Friday, May 14, 2010

Red Ratsnake

DSCN1513We were delighted to see this little red ratsnake warming up on the new trail surface last week. We can now happily add this critter to our list of species present in the Back Woods. Local University of Florida herpetology expert Monica McGarrity has been gracious enough to write a guest post for us on the red ratsnake. Definitely, do not miss reading the excellent guide Dealing with Snakes in Florida’s Residential Areas: Identifying Commonly Encountered Snakes co written by Monica and linked below as well.

Note, there has been a recent change in the taxonomic classification of the red ratsnake…you may find many publications still refer to it as Elaphe guttata.

Guest Blogger: Monica E. McGarrity, Biological Scientist : Gulf Coast Research & Education Center/University of Florida/IFAS

Like the name suggests, Red Ratsnakes belong to the ratsnake genus Pantherophis—their scientific name is Pantherophis guttatus. Florida’s farmers have historically welcomed these non-venomous snakes to their farms, because they provide outstanding rodent control. In fact, Red Ratsnakes are more commonly called Cornsnakes because they liked to hang around in the rafters of old corn storage “cribs” and eat the mice and rats that tried to get into (and eat) the corn. All ratsnakes are excellent climbers—they can climb nearly straight up a tree or a brick wall! Their bodies aren’t quite round like the bodies of most snakes, but are shaped more like a loaf of bread in cross-section. The wide scales on their flat bellies work a lot like the treads on a tank, helping them to grip bark and climb trees more easily. These efficient predators can be found virtually anywhere there is rodent prey afoot—in citrus groves, sheds, garages, and even attics! Although you should welcome these natural exterminators in your yard, you may want to snake-proof the vents on your roof and control rodents in your attic or garage unless you don’t mind having them in your house as well.

09/15/09 Red Rat Snake or Corn Snake reptile Cornsnake pattern_McGarrity Cornsnakes are beautiful animals, and are very popular in the pet trade because they can be bred in a various hues of red, yellow, orange, pink, or even cream. In nature, their tan to grayish bodies are marked with orange-red blotches with dark outlines. Their heads are marked with a distinctive orange-red arrowhead, with a series of light and dark blotches inside. The markings on the belly are most distinctive of all—a black and white checkerboard pattern! You may encounter these snakes crossing trails or sunning themselves on logs or trees in natural areas, so you should learn to recognize these Florida natives.  


Dealing with Snakes in Florida’s Residential Areas: Identifying Commonly Encountered Snakes --

Florida Museum of Natural History Herpetology Department – Red Cornsnake --

Thank you Monica!!!

Nifty etymology note: “Pantherophis is derived from the Greek words"pan" which means bread, referring to the bread loaf, cross-section shape of the snake, "thero" means a wild beast of summer and "ophis" means snake and guttatus is derived from the Latin word gutta which means "dappled" or "spotted" referring to the dorsal pattern.” courtesy Virginia Herpetological Society

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Prickly Pear

DSCN1472 Often prostrate and fairly unremarkable in the landscape (unless you sit on one), the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) can be a real show stopper when in bloom. Dazzling yellow blossoms, open only during the day, festoon these bristly herbs in the warm spring and summer months.

DSCN1448 The pads of the prickly pear are actually the stems of the plant. The leaves have been reduced to spines. Spines come in two forms; notable stiff spines about an inch in length and the less noticeable  fine tufts of short spines (glochids) that can stick and stay anywhere you come in contact with them (ouch).

cochineal Often in the fall you will come across a prickly pear in the Back Woods that appears to be covered in a white cottony material. The white cottony (actually waxy) mass is providing cover for the cochineal scale insect. An extract (the red goo on my finger) from this  insect has been used as textile dye for centuries and is even used as a food grade colorant today (look closely at the label on your red grapefruit juice.) There are some nice details from this UCLA site about the cochineal scale and its uses.

Prickly pear fruit (tunas) as well as the pads (nopales) are edible to humans and wildlife. The pads, fruit and seeds are an important food resource for our gopher tortoise population as well as for our songbirds, woodpeckers, and small mammals. Be sure to peel the fruit carefully before grazing in the field…the fruit are also dotted with those fine tufts  of spines!

There are  six species of native prickly pear cactus in Florida, two of which are endangered and one is threatened (our Opuntia humifusa has a stable population for now.) Habitat destruction is the primary cause of decline for many of these species but, all prickly pear have been further threatened by introduced insect species. Several non native moths ,most notably the  cactoblastis moth (Cactoblastis cactorum), were introduced to the state and their caterpillars have adversely affected our native, endemic, threatened, and endangered prickly pear cactus species. Current efforts to control the cactoblastis moth include removing infected plants and the release of sterile moths to reduce and contain the infestation in the southeast. It is hoped these measures will prevent the spread of the moth westward in the U.S. and to Mexico where Opuntia species are important agricultural crops not only for livestock but for humans as well.

Look for this interesting plant in the high, dry, open and sandy areas of the Back Woods primarily in the eastern and western sandhills.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Lizard’s Tail


The new boardwalk allows visitors a closer look at more of the unique plants found in the wetland. Over the past couple of weeks the lizard’s tail (Saururus cernuus) has been working up to a dazzling show. Spreading by underground runners (rhizomes), nice sweeps of two feet deep glossy green foliage have developed and filled much of the wetland. The foliage is topped everywhere with drooping white spikes of flowers. Once the flowers are pollinated, the spike transforms to string of brown capsules that resembles a lizard’s tail. Even when not in bloom lizard’s tail is recognizable by its stalked heart or arrow shaped leaves with rounded lobes at the base.

Nifty etymology note: from the Greek sauros for lizard and from the Latin cernuus for falling down or nodding

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Cinnamon Fern

DSCN1460 The cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) is quite possibly one of the most beautiful plants in the Back Woods. This showy fern is deciduous and produces distinct fertile and non fertile fronds above a dark wiry mass of roots (ever seen osmunda fiber at your garden store) that is characteristic of all members of the Osmundaceae family. The Osmundaceae family contains some of the oldest ferns documented. The cinnamon fern and royal fern (Osmunda regalis), also found in the Back Woods, could therefore be classified as living fossils, too cool!

OSCI_2 Cinnamon ferns are named for their distinct fertile fronds that are dark cinnamon-y in color; the reduced modified leaflets appear like crumpled curled cinnamon bark. The sterile fronds start out curled tight in a fuzzy fiddle heads. The fuzz is purported to be a desired nesting material for hummingbirds, deer are fond of the fiddle heads for browse, and steamed or boiled fiddle heads are popular with wild foods crowd.

DSCN4958 Cinnamon ferns are a characteristic plant of wet flatwood pine forests and can even be a dominant groundcover in wet hardwood hammocks. Remarkably, these plants are tolerant of fire and regenerate readily (even increase in cover) in frequently burned habitats. You can see cinnamon ferns all along the Flatwoods Trail (new shell trail) as well as near the boardwalk.