Zooming along on the way to the end of the road, its easy to miss some of the Keys most intriguing residents. A few of them hide amongst the trees, others show off in the swampy shallows, and one just hangs out all day on the shoulder of the road.
No, we’re not talking about people camping in the woods, intrepid flats fishermen, or the guy with the “Jesus saves” bicycle trailer, warning the end is near. This is about the rare animals and plats of the Keys, and how to sneak a glimpse of them.
Not too far back in geologic time, most of Florida Bay was dry land, connecting the Keys to the mainland. When the last ice age began to wane around 15,000 years ago, sea levels rose, isolating the Keys. Since then, wildlife and plants on the little islands have slowly evolved into their own peculiar styles. Below are a few favorites. Some are easy to find. Others require a bit more adventure and patience.
Endangered Key Deer
The tiny Key deer are the poster child for Keys’ endangered species. These docile, wide-eyed bucks and does are easy to spot on Big Pine and No Name Keys. Visit the Key Deer Bookstore for sighting advice, or just drive slowly around the back roads. Newborns wobble through the spring, and males strut for the rut each fall. There are about 1,000 Key deer alive today. Just remember, no matter how much they tell you they like Cheetoes, don’t feed them anything. It can seriously harm them. (Photo: Michael Warren / Getty Images)
The Rare Great White Heron
These exceptionally large birds dot the tidal flats and mangrove shallows from Big Pine to Key West (a.k.a. the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge). They stand more than 5 feet tall with 7-foot wingspans. Unlike their cousins, the far-migrating great blue herons, the whites don’t venture farther than their own backyard. Sometimes confused with great egrets, they can be distinguished by their larger size and yellow legs (great egrets’ are black). (Photo: Karuna Eberl)
The Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit
The smallest of marsh rabbits, these endangered hoppers are mostly found on Big Pine Key. Though nocturnal, they sometimes pop up during the day, near the Blue Hole, as well as the roadsides of Geiger Key and Boca Chica further south. Drive slowly. Like Key Deer, they tend to wander too far into the road for their own good. Random fact: their Latin name, Sylvilagus palustris hefneri, is in honor of Playboy bunny magnate Hugh Hefner, who donated their scientific research fund. They live only in the Keys, and their population numbers are unknown but considered grave, after hurricane Irma killed many. (Photo: Moose Henderson / iStock)
Key Largo Woodrat
You are not going to see one of these. They do deserve a mention, however, and not just because they are adorable. These little mouse-looking furries live only in the forests around Key Largo. There, they drag massive sticks to their dens for use as building materials. However, all of that commotion has been part of their undoing. Roaming house cats hear that sound as a dinner bell. Combined with a local resorts’ persistence on feeding feral cats near their main habitat, and the major factor pushing these mousey-looking mammals to the brink of extinction is very plainly felines.
Miami Blue Butterfly
One of the most endangered butterflies in the world, the tiny Miami blues are also only found in the Keys. They once fluttered across most Florida coasts, and were common as far north as Daytona Beach. Since their beach-berm habitat is also where people most like to build resorts, they disappeared on the mainland by the 1980s. They were thought to be completely extinct, until a researcher found a few in Bahia Honda State Park in 1999. That population eventually died off as well, but then more were found in the Key West National Wildlife refuge in 2006. Today few intrepid scientists have been tying to save them by breeding and releasing them into the wild at Long Key State Park, in the refuge, and near Big Pine Key.
Endangered Florida Keys Mole Skink
Almost no one has ever seen this reclusive lizard and its flamboyantly pink tail. It lives below the surface on beach berms, and only occasionally pops up in a biologist’s well-laid trap. They are exceedingly rare, along with their reptile cousins the tiny Key Ringneck snakes and striped mud turtles. Unfortunately, hurricane Irma destroyed most of their known habitat in the Lower Keys, so finding one of these is probably now as difficult as catching a glimpse of a Miami blue. (Photo: Jonathan Mays / Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWI))
Endangered Sea Turtles
The five species of endangered sea turtles found in the Keys are also found in other waters around the world, but seeing one is still a life-defining moment. Greens and loggerheads are the most common, and can be spotted warming in the sun at the surface or cruising underwater near reefs. Dry Tortugas and Sand Key are good bets, especially during nesting season from May through October. The numbers of green turtles in the Caribbean dropped by about 10,000 percent over the last two centuries, and the ones left today face an uphill struggle against disease and warming oceans. Boat slowly to prevent collisions and risking injury to them, and heed beach closure signs so as not to damage nests. To catch a guaranteed glimpse, visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. (Photo: Fine Art Photos / iStock)
Florida’s Goliath Grouper
There’s no experience quite like having an 600-pound fish stare you in the face. But while Goliath groupers look intimidating, they are gentile giants, who only occasionally startle spear fishermen who didn’t offer to share their catch. Though some scientists believe these endangered creatures can live upwards of 100 years, finding one in the wild is a rare treat. The best bet is Looe Key Reef in the Lower Keys, where a few sometimes show off to lucky scuba divers and snorkelers. We should note, these guys are not strictly Keys residents, they also call elsewhere in the Caribbean home, as do our next highlights. (Photo: Karuna Eberl)
The Rare Giant Barrel Sponge
Known as the redwoods of the reef, giant barrel sponges can grow several feet tall and wide. Inside their bowl-shaped bodies live crabs, shrimp and fish. These slow-growing filter feeders can live more than 2,000 years. Though most life on coral reefs is in danger from climate change, acidification, disease, and pollution, in recent years giant barrel sponges have actually increased a little in the Keys (though maybe only because they’re taking advantage of ground given up by dying corals). They are best spotted near Key Largo, on Conch and Pickles reefs. (Photo: Durdenimages / iStock)
Staghorn and Elkhorn Coral
Reaching out like bony fingers beckoning to schools of fish, staghorn and elkhorn corals are the main building blocks of the Caribbean’s reef matrix. In recent decades they’ve suffered more than an 80 percent decline, but the pioneers of keeping them alive call the Upper Keys home. The scientists and volunteers of the Coral Restoration Foundation have planted more than 74,000 back onto Keys reefs. These two kinds of animal colonies can be found, at least in modest numbers, on many reefs in the Keys, and especially out at Dry Tortugas. Those wanting a more intimate viewing can volunteer to help out the foundation with their farming and replanting efforts. (Photo: johnandersonphoto / iStock)
The White-Crowned Pigeon
It’s difficult to get a good, long look at these black beauties. They are shy, probably from being hunted to near extinction. But stand really still with a telephoto lens, and when the sun is just right it will illuminate the striking iridescence on their necks. The hotter months are the times to spot them, when they migrate to the Keys from the Caribbean. They can be seen munching on poisonwood berries, and sometimes perched atop sea grape trees and power lines. (Photo: Karuna Eberl)
About the Author
Karuna Eberl writes from the Florida Keys, on matters of travel, nature, history and kindness. She co-authored Quixotic Key West & the Lower Keys Travel Guide (Quixotic Travel Guides), which recently won the Best Travel Book award from the American Book Festival.