Florida is home to two unique and endangered mammal species, the Florida panther and the tiny Key deer, both of which have come quite close to extinction in recent decades. Preservation efforts have been effective in keeping the species around, but the drastically limited numbers of both animals means that there’s still quite a bit of work to be done. Somewhat more common in Florida are bobcats, which are smaller than panthers and can be seen in the hardwood swamps and hammocks that are so prevalent throughout the state. The two mammals you’re almost certain to see while in Florida are armadillos and opossums; unfortunately, you’ll likely only see these nocturnal creatures in a postmortem state on the side of the road.
With the majority of the state nestled against either the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico, it’s none too surprising that Florida is a great place for spotting sea creatures. Pods of bottlenose dolphins are easy to spot from shore, and further out to sea it’s possible to see pilot whales. Offshore snorkelers find an abundance of coral reefs and the attendant schools of colorful tropical fish that live in and around them. Most iconic of all of Florida’s water creatures is the West Indian manatee.
These gentle “sea cows” feast on the mangrove leaves, algae, and turtle grass that are common throughout Florida’s waterways, and the state’s warm waters are the manatees’ preferred place for wintering and mating. Crystal River, on Florida’s Gulf coast, is a fantastic place to see manatees in the winter, as it has one of the greatest concentrations of the creatures. The rivers of South Florida are also home to a large number of manatees.
Florida is one of the best places in the United States for bird-watching. In addition to numerous native species—kites, osprey, spoonbill herons, scrub jays, and even bald eagles call Florida home throughout the year—the original snowbirds were the scores of northern species who make their winter homes here. Any of the dozens of nature preserves are ideal for bird-watching in the winter, but perhaps the best year-round spot is the J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.
Insects and Arachnids
In 1845, the Central Florida region saw one of its first big PR moves when its largest county was renamed Orange County after the sweet citrus that was becoming so popular in the United States. The county’s previous name? Mosquito County. While certainly not as endearing, the name was certainly accurate, as Central Florida—especially toward eastern Orange County—is dense with the blood-sucking bugs, particularly during the summer. Coastal breezes make mosquitoes less of a problem in many parts of the state, but there are few areas of inland Florida where you won’t find one feasting on your platelets.
Insects are prevalent throughout the warm and muggy state, and besides pesky skeeters and the painful bites of fire ants, there are also beautiful butterflies, especially in South Florida and the Keys, and elegant buzzing dragonflies.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Florida’s most famous reptile is the alligator. If there’s a body of water, it’s likely home to at least one gator. The Everglades are thick with them, but even lakeside residences in urban Orlando and Tampa have been the sites of alligator encounters. These animals are incredibly dangerous, so you should use all due caution in or near any freshwater area in Florida. Venomous snakes are also common throughout the state, including native species like the diamondback rattler and foreign breeds that have been “liberated” into the swamps and forests. These dangerous species are far outnumbered by the ranks of nonvenomous snakes, though, and king snakes and black snakes are quite prevalent.
The most common reptiles in Florida are lizards and geckos, which can be seen skittering about during the day, sunning themselves and chasing down food. They seldom grow to any great size, and most are less than six inches long. Salamanders are also bountiful, especially in South Florida.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition