Posted by: floridanature | September 18, 2008

Organic Jewels that would be Snails

I am knee deep in flowing tidal water, sidestepping fist-sized chunks of coral and small sting rays on the white sand, when I see my first Key deer. It is 50 yards away, across a salt marsh basin of marl and sea purslane, immersed in water itself, nibbling at the new green shoots on the low branches of a red mangrove tree. It has a small rack—a six- pointer—and was for all purposes, a fully-grown whitetail buck. Except, what’s knee-deep water for me is neck-deep for the deer.

Ordinarily, this would have been an odd dream, just enough details to make it right, but otherwise all out of proportion—-me as Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputs. Except this was real life: I was on the lee shore of Big Pine in the Lower Florida Keys, and the little white tail would always be tiny, no larger than a grown collie.

You could argue the notion of real life is fluid here in these Keys anyway. They do seem squarely off the mainstream grid, trailing out into the south Atlantic from Florida’s southerly cape between the cusp of the tangible and the bit less so.

But that hardly explains the flesh-and-blood existence of the Key Deer. Nor does it account for all the other raging signs of speciation present on these islands: The colorful banded tree snails—-so unique they vary from one set of woods to another; the ringless ring-necked snake; the little marsh bunny unlike any found back on the mainland, a sub-group named for the founder of the Playboy empire as hefneri.

It was Edward O. Wilson who, in wanting to prove his theory of bio-geography, came to these Keys to test his notion of how the amount of land limits diversity of the plants and animals who must live on it. His point was well-taken: We are, all of us, on an island, a very large one, and it is currently soaring pell-mell through space. When there is less natural land to be had on this global island, there will eventually, be less of everything else–including us.

Meanwhile, on the true geographic islands of isolation that exist, evolution will more clearly change us into something other than what we used to be. As Darwin found in the Galapagos and Wallace in the Malay Peninsula, isolation will adapt, speciate, mutate us. We will prosper in niches, radiating anamatomically, to fill them. Within the confines of a subtropical key with scant fresh water and fodder, we may become tiny white-tailed deer. If so, we will number 400 to 500, and year-by-year—along with our fellow endemics—we will dwindle, circling the genetic wagons as the rest of the world stampedes ever closer.

Of the 43 islands linked by the “Overseas Highway”, the two with the largest chunks of relic natural land are Key Largo to the north and Big Pine to the south. Hundreds of other smaller keys in this same archipelago are scattered to the Gulf & Atlantic—some as wild as the day they were birthed from the sea and sand.

The roaded, bridged islands of Key Largo and Big Pine are remarkable for their great lopsided irony: Natural terrain on each sustains wildlife so rare it exists no where else in the world. Yet, this habitat pushes up against some of the most curious displays of civilization you’re likely to find.

In fact, the undeveloped landscape on North Key Largo, an asylum for tree snails and American crocodiles and endemic wood rats, is barely a half mile from the Caribbean Club—a rowdy waterfront tavern claiming to be the location for the classic flick “Key Largo.” Despite the homogenizing crush of upscale development, there are also enclaves of humans here as disjunct as the wildlife.

Since I have driven down from Miami, Key Largo seems a good place to start a random search for island mutations. I am with a friend, a bright woman who understands science and the way nature mimics its own design; she’s particularly sensitive to how local terrains express themselves, a quality I much admire. Today, while most other visitors are answering the boozy sirens’ call of Margaritaville, we are preparing to traipse through the seldom-seen territory of the northern half of this key.

From the mainland, US 1 skirts some salt marsh savannas, leaps over Jewfish Creek, and then lands smack in the middle of this island, chewing up what comes afterwards and spitting it back out as a go-fast, neon-lit, MTV stage set. In doing so, it bypasses some ten miles of natural land on the northern half of Key Largo, a territory spliced to the mainland by the more remote Card Sound bridge and a lonely double-lane strip of asphalt.

When I first started visiting these Keys 20 years ago, rabid land speculators were going into a feeding frenzy here. In violation of both natural and man-made laws, they began to scrap and dredge, erecting grand blossom-shrouded, stuccoed gates leading to what would be Port Bougainvillea—which they described as “an imitation Mediterranean coastal village”. They sliced a harbor out of the mangrove-covered limerock, ignoring what sediment and pollution would do to the coral reef, just offshore. With more money than sense, they soon went bankrupt, thus allowing the state of Florida to buy the land, preserving it by default. Social Darwinism did its work well.

Elsewhere on North Key Largo, land is now largely protected by public ownership or by the presence of endangered critters. Novelist Carl Hiaasen’s renegade “Skink” character sometimes lives here, cooking road-kill snake and taking revenge on the greedheads whom would cuinsinart natural Florida. Certainly, it is still wild enough to allow someone like Skink to roam with impunity.

We park at the side of the road and walk through a grand Mediterranean-style gate and onto a trail that was intended to be the entrance road for the doomed Port Bouiganvillea. It is warm and we are in shorts, t-shirts and sandals. This is now known as the “Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site”. At 2,500 acres, it is the largest subtropical West Indian hardwood forest in the U.S. Native trees and vines creep over the edges of the asphalt path, reclaiming their territory.

It is a welcome twist on the usual Florida story—this transformation of some con man’s wretched faux billionaire dream back into a quiet nature trail. It strikes me that the quandary of this peninsular state and its Keys is not just rapid growth, but the obsessive need to clone some mutant Fantasy Island vision—de plane, boss, de plane!—onto its remarkable natural soul.

Back here, we are surrounded by a jungle born of seeds long ago washed ashore from some distant home in the Antilles. We wander along, from tree to tree, trying to figure the deposition of each. Machineel, Jamaican dogwood, gumbo limbo, torchwood, white ironwood, mahogany. Stunted by North American standards, the trees instead grow dense, heavy tropical woods that entwine like the tortuous rigging of an ancient galleon. Under the shade of the foliage canopy, it is almost gloomy, the giddy, sunny ambience of the tourist-driven Keys dissolving with every step. As it does, a true sense of place gradually begins to emerge. Pale & ancient limestone bursts from under the thin detritus of soil, a reminder of the old bone of a reef below.

The air is full of the sweet, delicate pungency of a tropical forest being parboiled by the sun. When my friend looks around to see if something is blooming, she spots Liguus, one of the spectacular little tree snails. It is up high on the trunk of a Jamaican dogwood—busy gumming algae and fungi—and it looks for all the world like an ornate two-inch cone of porcelain. Collectors who prized the stylism of such shells once rampaged through these islands, snatching all the local tree snails within reach, and then torching the hammocks to make their prizes more rare.

I can’t help but wonder if snails that today graze up out of pluck-range have been spawned by generations of other mollusks who are similarly inclined.

Tree snails like this are found throughout the West Indies, where they speciate as they do here, changing colors and adding stripes depending on the forest in which they live. I’ve seen them in Cuba, and in the D.R. When these Keys arose from the sea after the last Ice Age, Liguus immigrated incidently—riding flotsam on favorable currents. Unable or unwilling to crawl between hammocks, they now live out generations of their lives in a single place, coloration and shell thickness added or taken away by the algae, the bark, the moisture special to each. They are Darwin’s Galapagos tortoises, in miniature.

We walk deeper into the hammock. At the end of the trail, the ruins of a pink pastel tower protrudes just above the canopy edge, the shabby remnant of a model home in a just-pretend Mediterranean village. Up on a tree, another Liguus grazes, nuanced and subtle in the way of this tropical place, an organic jewel masquerading as a mollusk.

It is a theater of transformation, as magical as it gets, and back here under the canopy of Antillean foliage, I take great pleasure in knowing there’s still room for the wonderfully strange Florida landscape to do its important work.



  1. Tree snails are unique. I’ve seen a few down in Big Cypress. I’ve seen a few in the Keys. Great post.

  2. Thanks, puc. Yep, but those little snails are so neat. Makes you realize how tropical and connected to the Antilles that southern Florida really is.

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