Posted by: floridanature | January 20, 2010

Welcome to Our Tropical Winterland

And so for me, the deep Arctic Florida freeze of January came down to this:

Anoles—those little lizards that dart about in the foliage understory—didn’t fare well. The hardest hit seemed to be the non-native Cuban anoles, the little brutes that have quietly slipped into Florida over the last few years and have been eating their way through our native population of anoles. Am figuring they’re morphing into the reptile version of former VP Dick Cheney—although that metaphor may be redundant for those who already figured Cheney was a large reptile inside a very expensive suit.  (Maybe, it’s less troublesome to think of the Cuban anoles in a fictional way, more like the sci-fi Blob, an adhesive force that moves across the landscape like a giant ball of Silly Putty and only Steve McQueen can stop it. And he does so by? Freezing it.)   

Maybe the Cuban lizards are annoyed our natives have the capacity to turn green, and they can’t, so they get Draconian about it all. Guess you could blame it on Castro—god knows we’ve tried to blame as much as we can on him. But, before El Jefe, Cuba had been even more dogmatic—largely thanks to our own U.S. government which propped up a moral flat-line dictator by the name of Fulgencio Batista. But, as per modern China, he was “our” totalitarian, and thus, immune from the laws of morality—or even from the context of history. Geez, we sure can fool ourselves when we want to.

Meanwhile, down in South Florida, some guy actually video taped an iguana falling out of a tree. Iguanas didn’t sneak in on some container ship,  like their diminutive Cuban brethren. Instead, they were sold as “pets”. At some brief point of clarity, the respective owner of that particular pet grew bored with watching what is essentially a hunk-o-meat with scales lay around most of the day and do nothing except eat. And so, it was banished to the Great Outdoors of Florida—which is already brimming with orphaned exotics from the tropics, both animals and plants. (Once a bit north of Ft. Pierce, we were filming some B-roll for a nature film and spotted an iguana in a black mangrove tree, and he didn’t seemed too spooked by having a camera crew huddled around him.)

Not Dick Cheney

In honor of all of this Arctic air biz, one out-of-state newspaper recently ran the headline: “Snowing In Florida : Freezing Iguanas Falling Out of Trees”. Which sort of suggested that lizards were raining from the sky like giant banana-shaped slabs o’ frozen meat, a Wild Kingdom with a modern Florida surreal twist.

I’ve also noticed that the other Cuban herp immigrant, the Cuban Tree Frog, has been missing from our local landscape lately. These guys have the same sort of appetite for their own kin, and are putting a nice dent in the native Florida tree frog population (especially the Greens).  And larger mamas—they grow to five inches—have even been seen eating Southern Toads. I’m figuring anything that would eat a large toad surely has an enormous capacity for almost anything. Emerson, likely shivering in a New England winter, once described Florida and Cuba as the “happiest of latitudes”—but this was long before globalization started moving all the ecological chess pieces around.

In fact, all the exotics that have been quietly sneaking away from indoor cages and glass tanks  to the hammocks and islands and marshes of Florida’s remaining native landscape over the last 20 or 30 years seem to have done quite well. The most recent catch during the freeze was that of a giant green anaconda, living in a drainage pipe down in Osceola County (not far from Disney), and feasting on ducks and geese in a nearby pond. This one may be the most dangerous snake of all, given its ability to grow really big and eat really big animals. Worse, it may start breeding with other exotic reptiles to create a “super snake” that knows absolutely no bounds. The freeze sort of stunned it, at least long enough so it could be captured.

Cuban tree frog

Add to this the arrival of other exotics—the meat-eating Tegu lizard that looks like an Iguana on steroids. (I saw one lumber across a dirt trail through the rainforest once in Guyana. He moved with a certain aplomb, like he was the Bad Leroy Brown of reptiles, and our Land Rover wasn’t much concern to him at all.) And of course, the Monitor Lizard, which like the Tegu, is also living outdoors somewhere in southwest Florida.

Have been sort of expecting an exotic Slam Down—or whatever those extreme pro Rasslin’ matches inside chain-link cages are called. We already known that pythons are doing very well in the Glades, and have even seen them rassling with our own native alligators.  So am figuring that matching up a native species with an exotic ought to be good for a Pay TV event. Add a green anaconda and a carnivorus Tegu to that mix and you got yourself a dandy tag-team match.

Water-wise, rivers like the St. Johns dip down into the 40’s during these events, and as a guy who was once scuba diving into water almost that cold, I can tell you it’s a numbing experience. A Florida spring with its year-round 72F waters upwelling from our limestone aquifer seems toasty in comparison. And that’s why the warm-bloodied manatees make a beeline for any place that’s warmer than the river—including natural springs, as well as the artificially-heated thermal effluent from utility plants.

Over the last few years, manatees have been joined by another strange exotic in the springs, the Amazonian suckermouth catfish. There are actually two species of this fish thriving here in Florida, both of which were released via the aquarium trade. In fish tanks they grow to a few inches and eat algae, and that’s that. But out in nature, they grow up to a foot or more in length, breed copiously, dig little tunnels in the side of river banks, and clog up the springs with their Amazon-iness. Worst, they now appear to have acclimated so they no longer *have* to be in the more tropical springs, and have expanded their range to where no Amazonian catfish has gone before.

When in the Amazon upstream of Iquitos once, I actually saw one of these fish laying atop a water hyacinth (another Florida exotic), out soaking up the sun on a particularly pleasant day. Later, we sat around in the evening on our old river boat and ate the catfish, which had been shucked from its tough shell. The meat was white and good, and while it didn’t taste like chicken, it certainly could hold its own with our own native Florida catfish, cuisine-wise.

Maybe the fish has a marketing problem, and if more folks knew how tasty it was, we’d see fewer of them around. Am figuring Red Lobster can pick up the slack on this one, maybe calling it “Lobster Fish” or “Tropical Wonderland Filet”, like they’ve done with the deepwater fish that biologists call “Slime Head”, renaming it “Monk Fish” as if consuming it might allow some peaceful culinary supplication.

Coven of Amazonian catfish plotting their next move at Blue Spring

The other big thing that happened in Central Florida when it got down to close to 25 F one night was that the bird baths in my back yard froze solid. Not just at the surface as they’ve done in years past, but all the way to the bottom, four inches or so worth of solid ice. One of the birdbaths actually cracked from that experience, and when I told one of my northern friends of this, he laughed since he learned years ago to empty all the birdbaths when a serious freeze was headed his way.

green anaconda

Well, my little cracked birdbath wasn’t that big of a deal since it was easy to fix. But the event was a sort of microcosm for what’s  happening on a larger scale to our Florida earth. Some northerners call this phenomenum a “FrostQuake”.  One of the ways to try to keep crops and plants from freezing is to put a light layer of water (which quickly turns to ice) atop them. But all that groundwater pumping can drain the upper portion of our Aquifer, allowing sinkholes to dimple the landscape. At last count, we had ten new sinks open up just during January 2010.

While groundwater pumping from an already over-stressed Aquifer will cause this, frost also adds another stressor to the equation: The top o’ the ground freezes by night and thaws by day. The affect is not unlike that expand-contract thing that causes birdbaths to crack. When the ice forms, the ground sort of expands, as the water does in the bird bath. But when it melts, it then constricts back to normal— and settles a bit. (It does so usually much faster than it takes to freeze and expand.)

Cover for Bad, Bad Leroy Brown

With each successive freeze comes the squeeze-settle push on the terrain, and soon, all this sand and soft limestone that are just under the surface—-that is, the top of our Aquifer— begin to react as well. And then one sunny morning, the earth thaws one last time, and viola!—instant sink.

I stopped typing there for a moment to let all of this “sink” in, and realized I have created the sort of Classic Comic Book that is Extreme Wintertime in Florida: South American Tegus and Anacondas rassling Gators and Bears, giant flat-tailed marine mammals stacking up in springs like cordwood, tiny lizards and frogs battling to the death—and if this isn’t surreal enough, the actual ground under us is busy falling away in great chunks, as if it’s made of a giant confection and all the sugar-craving kids who ever dreamed of being Charlie in the Chocolate Factory are gnawing their way through.

Not too much else to say about the freeze. Except this: February is historically our coldest month, even here in the “happiest of latitudes”. All that’s gone on could just be a scrimmage for a grander championship game—or a rehearsal for a theater play. And, as we know from reading Carl Hiaasen  —or on a darker note, William Kennedy’s “Ironweed”— there’s hardly anything you can imagine that hasn’t already happened in real life…

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Responses

  1. Love your description of Cheney. Apt.

    As for green anacondas, actually the Burmese/Indian python is of greater threat to humans. The former have never been recorded “taking” people (first time for everything, tho), but the latter have. Also, the threat of green anacondas breeding with other species to create a supersnake is, well, specious.

    Truly enjoy your blog.

  2. Thanks for the nice comments, and insight on the appetite of large exotic snakes. This is a territory that, admittedly, is still a big unknown for me. Wouldn’t recognize the difference between a rock python and a green one (but am figuring they would). As you know, the more serious issue is the fact our Florida landscape is so disrupted most anything that can find a niche would do well here; a deep freeze is likely just a speed bump for most of these guys.

  3. Hi, Bill,
    I found your blog looking for Stephen Crane and the Commodore. I’m giving a program at the Jacksonville Historical Society this month about the shipwreck and its confirmation as the Commodore by real marine archaeologists in 2004.

    So hello again after all these years. And I’m so happy to have found your blog! Will look forward to it every month.

    Elizabeth Friedmann

  4. Hi Elizabeth- Great to hear from you. Glad you continue to follow the Commodore “trail” Is it possible to get a copy of your paper electronically?
    Am glad you enjoy the “un-blog”. I try to update it with a new essay when I find a bit o’ time…
    – B

  5. The only problem with this i have is those suckermouth catfish will actually out grow the fish tank their in (i know from personal experience and hearing from other people) that and the thought of them being edible never crossed my mind, have had iguana before though and it does taste like chicken. Love the blog though!

  6. Kudos to the author of this article for not referring to the amazon catfish mentioned as “plecos “. A common mistake perpetuated by pet stores. The name is incorrectly used for all loracid cats, when really its a species name of just one of hundreds of loracids. (Pet peeve).


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