out one of the many types of small trees called “stoppers” to the class.
Two students sneak away through the mangroves to see what lives among their roots.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lacie Carter uses her computer, while Cynthia Hanson writes the “old-fashioned” way.
Professor Skean, Heather Nobert and Davide Zailo are surrounded by camera gear while they look at the photos shot earlier in the day.
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!!!