It is common for even experienced outdoors people to arrive at the Everglades expecting swarms of nasty animals and aggressively poisonous plants. The reality is a lot less glamorous. Yes, Everglades has alligators, crocodiles, four kinds of poisonous snakes, an abundance of spiders, and plants that can cause a bad skin rash. Nevertheless, more than a million people will visit the park this year and experience no ill effects. Fifth and sixth grade students thrive on a hint of danger. Understanding the creatures and plants that present a hazard to humans will help you to tune into their natural curiosity.
Since it is illegal to feed alligators in Everglades National Park they do not associate humans with food. In less frequented areas, they often retain the natural caution of wild animals, moving away as humans approach. In high visitor use areas such as the Anhinga Trail, alligators become accustomed to the presence of people. Do not, however, make the mistake of viewing these animals as tame. The distance between an alligator and an observer should never be less than twice the alligator's total length. Alligators are strong and agile animals. Always treat them with respect.
Rare and shy, crocodiles prefer brackish water areas. You will not see crocodiles along the Anhinga Trail because it is a freshwater habitat. Crocodiles do frequent the remote area, 15 to 18 miles downstream from Royal Palm, where Taylor Slough flows into Florida Bay.
These ants thrive in disturbed areas, building large sandy mounds that dot lawns and trail edges. Field trip participants need to watch their feet, as stepping on a mound home will bring forth a parade of angry ants with a nasty bite. Fire ants are one of the many exotic species in South Florida. "Exotic" means they were imported from somewhere else. Such species - whether insect, plant, animal or fish - quite often lack the natural biological controls that kept them in check in their original environment. Several exotic species, including Brazilian pepper (a large shrub), melaleuca (a tree), and Mayan cichlid (a kind of fish), are dramatically altering the ecology of some parts of the Everglades.
Scorpions are common in the pinelands. They move through the leaf litter hunting at night, but spend their day under logs or under tree bark. As their bite is painful to humans, students should be careful that they can see where their fingers are going. Scorpions eat insects including cockroaches!
Spiders are found everywhere on earth, but are especially common in warmer climates. All spiders kill their prey by injecting venom. (They then use juices from their digestive glands to liquefy the insides of the prey before sucking it into their mouths.) Spiders dine mostly on insects. None eat humans, and biting a human is a desperate line of defense as it wastes venom. The two North American spider species considered to be poisonous to humans, the brown recluse and the black widow, have not been seen on this field trip. Students, however, will have an excellent opportunity to examine the webs of common orb weavers such as the black and yellow argiope and the orchard spider.
There are twenty-six kinds of snakes in the Everglades, but only four are poisonous. The most commonly seen snake on this field trip is the brown water snake, a non-poisonous variety with blotchy brown skin, typically seen sunning itself along the Anhinga Trail. Because snakes feel vibrations from the ground with their bodies, they are likely to move away from the thunderous footsteps of an approaching school group. Most years pass without a single sighting of a poisonous snake on any of the Royal Palm/Long Pine Key field trips.
Fuzzy bumblebees, shiny black carpenter bees, and slender bodied-wasps can all be seen on a Royal Palm/Long Pine Key trip. The insects in this group have stingers, but are unlikely to use them unless trapped. Notice that most bees are busy visiting flowers.
Poison ivy grows as a small herb or vine. It is quite common along the mowed edges of the Long Pine Key picnic area. Its relative, poison wood, is a shrub-tree native to the American tropics. Poisonwood shrubs grow in the Long Pine Key and Royal Palm areas. The trip provides an excellent opportunity to teach students how to recognize these plants.
Both poison ivy and poisonwood have oils on the leaves and twigs that may cause an allergic reaction. Like most allergies, not everyone is equally affected. The reaction is not immediate. Usually the rash takes a few days to develop. Washing exposed skin with cold water and soap is often enough to prevent a reaction. Since school groups must stay on the trails, students who wear long pants, and exercise caution about what they touch, are not likely to make skin contact with these plants.
Although these plant species
sometimes irritate humans, they are woven into the Everglades web of life.
The fruits of poisonwood and poison ivy are both eaten by birds. Poisonwood berries are, in fact,
a preferred food of the rare white crowned pigeon.
|Always emphasize respect rather than fear in teaching students about the hazardous plants and animals of the Everglades. Remember to teach by example that the outdoors is an enjoyable, valuable place.|