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Biological & Ecological Information

Florida Scrub-Jay

Species Information

The Florida scrub-jay is a gray and blue bird about the size of a mockingbird, usually measuring 10-12 inches in length and weighing 2½ ounces. The head, neck, nape, and tail are pale blue while the back and belly are pale gray. They are similar in appearance to the more common blue jay, but lack the crest, white tipped feathers, and black bars. Males and females are similar in appearance. Juveniles are similar to the adults, but lack the blue on the crown and nape.

Habitat

The Florida scrub-jay is entirely dependent on scrub. Scrub is a unique vegetation community composed of plants that are adapted to well-drained, sandy, nutrient poor soil. Scrub vegetation is dependent on periodic wildfire and is able to withstand high seasonal rainfall and periods of extended drought. Scrub is characterized by several species of oaks and pines. Optimal scrub-jay habitat occurs when the oaks are between 3 to 10 feet tall and there are un-vegetated, sandy openings. Scrub-jays will also use scrubby flatwoods (a mixture of scrub vegetation and pine trees), if the pine canopy is open. In Charlotte County, scrub-jays live in scrub, scrubby flatwoods and even suburban areas that are adjacent to scrub. The three dominant tree species in Charlotte County scrub include sand live oak, Chapman oak, and myrtle oak. Scrub-jays are non-migratory birds that defend permanent territories averaging 23 acres in size, depending on the quality of the vegetation community and the size of the family group. Territories increase in size as the family group grows and when the habitat is not optimal.

Diet

The Florida scrub-jay is an omnivore, commonly eating insects, tree frogs, reptiles, berries, seeds, and acorns. Insects compose the majority of the scrub-jay’s diet in the spring and summer. In the winter, when insects are scarce, acorns from several species of oaks comprise the majority of their diet. Each scrub-jay harvests and buries 6000 to 8000 acorns during August to November for use throughout the year. Scrub-jays forage on the ground, rarely pursuing insects in the air.

Reproduction

Florida scrub-jay pairs are monogamous. Most Florida scrub-jays breed for the first time when they are between 2 and 4 years of age. Nesting occurs from March to June when 3 to 4 eggs are laid in cup-shaped nests. The nests are constructed in shrubby oaks 3 to 7 feet from the ground. The female incubates the eggs for 17 days until hatching. Both parents and helpers bring food to the nestlings that remain in the nest for 16 to 21 days after hatching. Predators including raccoons, cats, snakes, blue jays, and crows eat the eggs and hatchlings. Nest predation is generally higher in suburban areas than in more isolated areas.

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Sea Turtles

History

Turtles have inhabited our planet for over 200 million years. Dating back to the early ages of the dinosaurs, turtles have followed a unique and successful evolutionary path that has allowed them to thrive on our planet. Scientists have classified sixteen different orders of reptiles that have evolved in the last 310 million years. The turtles, or Testudines, are one of only four orders that have evolved in such away that they flourish in present time.

Species

There are currently seven recognized species of sea turtles:

  • Loggerhead (Caretta caretta)
  • Green (Chelonia mydas)
  • Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea)
  • Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata)
  • Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii)
  • Olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea)
  • Flatback (Natador depressa)

Physiology

Sea turtles are air breathing reptiles that live in marine waters. They are distinguished from land tortoises and fresh water turtles by their large flippers and streamlined bodies which enable them to be exceptional swimmers. Their bodies consist of a hard bony or a thick leathery shell that provides some protection to their soft inner body and sensitive organs. Unlike their closest turtle relatives, sea turtles cannot pull their limbs or head into their shell. This makes them more susceptable to predators. Sea turtles have powerful jaws which are useful for crushing food and sometimes for defending themselves. Most species have a thick beak like jaw adapted for crushing hard foods. The Green sea turtle in contrast has a serrated beak that allows it to easily tear seagrasses and algae. The sea turtle species' can be identified from each other visually in five ways; (1) their shell type (2) the number and shape of scutes (bony plates) on their shell (3) the number and shape of scales on their head (4) shell measurements and (5) the number and location of claws on their flippers.

Habitat

Aside from nesting, sea turtles spend their entire lives in the ocean. Each species has an area that they tend to frequent based on their food sources. These habitats range from coral reefs, bays, lagoons, benthic bottoms, nearshore and offshore waters. The only time healthy sea turtles come ashore is to lay eggs.

Throughout their lives sea turtles migrate from nesting areas to feeding grounds, which are sometimes several thousand miles away. Most turtles migrate along the coasts, but some populations are known to migrate across the ocean. As a species that migrates long distances, these turtles face special problems associated with differing attitudes toward conservation in different countries.

Reproduction

Sea turtles are amazing creatures when it comes to reproduction. They reach sexual maturity between 15-30 years of age. At this point they make a breeding migration to the area they initially hatched from. Female sea turtles will come ashore, generally during the night, to lay 5-8 clutches of eggs each nesting season. When she is ready, she will find a suitable spot above the high tide line to dig a teardrop shaped hole in the sand. Here she will deposit 50-200 eggs depending on the species. Incubation periods range between 45 and 60 days dependent on the temperature of the sand. Temperature will also determine whether the hatchlings will be male or female. Once ready, hatchlings emerge from the nest cavity and make their sea finding journey. It is said that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to adulthood. This is due to many threats they face such as predation both on land and in the water, lighting disorientation, beach obstacles, and intensified storm and tidal activity.

Threats

Five of the world’s eight remaining sea turtle species - the loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley - may be found in Florida's coastal waters. Four of these species are classified as endangered in Florida by both federal and state governments; while the fifth species, the loggerhead, is listed as threatened.

Each year, female sea turtles crawl onto the County's beaches to lay their eggs in the loose dune sands. Several types of human activities can interfere with nesting activity and the ability of hatchlings to find their way into the Gulf. Artificial lighting disorients the hatchlings that depend upon the illuminated horizon for direction. Night pedestrian traffic can cause adult turtles to return to the ocean without nesting. Coastal development and beach nourishment activities that compact the sands can be equally detrimental. To address these problems, Charlotte County adopted a Sea Turtle Protection Ordinance (Ordinance 89-31) which provides standards and criteria for coastal development, obstructions on the beach such as beach furniture, and restrictions for artificial lights visible from the nesting zone during the nesting season.

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Gopher Tortoise

Overview

The gopher tortoise is a medium sized land tortoise that averages 9 pounds and is usually 9-11 inches long. The top part of the shell (which is called a carapace) is gray or various shades of brown and the bottom part of the shell (known as the plastron) ranges from yellow to brown. Hatchlings are 1½ inches long and have a yellow-orange carapace. The gopher tortoise lives as long as 40-60 years under natural conditions and up to 100 years in captivity.

Status

It is estimated that gopher tortoise populations in Florida have decreased by 30% in recent years. Gopher tortoises are protected by The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under the Endangered Species Act and Chapter 39, Florida Administrative Code, respectively. Both the FWS and FWC list the gopher tortoise as threatened. This protection makes it illegal to possess, harm, or harass gopher tortoises.

Habitat

​Gopher tortoises can be found in a variety of upland vegetation communities. In Charlotte County, they can be found in pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, scrub, and even on the beach. In urban-suburban areas they can be found in fields, pastures, and roadsides. Their main requirements include well drained, sandy soil, herbaceous ground cover, and open spaces in the tree canopy where sunlight can penetrate through to the ground. The average home range for males is approximately 2½ acres and half an acre for females. The home ranges of different individuals often overlap.

Reproduction

Gopher tortoises reach sexual maturity at 10 to 20 years of age. Breeding occurs from February to June and results in a single annual clutch averaging 6 eggs. Eggs are deposited in nests that are dug in sunny places, often in the sandy mound at the entrance of the burrow. Incubation takes 70 to 100 days depending on the temperature and humidity of the nest. Like many reptiles, the sex of the hatchling is temperature dependent. Eggs incubated at temperatures above 85° F become females and those incubated below 85° F will be males. Predation on the eggs and hatchlings is high. Predators including raccoons, opossums, armadillos, foxes, cats, dogs, and fire ants destroy up to 80% of the nests. Young tortoises are 1½ to 2 inches at hatching and grow less than an inch per year. Hatchlings often dig side burrows off of the adult’s burrow but sometimes dig their own burrow.

Threats

The biggest threat to the gopher tortoise is loss of habitat due to construction of buildings and roads. As development increases, habitats become fragmented and can lead to isolation of populations or leave individuals without mates. Vehicles hit and kill many gopher tortoises. Additionally, fire suppression causes vegetation to become too thick, altering the physical structure of the habitat and screening out the vegetation that the tortoises eat. Other threats to the gopher tortoises include free-ranging or feral cats and dogs which eat many young tortoises and eggs.

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Eastern Indigo Snake

Overview

The Eastern indigo snake is the longest non-venomous snake in North America. Adults are typically between 5 and 7 feet long, but can reach a length of over 8 feet. They are an iridescent, glossy, blue-black and may have a red or cream patch on their throat or the side of their head. Hatchlings are similar to the adults, but may have white bands around their body. Eastern indigos are sometimes confused with black racers. Black racers, however, are rarely longer than 4 feet, are thinner, and are a dull black with white or brown throats.

Description

Eastern indigo snakes are protected by The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) under the Endangered Species Act and Chapter 39, Florida Administrative Code, respectively. The Eastern indigo snake has been listed as Threatened since 1971 by the state of Florida and since 1978 by the FWS. This protection makes it illegal to possess, harm, or harass Eastern indigo snakes.

Range

Historically, the range of the Eastern indigo snake included the coastal plain of the southeastern United States, from South Carolina through Florida. Currently, most Eastern indigo snakes are found in Florida and southern Georgia. Recently, it has been reintroduced in several locations in Alabama and Mississippi.

Habitat

The Eastern indigo snake can be found in a variety of upland and wetland vegetation communities. In Charlotte County, they can be found in pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, scrub, and along fresh water marshes and riverine systems. In extreme southern Florida, Eastern indigos are found in hardwood hammocks, fresh water marshes, and mangrove swamps. In north and central Florida, indigo snakes are found primarily in dry vegetation communities including scrub and pine flatwoods, where they utilize gopher tortoise burrows. Although gopher tortoise burrows are used throughout their range, they are especially important in northern Florida where they are used by the indigo snake to keep warm during the winter, and to keep cool and prevent dehydration in the summer. In wetter areas, and those that lack gopher tortoise burrows, indigo snakes use armadillo holes, hollow logs, or other holes for dens. Home range size is highly variable; the home range of adult males in south Florida averages 180 acres and can be up to 470 acres, while adult females usually have home ranges of 45 acres and up to 120 acres. Home ranges generally are largest during the summer and shrink in size during the winter, as their activity level decreases.

Diet

Eastern indigo snakes commonly eat frogs, toads, salamanders, birds, small mammals and other snakes. Juveniles most commonly eat invertebrates. Indigo snakes generally hunt along the ground during the day. Wetlands and gopher tortoise burrows are important hunting grounds.

Indigo snakes do not constrict or use poison to kill their prey. Instead, they immobilize their prey by pressing it against the ground and swallowing it alive.

Threats

The Eastern indigo snake requires large amounts of undeveloped land. Currently, the largest threat to the Eastern indigo snake is loss of habitat due to construction of buildings and roads. As development increases, habitats become fragmented and can lead to the isolation of populations or leave individuals without mates. Vehicles hit and kill Eastern indigo snakes as they cross roads within their home ranges or as they warm themselves on the pavement. Indigo snakes were once heavily collected for the pet trade because of their beauty and docile temperament in captivity. It is now illegal to keep indigo snakes without a permit.

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Florida Manatee

Overview

The West Indian manatee is a marine mammal species found within the southeastern United States and the wider Carribean basin. The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee; which belongs to the scientific order Sirenia that also includes the Amazonian manatee, dugong, West African manatee, and Stellar’s sea cow (extinct).

Description

The Florida manatee is a large gray aquatic mammal that commonly reaches a body length of nine to ten feet and a weight of 1,000 pounds however they can grow to more than 13 feet and weight up to 3,500 pounds. Manatees feature a wide round, flattened tail that is used for swimming and two flipper-like fore limbs that are used to maneuver in the water and to grasp vegetation while feeding. Their nostrils are located above the snout and have valves that tightly close when under water; they can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes when resting but when active they surface to breath every 3-5 minutes. Their small eyes have a membrane that can cover their eyes for protection. Manatees have a flexible lip pad that is used to move food into their mouth, they have back teeth (molars) for chewing but no frontal teeth.

Range

Florida manatees are native to Florida with some individuals documented as far north as Massachusetts, as far west as Texas, and occasionally into the Carribean (Lefebvre, Marmontel, Reid, Rathburn & Domning, 2001). Florida manatees start to aggregate at warm water refuges once the water temperatures approach approximately 68 degrees Fahrenheit, which significantly influences their geographic range. During the winter months, manatees typically seek warmer water in southern Florida, or aggregate at a number of natural or artificial warm water refuge sites (USFWS 2001, Laist & Reynolds 2005, Reynolds & Wilcox 1994). Manatees are typically found in shallow, slow moving rivers, estuaries, saltwater bays, canals and coastal areas. Their diet consists of aquatic vegetation, particularly seagrasses.

Status

The Florida manatee was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 1967 and by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) in 1969. The Florida manatee is protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1978) and is federally protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (as amended in 1996) and the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Threats

Threats to the Florida manatee include both naturally-occurring and human-related causes. Conflicts in use between human-related activity and limited coastal resources are further affected by their low reproductivity capacity. The adverse impacts of watercraft on manatees have been well documented. It has been demonstrated that there is a correlation between the number of registered vehicles in Florida and the number of watercraft-related manatee mortalities (Wright et al., 1995). Manatee deaths resulting from human-related activity represent approximately 2 percent of the annual mortality. Habitat protection is also critical to conserving this species. Destruction of seagrass beds and additional habitat degradation due to human activity is generally accepted as a threat to the long-term survival of manatees (USFWS, 2001). Manatees are also susceptible to naturally-occurring phenomena such as red tide, which has resulted in large-scale mortality events, particularly in Southwest Florida.

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