Wabash Blogs Immersion 2008: Everglades

« February 2008 | Main

March 09, 2008

The Most Beautiful Floral Show

Phil Rushton—The plants the Everglades are presented with some of the most challenging a-biotic problems of any system that I have ever encountered. The problems arise mainly from the fact that both seasonal cycles and elevation change lead to drastic differences in the amount of freestanding water. This means that within just a small area there can be drastic changes in the species makeup and the adaptations derived to deal with the unique problems that each species has evolved for their niche. The limiting factor then for many of these species is the amount of suitable substrate, given that very rarely is there a closed canopy limiting the production of these plants. This forms an incredibly competitive system where disturbances and the ability to colonize rules the landscape. In my mind no other group of species epitomizes this more than the epiphytic plants that grow on other host plants. These plants cannot exist without other species that allow them to remain above the forest floors, either in the form of vines or small clusters such as the Bromeliads known as air plants.

With all this running through my mind from having been here several days, I was fortunate to see one of the most beautiful floral shows that I have ever seen.

The story begins rather unimpressively with a walk to check out the local marina—a walk down an old path that runs parallel to Flamingo Bay and an abandoned resort, left after a hurricane had caused severe water damage. Like most biologists I rarely look at the world without asking questions about the life around me, and one species in particular had struck me as odd from the first time I saw it. It seemed to span across the entire field outside of this resort blocking at all but the most resilient of plants, by simply smothering them its massive system of vines that seemed to entangle all life, even itself.

As I walked I began to notice that all the plants had small inflorescences that shot out with a single bud on each end but none of them were blooming, although they seemed to be bursting with small specks of a white petal, as if the plant would bloom at any moment provided you weren’t watching. I remember saying to myself that this must just be the result of the upcoming wet season, which affects many of the plant cycles in this and many other areas where winter is not necessarily a matter of mere temperature to its human interpreters. I shrugged and thought nothing more of it because I knew without a suitable bloom I would probably have an aneurysm trying to identify even with the best keys.
The other students and I made it to the marina, where we quickly discovered the nectar of beer that we had so longed for over the last few days, as if Dionysus had disguised himself as a middle aged Hispanic man simply to see the expression on the faces of some of his most faithful Wallies. We sat out on the wall of the marina drinking our beers and discussing all the things that we had never known or bothered to know about each other.†

It soon came time for dinner so we left the marina and returned to the camp, where Dr. Krohne was grilling steaks. After dinner, Bart and I had decided that the current supply of beer would never last us through the thirsty night (particularly since a water main break had made the water in the campground unfit for drinking), so we decided to make one last quick trip to the marina before the lecture on the coral reefs of southern Florida. With darkness setting in we were walking along the path admiring the stars and the moon that was painting a soft light on everything around us when suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a sea of white emerged just as we approached the old abandoned resort. This was the plant I was so puzzled by earlier, here in full bloom at night!

Now I had heard of flowers blooming of night, but I had never imagined it to be a sea of flowers like the one before us. Realizing we were probably holding up the lecture at this point, we decided it was best to make it back as quick as possible, but not without first grabbing a flower and a few leaves in order to discover more about this mysterious sea of flowers covering the landscape.

Upon returning we narrated our story to the other students and showed our prize to Dr. Krohne who spent a few seconds examining the flower then looking at us only to say, “So then what pollinates it?” Bart and I exchanged a few glances and then through out a few of the hypotheses that we had discussed while walking to the marina only to be promptly shot down and for good reason, the hypotheses were crap.

Then more like a guess than the gift of inspiration, I suggested that perhaps it was a moth of some kind, which was the answer that Dr. Krohne had been seeking. The key he said was understanding the specific adaptations this flower had gone to ensure that moths, most likely one specific species of moth, were the only pollinator capable of reaching the nectary buried deep within the stalk with their long proboscis. Just like the famous quote of Charles Darwin, who had found a flower such as this and from it he said that a moth exists with a proboscis long enough to reach this very deep nectary; several decades later they discovered the moth that he had hypothesized.

We quickly broke out the field guides in order to learn more. The flower was known as the Moonflower for obvious reason, and although I had earlier thought to myself that this was likely some kind of invasive species due to the nature of the highly disturbed habitat which we had found it and its dominance in this area, it turned out that it was native to Florida.

The field guide described it as a species that thrives in the wake of disturbance, such as the hurricane that had ended the resort. So with a small Swiss army knife we slowly dismembered the flower, making a smooth slice down the stalk to reveal a thin white style that lead from this strange flower down to a gynoecium. I tried my best to get a look at the gynoecium, but with the crude blade I was unable to get anything useful and eventually had to scrap the mutilated flower.

From that time on it seemed that moonflower showed up in the strangest places, covering roadsides and old trees in even the most pristine places such as Corkscrew sanctuary and I always found myself wishing I could see them again like it had been that night.

In photos: moonflower still blooming at sunrise at Flamingo in Florida Bay; Phil Rushton.

March 08, 2008

Face Down in the Ocean!

Barton Bridge—Yesterday, we Wabash Men had yet another great learning experience in Florida. We left our humble lodgings at the Flamingo campground and drove down to Key Largo for a snorkeling excursion (see photo album here). Key Largo is one of the first islands in the long string of islands known as the Florida Keys. Having traveled to Florida many times and never snorkeled there, I was excited to have the chance to explore the waters and reefs surrounding this area.

Arriving at Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, we were outfitted with snorkels, diving masks, and wetsuits. In the days leading up to the visit to Pennekamp, we were slightly apprehensive about the predicted weather conditions. But to our delight, the weather was only partly cloudy and subsequently, the conditions for snorkeling were perfect. The few clouds present provided short, but much enjoyed, breaks from the barrage of sunlight and heat that we Northerners are not accustomed to in March. I say enough about how beautiful it was yesterday.†

Enough about the weather though. During the thirty-minute boat ride to the offshore reef, I wondered what animals we were going to see in the water. Once in the water it was clear that we were going to have a great time and see much. The first area was a great span of sea grasses. This field of green was populated by a variety of sea life. Most notably were the schools of four-foot long barracuda and conch’s the size of basketballs. I had imagined that the conchs were going to be large, but these things were HUGE!!!†

Although the conchs were large, I knew they were nothing to be afraid of. They don’t have the biting capability of the barracudas. Being the field biologist that I try to be, I sought to follow a school of eight barracudas to monitor their behavior. This proved to be a fruitless endeavor as these perfectly streamlined hunters darted off with one quick flick of their tails. So I decided to observe a much more stationary organism—the large brain corals. The water surrounding these brain coral was teaming with life. Small fish of every color imaginable were darting in and around the nooks and crannies of the reef. Dr. Krohne spoke of a small channel that divided a large brain coral in half (reminiscent of the two halves of the human brain). He spoke of how comical it was to watch the groups of small fish be shot out of the channel and then sucked back in by the current formed by the waves overhead.†

Other members of our group were fortunate to see a small nurse shark (which is harmless) and another saw a fairly decent sized jellyfish. I, unfortunately, did not see a jellyfish or the nurse shark. But, it is hard to complain considering the vast array of other fish species that I saw: grouper, yellowtail, damselfish, enormous parrotfish (in photo above) and others I could not readily identify.

Time seemed to stand still while we were swimming in the water, but I was beckoned to return to the boat by its loud horn. Our hour and a half time limit for exploration flew by quickly. I had thought we were only in the water for maybe thirty to forty minutes. That age-old saying “Time flies when you’re having fun” still holds true when you’re facedown in the ocean!

After returning to dry land, we rinsed and returned our gear, washed the sea salt from our bodies and piled into our enormous 15-passenger van and headed to our second most anticipated destination of the day, the Mandalay restaurant. Over some cold drinks and appetizers of fried conch and clams we had extensive discussions of what we had seen in the water. At this point, one could not help but think “Isn’t life great?”†

We all had great meals, many consumed the very types of fish that they had just seen alive swimming in their natural habitats.†

The meal was topped off with hearty portions of delicious Key Lime Pie. For those of you who are not familiar with Key Limes, they are a smaller, more tart version of the limes we are used to in the north. They are fantastic to use in pies or simply as an addition to a cold Corona. Unfortunately, every day must come to an end, but we do not fret, because we know that the next day will take us to a new location and new adventures in Florida.

It’s getting late now, and I must retire for the night. Tomorrow we are driving to Sanibel Island, a well-loved vacation spot of my family for countless years. There we will be visiting the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge to observe more birds in their natural habitat (See a photo album here). Hopefully, we will be able to see the Reddish Egret, a species of egret that I have never seen before, one that is quite well-known for it’s high-energy behavior.

Thanks to Wabash College and Professor Krohne for making this trip possible for myself and my fellow Wallies.

In photo: Bart on the boat to the reef; parrotfish on the coral in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (photo by Max Bader); the reddish egret Bart saw at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Thursday.

March 07, 2008

A walk through Corkscrew Sanctuary

Steve Charles—We've been having trouble getting to wi-fi connections while camping, but the students have been studying at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and Ding Darling National Wildlife Sanctuary before getting ready to head home today. They've been blogging, too, though I doubt I'll have time to get those blogs loaded while I wait for our plane here at the Miami Airport.

So, in case they call the flight before I can finish those, here's a photo album from Wednesday, when the students got a close up look a the foraging behavior of egrets, herons, and ibises (ibi?) at Corkscrew Sanctuary.

In photo: Phil Rushton, Professor Krohne, Max Bader, and Jeff Austen observing wading birds at the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel Island.

March 04, 2008

Pine and marshmallows

Torm Hustvet—Let me preface this entry by saying that I am forever thankful for the resources that made this trip and the others I have experienced possible.

So let’s start with the campfire Barton and I gathered wood for and built Sunday night. (See photo albums from Monday and Tuesday.) There’s nothing like the smell of pine and roasting marshmallows. Much of the wood that we collected for the fire was the result of damage from Hurricane Rita years ago, so it was plenty dry and made an excellent campfire. We were without graham crackers, so my fellow classmates and I sandwiched the gooey marshmallows between two Chips Ahoy cookies (which, by the way, make an excellent snack for any chocolate enthusiast!).

Between the campfire last evening and today’s events I really feel as if the group is bonding. One of the most interesting parts of the evening was observing the stars with Dr. Krohne’s spotting scope, as we were able to isolate the rings of Saturn as well as constellations. I knew several students on the trip through prior immersion experiences; however, but these six students, with Dr. Krohne and Steve, are becoming a great group.

Monday started early as we bypassed breakfast to observe the morning actions at Anhinga Trail. We were able to observe the feeding behaviors of anhingas and great blue herons. Best of all, we were able to observe both a successful feeding by an anhinga and a less successful one. One unfortunate anhinga had gone through the trouble of catching a fish only to drop it to the waters below while trying to find a way to fit down its throat. An alligator near by had seemingly observed the anhinga having trouble and quickly occupied the area where the fish dropped. So the anhinga decided not to retrieve its lost breakfast. The lesson learned here was an important one: As a biology student in my senior year, I am used to predatory events being successful, and this observation directly contradicted my predisposed notions. Essentially, the anhinga caught the fish and provided a type of “carry-out” meal for the alligator. Not 20 meters away I observed a great blue heron take his meal well away from that area to avoid dropping it to the gators below. Not only did this appear to be some sort of adaptation, but it also displayed the wide diversity of birds and biology as a whole that I have been able to observe in only 2 days.

Later that day we broke camp at Long Key Pine and moved Flamingo Bay. Our afternoon tours consisted of walking along mangrove trails and visiting a nearby pond site to observe the bird populations and plant ecology systems. Then Dr. Krohne gave us the late afternoon off, and four of us hiked to the camp store. We bought our refreshments, met up with Dr. Krohne and Steve, and quickly began relax and talk. This is an experience that I have learned to love through my immersion trips. I have had been able to experience life with classmates in a much more personal fashion and I feel that a trip such as this helps encourage the learning atmosphere of the class following the trip.

I am incredibly thankful for my opportunities to travel to Ecuador (one month in summer of 2005), Belize, and the Everglades without the financial burden that many students at other colleges endure. I have gotten to know students and faculty in ways that have truly enriched my academic experience. If anyone would have told me that attending Wabash College (seven hours from my hometown of Waukon, IA) would have allowed me to meet the people I have met and seen the sights that I have seen, I simply would not have believed it!

Looking back on these experiences makes me want to contribute in some way following my graduation in May (feel free to email me for a resume, as I am still searching for environmental consulting opportunities!). I look forward to being able to provide such experiences to future students.

Editor's Note: On Tuesday, the students and Professor Krohne went snorkeling over the reefs at John Pennekamp National Marine Sanctuary. See a photo album here. We break camp again tomorrow morning and head for Corkscrew Sanctuary and out of reach of trusty wi-fi ports (and the gracious people at the Starbuck's in Florida City, who for two evenings let me sit here for hours working while only buying a cup of coffee.)

We'll be back with more student blogs Thursday.

March 02, 2008

Day Two: Water Turkeys

Max Bader—We woke up early on this first day of the trip—a chilly, damp morning; I didn’t exactly feel like I was on spring break in South Florida as I wiped the condensation from the outside of my sleeping bag. However, as we gathered around Dr. Krohne’s sausage, eggs, hash browns, and coffee the sun climbed higher and grew warmer. It was clear that we weren’t in Indiana any longer.

By the afternoon, everyone was ready for a siesta to escape the heat to which none of us were accustomed. The first place we visited today was the Anhinga Trail, which baptized us into the new world of double-breasted cormorants, black vultures, egrets, a rainbow of herons, alligators, and countless unfamiliar plant species. And of course there were the goofy looking Anhingas, or water turkeys. We’re supposed to be recording observations in our field notebooks, but it’s easy to become overwhelmed when you’re walking along a boardwalk where everything you see is completely new. I know from experience, though, that the novelty and wonder will wear off after the first few days of the trip, and by the end of the week most of us will be making exasperated remarks about seeing our ninth roseated spoonbill since lunch.

The benefits of a group as small as ours on this type of trip really became apparent today. We were able to see a lot more than we’d be able to with a larger number of guys, and when Dr. Krohne answered a question fielded by one of us, everyone else was within earshot to hear the answer and to possibly ask further questions. Several times today when Dr. Krohne stopped to briefly lecture along the boardwalk I even saw passers-by temporarily join us to listen to the wealth of information beyond what was available from the plaques posted along the trail. His experience and knowledge is, for me, what made today a learning experience instead of just an enjoyable stroll. After today, I’m really looking forward to the rest of the week; I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxed, stimulating way to spend my last spring break at Wabash.

See a photo album here.

In photo: Max Bader with his favorite anhinga, or water turkey, on the Anhinga Trail.

Learning by Lamplight

Steve Charles—We’ve set up camp at Long Pine Key Campground in the Everglades. Beautiful, starlit night. Warm breeze. Alligators in the pond behind us.

On the flight down, Max Bader had this to say about his expectations for the trip: “One guy told me that going to the Everglades with Professor Krohne is like seeing the ocean in a submarine with Jacques Cousteau. That’s what I’m mostly looking forward to. If I were here without a class, I’d have all these questions about what we’re seeing. Now I can ask Krohne!”

The learning began as soon as set up our tents. We gathered at the picnic table and, by the light of Professor Krohne’s Coleman lantern, heard more about this strange, scarred but resilient land. Too much too even begin to share here. But one fact took me aback: the Everglades is really a very shallow, wide, and incredibly slow-moving river. A river of grass, some have called it. A place of wonder.

Tomorrow the students will begin sharing their experiences. For now, here’s a photo album from Day One.