February was another great month for Florida Keys wildlife sightings with AquaVentures! Of course, we saw all the usual highlights; manatees, turtles, dolphins, sharks, rays, etc. We also started using our awesome aquarium observatory globe shown in the pictures above. The observatory globe allows you to get up close and personal with the critters we find, creating a touch tank experience combined with full immersion into the animals natural habitat. In the photo on the left is one of our guests pretty excited to be getting a closer look at a colorful upside down jelly. The photo on the right contains a spiny sea star and a serpent star found on a hidden mangrove trail. There are so many more layers to nature beyond the larger and more glamorous animals that everyone knows and loves. I wanted to shed light on some lesser known Florida Key inhabitants that I have captured on camera for our Tour Photo Albums that come complimentary with each tour!
If you want to discover the hidden biosphere of the mangroves with AquaVentures click here!
Keep reading to learn about some unusual categories of critters!
Solar Powered Animals!
Plants aren’t the only organisms that utilize the energy from the suns rays. These unique creatures have found various ways to conduct photosynthesis and create nutrients for themselves!
Elysia Crispata or the lettuce sea slug is one of my favorite molluscan critters to encounter in the mangroves! The one in the photo is a red-lined lettuce sea slug.The lettuce sea slug is really tough to spot because it is only a couple inches long and blends in very well with its surroundings. These guys earned the name “solar sea slug” because of their amazing ability to utilize chloroplasts from the algae they eat. These chloroplast are absorbed into the cells of the “lettuce ruffle” on the top of the body and continue to photosynthesize and create nutrients for the sea slug! This explains why I always spot them hanging out in a sunny patch in the mangroves!
I thought this sea anemone living in a tulip snail shell was a very unique Florida Keys wildlife find! It always amazes me how adaptive nature can be! These anemones often have symbiotic relationships with zooxanthella that live with in the tentacles of the anemone and photosynthesize creating oxygen and nutrients for the anemone.
The Berghia nudibranch is another “solar sea slug” found in sunny, hidden mangrove lakes. This nudibranch is native to the Florida Keys and is now being bred in captivity for the aquarium trade. Click Here for more information about Berghia’s use in the aquarium trade to eradicate nuisance species of sea anemones. These sea slugs are not born with stinging cells but acquire them from the anemones they eat! They incorporate the stinging cells or nematocysts into their body and are able to better defend themselves against predators, but don’t worry they are not strong enough to sting humans! The Berghia nudibranch also incorporates zooxanthella (photosynthetic algae from the anemones they eat) into their bodies so that they too can create nutrients through photosynthesis. For these nudibranchs you really are what you eat!
The Cassiopea or “upside down jelly” is related to a moon jellyfish but instead of floating with the current like most jellyfish, these jellies suction themselves to shallow ocean bottoms with their tentacles facing up into the sun. Their tentacles are full of zooxanthella that create nutrients for the jellyfish through photosythesis and also give each individual jelly a unique coloration ranging from blue, green, brown, purple etc.
Masters of Disguise
There are many marine creatures that could fall into this category. Camouflage is an excellent defense mechanism and can also help animals ambush their prey!
Scrawled cowfish are still my favorite fish! They have adorable pink lips and cute little horns on the top of their heads. They can be found cruising the sea grass beds of the Florida Keys. They can actually change their coloration to blend in with their surroundings and will release a toxin into the water that will stun or kill its predators(fish & sharks). You can see from the pictures that they truly are masters of disguise!
I always refer to hermit crabs as squatters! They take homes that have been abandoned by their owner and make them their own! Here are 4 examples of hermit crabs found on our tours that have taken to different architectural styles for their homes!
From left to right- 1) crown conch shell with thinstripe hermit crab inside 2) thinstripe hermit crab living inside of a fighting conch shell 2) giant hermit crab inside of a tulip snail shell 4) thinstripe hermit crab inside of a lightening whelk.
“Homewreckers” aka invasive species are critters that have been released into an area where they do not belong. They can wreck whole ecosystems! They say that 1 introduced invasive species can endanger 10 native species in the first 25 years of introduction! Here are the top 2 “homewreckers” of the Florida Keys.
I spotted this lionfish hiding out in the mangroves in the Coco Plum area. The lionfish were released from aquariums into the local waters and have been wreaking havoc on the fl keys ecosystem, especially the coral reef habitat. They have no natural predators and are voracious eaters with toxic spines all over their body. The FWC holds a lionfish derby to encourage spearfishing enthusiasts to spear as many lionfish as they can and also have a lionfish awareness day on the first Saturday after Mothers Day every year!
Last but not least the crowd pleasing, ever sunbathing iguana. Iguanas have almost become synonymous with the FL Keys. This was not always the case, at some point in time someone released some pet iguanas and some may have even come by boat. The iguanas have made the most of their new home at the detriment of other native inhabitants. They like to eat native and endangered plants and bird eggs! They have no natural predators except for a handful of locals who will hunt them and fry up the tail meat of the iguana!