We share the land around us with innumerable species. In addition to the obvious fish, seagulls, and squirrels that you’ll notice moving about, there are plenty of creatures that you may have never seen before in the wild, but can find here on the Florida Suncoast.
This bird with gorgeous, rose-colored plumes and an odd-shaped, spoon-like beak is a close cousin to the ibis, though many people often mistake it for a flamingo. They can be found on the gulf coasts of Texas and south Florida, but the majority typically live in South and Central America and the Caribbean. Once hunted to the brink of extinction for their beautiful feathers (which were used to make ladies’ fans at the turn of the last century), the roseate spoonbill has seen a resurgence in numbers. They still tend to steer clear of humans, but they are very sociable birds and often flock together.
Stingrays glide through the water with a beautiful grace that instills a sense of peace. This prehistoric creature is generally very docile and will evade humans, but if you accidentally step on one, the pain is immense. Between April and September, savvy beachgoers perform the Sarasota shuffle, also known as the stingray shuffle. In an attempt to frighten stingrays away from their resting spots where they hide from sharks under the sand, it’s advised that anyone entering the water should shuffle their feet to avoid being stung. The stingray has razor-sharp toxic barbs on the base of its body where the tail begins. If the barbs are stuck in your skin, seek medical treatment to avoid the release of additional toxins into your body. Use very hot, soapy water to soak the injury and relieve the pain. Stingrays can grow to about six feet in length and can weigh up to 800 pounds.
West Indian Manatee
These gentle creatures are herbivores and are commonly called sea cows because they often graze on sea grasses in shallow, inland waterways such as rivers and bays. The West Indian Manatee prefers the warm waters around Florida and the Caribbean, but a few have ventured up the American coast as far north as New England and south to Brazil. However, they need to reside in water temperatures 68 degrees or higher, otherwise they can freeze. Human populations have been harming their habitats by invading the warm springs they use in the winter, polluting waterways and destroying sea grasses. As a result, this unique creature is currently an endangered species. Manatees can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and average about 10 to 12 feet in length. They require a third of their body weight in food daily. Manatees have enormous lungs and only breathe through their noses. They can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes at a time.
In recent years, the world’s second largest fish, the whale shark, has been seen in the Sarasota Bay waters. A harmless giant, the shark subsists on plankton and lives in warm tropical waters around the world. The whale shark has an average weight of 20 tons and can grow to be as large as a tractor-trailer. Though they have been seen locally with increasing frequency, the whale shark’s existence is threatened, and the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is asking for the public’s help by reporting any sightings of them to the facility.
Loggerhead Sea Turtles
Since the late 1970s this species of turtle (as well as other sea-dwelling turtles such as the leatherback and green sea turtle) has been on the endangered species list. Found in oceans around the world excluding the Arctic, these reptiles can grow to be three feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Because they’re often caught in fishing nets and have had their breeding grounds destroyed, their numbers continue to dwindle despite conservation efforts. A surprising fact about loggerhead turtles is that they can swim up to 15 miles per hour along an ocean current.
If you’re near fresh water, it’s safe to assume there’s a resident alligator nearby. Alligators prefer marsh environments where they can feed on fish and small mammals. Though they can grow to about 12 feet in length, they have rarely caused problems for observant passersby in this region. Alligators have a natural fear of humans and prefer to leave us alone. But be cautious and never let children or pets go near the water alone. Alligators can move very quickly for short distances—up to 20 miles per hour and certainly faster than humans can run.
Many different species of dolphin play and fish for their dinner off the Gulf Coast. In this region, there are at least nine different species of these cetaceans including the bottlenose, common, Atlantic spotted, short-snouted spinner, rough-toothed, and striped dolphins. Though size varies by species, most adults range from six to ten feet in length and weigh 200–300 pounds. Dolphins travel in pods with just a few members, though scientists have witnessed as many as several hundred dolphins in one pod of varying species. They require large amounts of food to survive and can eat up to 30 pounds of fish a day. Their skin is at least ten times thicker than that of a human, and to keep it sleek for easy movement through the water, dolphins regenerate a new outer layer every few hours.
Probably the most common native creature visitors will encounter as they explore Sarasota is the white ibis. These birds can be observed probing the ground with their long, narrow, pink beaks while their stilted legs help them forage through shallow water. They’re in search of little fish, insects and especially small crustaceans for their meals. By doing so, these birds help keep fish populations plentiful since they eat the predatory species that feed on fish eggs. White ibises are beautiful birds that begin life with brown plumage. As they age, the brown molts off and snow white feathers emerge with black wing tips. They’re adaptable birds and have taken to suburban living, so encountering a white ibis is practically guaranteed.
You’ll probably never see a bobcat, but they’re there. This nocturnal hunter lives in thick forests, swamps and marshes throughout Florida. Its bobbed tail makes it easily discernable from its feline cousin, the endangered Florida panther. Bobcat ears are white with a black outline, and young cats have black spots on their shorthaired coats that blend into stripes as they age. Black bobcats also exist, though they are extremely rare. These cats are the size of a medium to large dog and feed on just about anything, though they prefer small mammals and birds. Not only is their diet adaptable, but bobcats can also swim and climb trees. These factors have contributed to the continued success of the bobcat population.