On the Land
Perhaps the most iconic land animal—or semi-land animal, anyway—of the Georgia and South Carolina coast is the legendary American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), the only species of crocodile native to the area. Contrary to their fierce reputation, locals know these massive reptiles, 6–12 feet long as adults, to be quite shy. If you come in the colder months you won’t see one at all, since alligators require an outdoor temperature over 70°F to become active and feed. (Indeed, the appearance of alligators was once a well-known symbol of spring in the area.) Often all you’ll see is a couple of eyebrow ridges sticking out of the water, and a gator lying still in a shallow creek can easily be mistaken for a floating log. But should you see one or more gators basking in the sun—a favorite activity on warm days for these cold-blooded creatures—it’s best to admire them from afar. A mother alligator, in particular, will destroy anything that comes near her nest. Despite the alligator’s short, stubby legs, they run amazingly fast on land—faster than you, in fact.
If you’re driving on a country road at night, be on the lookout for white-tailed deer (Odeocoileus virginianus), which, besides being quite beautiful, also pose a serious road hazard. Because coastal development has dramatically reduced the habitat—and therefore the numbers—of their natural predators, deer are very plentiful throughout the area and as you read this are hard at work devouring vast tracts of valuable vegetation. No one wants to hurt poor little Bambi, but the truth is that area hunters perform a valuable service by culling the local deer population, which is in no danger of extinction anytime soon.
The coast hosts fairly large populations of playful river otter (Lutra Canadensis). Not to be confused with the larger sea otters off the West Coast, these fast-swimming members of the weasel family inhabit inland waterways and marshy areas, with dominant males sometimes ranging as much as 50 miles within a single waterway.
While you’re unlikely to encounter an otter, if you’re camping you might easily run into the raccoon (Procyon lotor), an exceedingly intelligent and crafty relative of the bear, sharing that larger animal’s resourcefulness in stealing your food. Though nocturnal, raccoons will feed whenever food is available.Rabies is prevalent in the raccoon population and you should always, always keep your distance.
Another common campsite nuisance, the opossum (Didelphis virginiana) is a shy, primitive creature that is much more easily discouraged. North America’s only marsupial, an opossum’s usual “defense” against predators is to play dead. That said, however, they have an immunity to snake venom and often feed on the reptiles, even the most poisonous ones.
While you’re highly unlikely to actually see a red fox (Vulpes vulpes), you might very well see their distinctive footprints in the mud of a marsh at low tide. These nocturnal hunters, a non-native species introduced by European settlers, range the coast seeking mice, squirrels, and rabbits.
Once fairly common in Georgia and South Carolina, the black bear (Ursus americanus) has suffered from hunting and habitat destruction. In the Charleston and Savannah region, the Okefenokee Swamp area is the only place in which you’ll be close to one.
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition