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Florida Wildlife

Part of what makes the Florida Keys such a fascinating place to visit is the abundant natural beauty and wildlife unique to this region. With the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Florida Keys are at the confluence of two subtropical ecosystems that are distinctive to the area. If you’re a nature lover hoping to spot unique wildlife while visiting the Florida Keys, here’s what to look for.

In the Sea

Whether you’ve come to fish, snorkel or simply take a dip in the crystal clear waters surrounding the Florida Keys, there’s an abundance of fascinating marine life to discover. The Florida Straits barrier reef stretches 170 miles up the coast and much of it is designated as a protected nature preserve. This is where you’ll find colorful subtropical fish and coral formations.

If you go snorkeling, keep your eyes peeled for yellowtail snapper, blue tang, rainbow parrotfish, angelfish and more. You also have a good chance of spotting sharks and sea turtles, as well as some of the more deep-water, pelagic fish that anglers are trolling for, like grouper, tuna and mahi-mahi. Hiding within the coral formations are the Keys’ own spiny lobsters. The region is also home to a healthy population of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins who often traverse the water in pods. It’s possible to spot them from land and sea.

In the Air

The Florida Keys are a true birder’s paradise. After all, John James Audubon discovered many of the bird species unique to the Florida Keys during his travels in the 1830s. The shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s backcountry are characterized by mangrove islands, turtle grass and sandbars, which are ideal nesting and breeding grounds for a wide variety of both fish and birds. Some of the Keys birds are migratory, like pelicans, and others live in the area year round, like kingfishers.

In the backcountry, you’re likely to spot cormorants diving for their lunch or sunbathing on a branch, while frigate birds sail on the air currents high above. Herons, cranes and even flamingos are sometimes found wading through the backcountry. The Keys are home to a wide variety of hawk species, including the bald eagle, but the osprey is the most common. On land, you’ll also spot seagulls, green parrots and pretty pink ibis pecking around for food or flying from one tree branch to the next.

On Land

rooster chickenA simple stroll down the sidewalk in the Keys can lead to some unique wildlife encounters. The Lower Keys are home to Key Deer, a specific breed with unusually short legs. You’ll also spot neon green iguanas in abundance. While they seem to fit into the scenery nicely, they’re actually an invasive species.

If you’re in Key West, there’s no shortage of chickens and roosters roaming freely, as well as cats. They’re part of the history and character of the island. You can also visit attractions like the Key West Aquarium and the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory to discover unique wildlife that’s typically found under the sea or fluttering through the air. Both destinations are excellent places to learn more about these fascinating animals.

Sea Turtle Conservation

October 4th, 2017

Our mission here at the Key West Aquarium is to educate the public about the dangers of these turtles face on a daily basis. The sea turtles in this facility would not be able to survive out in the wild with their injuries. By educating and making the public aware, our hopes are to minimize these senseless encounters and allow the sea turtle population to thrive as they once did.

Some of  the Sea Turtles in our care at the Key West Aquarium are:

Spike the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Spike was found at roughly 9 inches in length with 3 of her 4 flippers eaten off by an unknown predator. She was treated for her wounds and has resided with us ever since. Loggerheads are an endangered species that inhabit the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. They can reach a size of 8-9 feet in length, weigh 900-1000 lbs. and live an average of 60 years.

Lola the Kemps-Ridley Sea Turtle. Lola was found twice entangled in fishing line. The second time the line was so tight on her right front flipper that it had to be amputated. The Key West Aquarium has had her fitted with a prosthetic that she swims with during the day. Kemps-Ridleys are a critically endangered species that inhabit warm waters in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. They are the smallest of the sea turtles and only nest on one beach in Mexico. They average thirty inches in length, weigh up to 100 pounds and the average lifespan is unknown.

Lola trying on her prosthetic flipper she received in 2015.

Rocky the Green Sea Turtle. Rocky was struck by a boat early in his life. This caused the loss of his right front flipper and damage to his shell buoyant. The weights mounted to his shell help him to swim and lie flat when he chooses. Green Sea Turtles are an endangered species that inhabit the worlds tropical and subtropical oceans. They can reach a size of 5 feet, weigh an average of 400 pounds and live up to 80 years.

Hector the Hawksbill Sea Turtle. Hector was part of a head start program during the mid to late 1980’s. Head starting of the sea turtle hatchlings in captivity allowed the sea turtles to acheive a size large enough to avoid most predation. Hector was and remains a part of our educational program here at the Key West Aquarium. The hawksbill is a small to medium-sized marine turtle having an elongated oval shell with overlapping scutes on the carapace, a relatively small head with a distinctive hawk-like beak, and flippers with two claws.

Hunter the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Hunter, an adult male loggerhead was originally admitted to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, FL on August 8, 2o12. Hunter was emaciated with lockjaw, 5 fishing hooks were noted on the radiograph. After extensive rehab Hunter was released to the wild December 14, 2013. Hunter was rescued again on November 22, 2015. He had lockjaw and healed prop wounds from a boat strike. Hunter is fully recovered, eating and swimming well and a healthy body weight. He had surgery to remove a partial hook from his shoulder. The remaining two hooks are in areas that are too risky for surgery. Hunter is now placed here at the KWAQ where he can be closely monitored and will hopefully be released one day to the wild once the fishing hooks have degraded and are no longer an issue.

Hunter testing the waters of his new home in 2015.

Confiscated Marine Life

September 20th, 2017

The Key West Aquarium, along with NOAA and The Florida Wildlife Commission, are working hard to protect our environment. Illegal collection and transport of marine  tropicals for the aquarium trade is widely spreading. Without proper permits and transportation documents, marine tropicals are seized by government officials. The seized property is placed in facilities like this one until trial, as part of evidence until the case is settled.

Green bird wrasse, percula clownfish, sailfin tang, yellow tang, blue damsel, bamboo shark, bicolor parrotfish, banded eel, blue chromis, coral beauty angel, brown tang, and orange anthias are all commonly confiscated marine life. You can see these fish at the Key West Aquarium and learn more about them.

Jellyfish

September 6th, 2017

They key to the jellyfish’s 500-million-year uninterrupted reign on this earth is its adaptability. Jellyfish can range from infinitesimal sizes to sizes larger than freight carriers! The 200 classified species can be anything from the fingernail-size star-shaped stalked jellyfish,which is native to northern Pacific waters, to the giant Lion’s mane, which lives in arctic waters and can grow up to eight feet in diameter, with tentacles spanning 100 feet. Some jellyfish are luminescent, others live upside-down, and some possess stings that can cause excruciating pain for ages.

Soft Coral

August 16th, 2017

Soft corals are members of the phylum cnidaria, a group of stinging celled animals that include anemones, jellyfish, hydroids, sea-pens, the the true corals and other coral-named groups. Soft corals acquired their name from their fleshy and flexible forms which are constructed of a bizarre assembly of structural elements that help the corals to keep their shapes and support their form. As you can see, the lack of the external hard, calcareous skeleton hte small and large polyp stony corals possess make it easy to distinguish the soft corals from the stony corals. Soft corals are found worldwide, more in tropical than temperate reefs, mainly in depths of 5-30 meters.

 

Zooanthids

August 2nd, 2017

Zooanthids are an order of cnidarians commonly found in coral reefs, the deep sea and many other marine environments around the world. These animals come in a variety of different colonizing formations and in numerous colors. They can be found as individual polyps, attached by a fleshy stolon or a mat that can be created from small pieces of sediment, sand and rock.

Zooanthids feed both by photosynthesis, aided by the zooxanthellae they contain, and by capturing plankton and particulate matter. Although photosynthesis aids in their nutrition, even species that do not actively capture plankton cannot live through photosynthesis alone. Zooanthids can eat meaty foods such as brine shrimp, krill, and bloodworms.

Gorgonians

July 19th, 2017

a gorgonian, also known as a sea whip or sea fan, is an order of sessile colonial cnidarians found throughout the oceans of the world, especially in the tropics and subtropics. Gorgonians are similar to the sea pen, another soft coral. Individual tiny polyps form colonies that are normally erect, flattened, branching, and reminiscent of a fan. Others may be whip-like, bushy, or even encrusting. A colony can be several feet high and across but only a few inches thick. They may be brightly colored, often purple, red, or yellow.

Examples of an encrusting gorgonian are the briareum sp. It has long, grass-like polyps which are normally extended continuously, retracted only when disturbed. Briareum sp. can have multiple forms including encrusting, flat or knobby crusts, or upright branches.

Gorgonians are found primarily in shallow waters, though some have been found at depths of several thousand feet. The size and shape, and appearance of the gorgonians tend to populate shallower areas with strong currents, while the taller thinner, and stiffer gorgonians can be found in deeper, calmer waters.

Clownfish

July 5th, 2017

Clownfish are also known as anemonefish, which is a genus of the pomacentridae family and consists of 29 recognized species. They primarily inhabit coral reefs in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. They are also found as far north as the Red Sea and inhabit the Great Barrier Reef off the east coast of Australia. They are not native to the Atlantic/Caribbean Oceans or the Florida Keys.

You can find a clownfish exhibit at the Key West Aquarium. The clownfish in the exhibit were aquacultured at ORA (Oceans Reefs and Aquariums) in Ft. Pierce, FL. Farm raising is a common practice for this species due to the increase in their popularity. Aquaculture reduces the collection of wild caught marine specimens in high demand and diminishes our impact on the environment.

Caribbean Reef Octopus

June 14th, 2017

The Caribbean Reef Octopus lives in warm waters around coral reef environments and grassy and rocky sea beds. There are more than 300 different species of octopus that have been identified. Considered the most intelligent of all invertebrates, the octopus is found in the tropical and temperate waters of the worlds oceans. They prey on crabs, crayfish, and mollusks, and will sometimes use their ink to disorient their victims before attacking. Its first line of defense is its ability to hide in plain sight. Using a network of pigment cells and specialized muscles in its skin, the octopus can almost instantaneously match the colors, patterns, and even textures of its surrounding. Predators such as sharks, eels, and dolphins swim by without even noticing it. When discovered, an octopus will release a cloud of black ink to obscure its attackers view, giving it time to swim away. The ink even contains a substance that weakens a predators’ sense of smell, making the fleeing octopus harder to track. Fast swimmers, they can jet forward expelling water through their mantles. And their bodies can squeeze into impossibly small cracks and crevices where predators can’t follow.

Red is a common color in fish. You might think that red colored fish would be easy for a predator to find. However, most fish that have this coloration live in deep, dark water or are nocturnal. Marine fish can be classified into groups, depending upon when they are most active. “Diurnal” fish are those that are primarily active during the day; those that are most active during the night are “nocturnal”. Sine fish are especially active at dusk and dawn, and are referrred to as “crepuscular”. Various marine invertebrate species can also be classified into one of these three groups. In deep water, red light is filtered out quickly so red is a good camouflage. At night red-colored objects appear grey, allowing them to blend in with their surroundings. Squirrel fish are red-colored and nocturnal. The reason the color red is such a fantastic camouflage is light absorption. Visible light penetrates into the ocean, but once past the sea surface, light is weakened by scattering and absorption. The more particles that are in the water, the more light is scattered. The light energy of some colors is absorbed nearer to the sea surface than other colors, red, in particular. The dimming light becomes blur with depth because the red, yellow, and orange wavelengths have been absorbed.

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