Bio 418 - Natural History of Florida
May 1 - 13, 2001
Thirteen students participated in the 2001 summer field course to Florida. We traveled in two 15-passenger vans. With all of our gear, eight people per van worked well. Our first stop was in Columbus, Ohio to pick up Joe Hammond, one of the trip leaders. Joe is a naturalist in the Columbus metroparks. He lived in southwest Florida several years ago and therefore knew the best places to see different ecosystems and wildlife, and the best places to eat in the Naples area.
Approximately 24 hours after leaving GVSU we reached our first destination in northern Florida - Oseola National Forest. The forests in this area are dominated by longleaf pine with an understory dominated by saw palmetto. This ecosystem is fire dominated and evidence of fire damage was evident in various areas. After a few hours out of the vans our journey continued to our first camp site, in Collier-Seminole State Park. Everyone was amazed at the number of brown anoles in the area, and a little dismayed at the number of mosquitoes.
Our next day began with a trip to John "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island. This NWR is famous for its wildlife viewing, especially large wading birds, in the large mud flats interspersed with mangroves. This was our first experience with mangroves on the trip. I think the students were surprised by the microclimate differences inside relative to outside the mangroves. The mangroves appeared to be alive at times with all the mangrove crabs moving about. That afternoon we traveled to Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, a cypress swamp. There was a boardwalk for easy access to the swamp. This preserve contains bald cypress trees, the largest remaining stand of native royal palms in North America, and high orchid diversity.
We spent the next day tidepooling on Marco Island. The beach was covered with fiddler crabs, all of whom were waving their enlarged claws intermittently. We had a pretty good haul, with lots of crabs, mollusks, and echinoderms. As an added bonus, we spotted two manatees within a few hundred meters from shore.
We spent a full day with staff at the Naples Nature Center and Briggs Nature Center. At the former location, the students were introduced to the various ecosystems in southern Florida, especially the role of elevation in shaping these ecosystems. Additionally, the students learned how hurricanes affect the ecosystems of southern Florida.
Our next destination was the Everglades National Park. The students were surprised to see how brown the landscape was in the park. Our visit coincided with a prolonged drought, which explained the color. Our students learned the importance of the American alligators to the everglades ecosystems and were afforded some great viewing opportunities of wildlife that have become accustomed to human activity.
The following afternoon we arrived at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. This was the first visit to a coral reef for many of our students. Our arrival happened to be during an uncharacteristically windy period, thus making the snorkeling a bit more challenging. The reef we were transported to was quite dead, i.e. no reef building corals were alive. However, the soft corals were abundant and the fish fauna was impressive.
The next morning we visited Crocodile Lake NWR on Key Largo. The refuge manager, Steve Klett, gave us a tour of the refuge. This included areas where they have removed invasive species and are monitoring populations of the endangered Key Largo woodrat, and an area where they are in the process of refilling an old boat dock to the proper elevation. We also visited an old Nike Missile base on the refuge. We were shown a huge pile of confiscated items in one of the old buildings, all protected species, as well as a large pile of illegally harvested conchs.
That afternoon we snorkeled off the beach at Pennekamp to look at mangrove communities, nearshore seagrass beds, and the diverse algal community. The weather was again fairly windy so visibility was poor, but the students did get to see the mangroves from below. Sponges, tunicates, mollusks, and algae covered the prop roots. Unfortunately, it was too murky to take photographs.
The next day we picked up camp and headed down the keys. Our first stop of the day was in Tavernier, at the Wild Bird Sanctuary, which is a non-profit organization that cares for injured birds. One of the main problems in this area, as in many others, is entanglement and/or digestion of refuse, especially monofilament line. Our plan for the afternoon was to snorkel on Looe Key and we arrived at Underseas Inc. on Big Pine Key just before lunch. Included in our snorkeling package were short dive suits, which we were happy to have, since we snorkeled for over two hours! Looe Key was quite a contrast to what we encountered in Pennekamp. This reef had the classic spur and groove formation and the reef-building corals were very much alive. We saw many fish, including very large parrotfish and scrawled filefish. Many students got to see their first shark at this location, and my wife Laurie and another student, Lynnelle, were lucky enough to have a brief visit by a loggerhead sea turtle. After snorkeling we headed to Boyd's campground in Key West where we spent the night after a nice meal at Crabby Dick's on Duval Street.
We had an early morning the following day, since we had to break camp and be at the Yankee Fleet ferry by 7:30 am, which took us to the Dry Tortugas National Park. The ride out to the Tortugas was approximately 2 hours long. I think the Tortugas were the highlight of the trip for many of the students. Fort Jefferson has an interesting history and we let the students explore it on their own. We organized several snorkeling trips around the moat wall, including a night snorkel. This was a great snorkeling destination, with fringing reefs and lots of sea grass beds. It was possible to view the reef from above walking on the moat wall that surrounded the fort. From this vantage point, everyone in the group got to see a yellow stingray, several nurse sharks, and two very cooperative spotted eagle rays. The communities inside and outside the moat wall were quite different, due to the protected nature inside the moat wall. Organisms such as this upside-down jellyfish and cushion star were commonly found inside the moat. The Tortugas are also the only place in the United States where sooty tern and brown noddy breeding colonies are located.
The next day we left the Tortugas. For those students choosing to ride on the deck several green turtles, flying fish, and two dolphins were spotted. We again camped at Boyd's campground and then turned everyone loose in Key West that evening for the cultural experience. The following morning we loaded the vans and 32 hours later arrived back at GVSU. If all goes well, I plan to lead another trip to Florida in the near future.
Page last modified September 11, 2007