Friday, November 30, 2012

Nature Nut’s Tech Corner

Illustration by Jean Bitting, 2012

Do you feel like your inner nature nut and techie geeks are at odds with each other? Are you looking for a fresh new way to explore nature?  Are you a technophobe looking for a way to start plugging in? Perhaps you wish you had a way to inspire today’s technologically bound youth to re-connect with the natural world surrounding them? Whatever your current relationship with the ever-changing world of technology might be, the Nature Nut’s Tech Corner is the perfect resource to help you get your geek on with nature!  Visit us on the last Friday of each month, right here, as we spotlight a new field tested application.


In this edition of Nature Nut’s Tech Corner we introduce you to Leafsnap, the first in a series of electronic field guides being developed by researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution. The purpose behind Leafsnap is to allow users to become citizen-scientists by providing them with access to visual recognition software to assist them in the identification of tree species. The application, which is currently only available on iPhone and iPad, contains striking photographs of leaves, flowers, seeds, and bark found on the tree species of the Northeastern United States.

iPhone Home & Browsing screens
The free app allows you to browse its database, snap photos to receive suggested matches, and keep track of your own collection of species including their photographs and GPS location. Though still in the beginning stages of development, this application is worth checking out if only to marvel at the beautiful high-resolution photographs. Developers are currently working to expand the collection and have plans to eventually have the database encompass the entire United States and beyond. An Android application is also being developed, however no estimated release date is known at this time since this project is being primarily manned by volunteers. In the meantime, although there is no full version on the web currently, if you are not in the iPhone/iPad platforms, you can still visit the Leafsnap site to view the available species and their high-resolution photographs, learn more about the project, or to volunteer for the project.

We encourage you to be inspired by the beauty found within this application and to be as excited as we are about the eventual expansion of it!  

iPhone match suggestion screens

iPhone Collection screen 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gopher Tortoises Share Digs With Other Endangered Animals

GTM Research Reserve Team Studies Gopher Tortoises and Monitors their Burrows

Gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus)

Gopher tortoises - listed as threatened in Florida - are candidates for federally endangered status. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is the only land tortoise native to the U.S. east of the Mississippi, and its population is rapidly declining. Critical research shows that the gopher tortoise is falling victim to over harvesting, disease, loss of habitat from human encroachment and humans relocating them away from their preferred home base. Another threat is humans running over the lumbering tortoises as they attempt to cross roadways.

Their decline could present a greater problem because the gopher tortoise is a keystone species in the ecosystem in which they reside, meaning that their endangerment would likely have an adverse effect on other plants and animals within their natural communities. The tortoise grazes on vegetation and thus disperses seeds that help the plant community thrive. They are also prolific diggers, burrowing as deep as 10 feet or more and laterally anywhere from 15 to 48 feet. These extensive burrows allow for a number of other species to drop in on their obliging hosts for a brief respite from predators or foul weather, while a few will stay for life. Research shows that over 350 or more commensal species have been recorded utilizing gopher tortoise burrows at one time or another.

“The burrow is particularly important as shelter for the endangered eastern indigo snake and two species of special concern, the Florida mouse, and the gopher frog,” says Jaime Pawelek, a biologist at the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve. Pawelek conducts research in coastal northeast Florida within the GTM Research Reserve. She is currently publishing a paper on gopher tortoise ecology in coastal habitats with Matthew E. Kimball. Kimball serves as both GTM Research Reserve’s Research Coordinator and University of North Florida Assistant Professor of Biology.

Gopher toroise burrow at the GTM Research Reserve

A GTM Research Reserve comprehensive survey of gopher tortoise burrows began in 2005 on the Guana peninsula, roughly 950 acres of upland mixed habitat. A second survey in 2007 included the Guana peninsula, as well as a 115-acre stretch of undeveloped coastal beach dunes. Researchers conducted a third survey in 2011 on both Guana peninsula and beach dunes. 

Because gopher tortoises spend most of their time inside their burrows, they can be hard for the surveyors to find. Some even camouflage their digs under vegetation. To discover burrows, a team of researchers and volunteers systematically traverses the ground in search of an “apron,” a telltale mound made of excavated soil and sand in front of a burrow entrance. Once located, records are made of the burrow site via GPS. Other data collected includes tortoise class size (e.g. adult, sub-adult, or juvenile) and burrow status (active, inactive, or abandoned).

Results from the three surveys show burrow numbers remaining stable on the Guana peninsula and increasing on the beach dunes. While Pawelek says these numbers could possibly result from differences in survey efforts, she adds that they are hopeful that the increase is due to a growing population.

To monitor activity of burrow commensals, Pawelek recently set up motion activated cameras in front of both active and inactive adult burrows. She positioned each camera facing a burrow so that it records 30-second video clips whenever it detects animal movement. The system has recorded an Eastern coachwhip, Southern toad, and several mice and rats utilizing burrows. Mammals observed near entrances or going in and out of burrows include Virginia opossums, bobcats, armadillos, marsh rabbits and raccoons. To see video clips, visit the GTM Research Reserve’s YouTube channel.

Pawelek reports that data collected from the trail cameras show that all initially selected inactive burrows have either collapsed or become active again. She notes that, “Monitoring inactive burrows through the use of trail cameras has shown how quickly burrow status changes, thus stressing that these are very dynamic systems.”

To help rescue and rehabilitate the declining gopher tortoise population, researchers are not just looking at the burrows and who uses them. They gather facts concerning gopher tortoise habits: what they prefer to eat, where they reproduce and live, how much terrain an individual stakes out as their own territory and how they manage to keep rivals at bay. Published and pooled data will help provide a more thorough picture of the overall needs of the gopher tortoise. Pawelek believes that by monitoring the Reserve’s tortoises over time, management decisions can be influenced to better protect and improve their habitat, which not only benefits the tortoises, but their burrow commensals as well.

The public is generally not aware that as the law stands it is illegal to damage a gopher tortoise burrow. Permits are required to move gopher tortoises from their home territory for clearing land or for development, in which case the law states, “The gopher tortoise must be protected, or relocated to a safer area.” The only exception to needing a permit is for wildlife management to improve habitat.

Anyone seeing an injured gopher tortoise or any other wildlife species in trouble should report it to the Florida FWC Hotline at (888) 404-3922. For more information on the research, restoration, education, and conservation programs at the GTM Research Reserve, to attend public lectures or join guided trail hikes, call (904) 823-4500 or visit the website.

Gopher tortoise at the GTM Research Reserve

GTM Research Reserve Background

Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas (CAMA) manages the GTM Research Reserve along with 41 aquatic preserves, the Florida National Marine Sanctuary, and the Coral Reef Conservation Program. CAMA’s programs and activities are designed to help Floridians better understand the state’s resources by research and education activities and by conserving, restoring, and protecting Florida’s coastal aquatic resources for the benefit of people and the environment.

The GTM Research Reserve was established as a partnership between the state of Florida and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The reserve is one of 28 research reserves operating across the nation and one of three in Florida. For more information on the GTM Research Reserve, visit the GTM Research Reserve website or For more information on the DEP CAMA office, visit their website.

Author:  Susan van Hoek, GTM Research Reserve Environmental Educator
Sources:  Jaime Pawelek, GTM Research Reserve biologist; Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission;Gopher Tortoise Facts and Information; and Laws on Gopher Tortoises in the State of Florida.

 SIDEBAR: Question: Why does a gopher tortoise cross the road? Answer: To get to the other side, which is precisely why Good Samaritans should never assist a tortoise in the road by putting it back where it came from. According to scientific studies, the animal really wants to go wherever it is heading. If returned to its starting point, it will turn around and head right back into the traffic, still determined to get to the other side.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Invasion is Already Here!

Tension builds as two heroes sneak between the shadows. Violins swell ominously. Only one last open area to breech before they can reach that shining box that contains the magic button that can cause the destruction of the invading aliens and free the rest of mankind.  The heroes breathe deeply, using the robotic watch style of the alien sentinel (look left…pause…look center…pause…look right…pause…) to time their move perfectly. As the sentinel looks right, they sprint across the open field, hoping against all hope to reach and press the game-changing button before the creature’s gaze moves left. Half-way to the button, something goes terribly wrong! Whoosh, ching, ba-dump! The soundtrack gives a final swell and fades away. The heroes seemingly disappear, until the camera pans away and up, revealing that what the heroes once thought was a field had actually been a body of water overtaken by an invasion of water-lettuce. They frantically swim, leaving us on the edge of our seats and then. Our imaginary screen darkens for a moment and when it appears once again, we see a caption: 10 years have passed. A decade later, the alien sentinel is still in place, still watching (look left…pause…look center…pause…look right…pause…), but there is little else recognizable remaining. The invading species has won, forever altering the habitat and structure of the native community that had once prospered there.

The above may sound like a movie, but change the role of the hero from human to our native plant species, and you find the invasion has indeed already begun. Our imaginary film serves as a simple way to illustrate the effects of an invasive species, and to open a dialogue about what each of us can do to stop the invasion.

Invasive plants are broken into two categories:

Category I – Alters native plant communities by displacing native species,changing community structures or ecological functions or hybridizing with natives. In our imaginary film, both the alien AND the water lettuce are Category I invasive species.

Category II- Increasing in abundance or frequency but have not yet altered Florida plant communities to the extent shown by Category I species. It is important to note that Category II invasive species can be re-assigned to Category I in the event their impact begins to fall in line with that category.

Not all invasive plants are prohibited for sale in Florida, and an invasive species can of course be native and purchased in other states. This makes knowledge the best tool in fighting invasive species. We challenge you to us the resource links below to become aware of some of the common invasive species found in Florida and where possible remove and replace them with native plants. Native plants have many benefits, including:
  • Add beauty- being native, you can be sure they will thrive in our ecology
  • Conserve water!
  • Food and shelter- native plants provide this for our native butterflies, birds and other wildlife
  • Save time and money- native plants require less maintenance and pest control efforts
 If you locate invasive plants (or animals) as you stroll beautiful Florida you can also report them. Report both online at, or report animals to 1-888-Ive-Got1 (1-888-483-468). There is even an IveGot1 Smartphone app for identifying and reporting. When reporting invasive plants and animals be ready with the following information:
  • Your name & contact info
  • Name, description, and or photo of the species
  • Date
  • Location (GPS, street address, good description of location and habitat)
Once you have reported, local and/or state verifiers validate your entry and the data is used to help guide whether further action is needed to control the species.

 Join Our Task Force!

Our second challenge is a call to arms! Join the fight against the invasion with us! The GTM Research Reserve has a group of volunteers who serve as an invasive species task force, and this team has helped eradicate invasive species within the reserve’s 73,000 acres and beyond. They can’t continue winning this fight alone though! Don’t let them become the last heroes, join them! Learn more about the task force and the work the GTM Research Reserve and its volunteers strive to accomplish at the Volunteer Wikispace Stewardship Page. Also, take our short invasive plant survey and get involved!

Additional Resources: