Biology of Sub-Tropical Florida Trip

Albion Area Lifelong Learners

The Biology of Sub-Tropical Florida — Pilot Class

March 5-13, 2014
Instructor:  Jeffrey C. Carrier, Ph.D.

“The Biology of Sub-Tropical Florida” was established as a pilot class to determine if future “total immersion field trip” classes should be considered for AALL.  The 18 people who took part would definitely and unanimously vote “YES!”

All of the elements of a great AALL class outing were present:

1.   Enthusiastic participants, eager to learn, bursting with questions and displaying indomitable spirit and stamina
2.   Incredibly well-organized itinerary, logistics, and curriculum
3.   A great teacher and his assistant and wife Carol
4.   Superb weather
5.   Fascinating and varied subject matter

Friendships were made and strengthened.  Each person brought her/his own expertise, outlook, and knowledge to share with the group.

The class flew (or drove) into Fort Lauderdale and immediately boarded rental vans headed for Little Torch Key, only 20 miles from Key West.  Each van had a walkie-talkie so that sites of interest could be noted even while moving.

The next two days were spent learning about the exposed ancient coral structure of the Florida Keys and the various habitats present, including the importance of mangroves, fresh water challenges, weather, and, of course, the biology.  The class saw several of the endangered Key Deer found only on neighboring Big Pine Key as well as many species of birds.  (One member of the class logged over 95 species of birds during the trip.) Invasive species such as Australian Pines and Iguanas were noted.

A day was spent touring Key West and the homes of Ernest Hemingway and John James Audubon, with the dominant animal species, Homo sapiens, coming under closest scrutiny.

The following day took us aboard a 100’ catamaran for a high-speed trip to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson, 75 miles west of Key West.  This little-known National Park is fascinating for its history, its beauty, and its biology. It is the location of most of Jeff Carrier’s nurse shark mating studies. We were fortunate to have Wes Pratt, Jeff’s research partner of many years, along for the ride. Participants were able to visit with him and learn about his ongoing work with sharks. Throughout the trip, similar opportunities to meet and learn from on-scene experts abounded.

The group next travelled off the Keys and into the Everglades, where we learned about the hydrology of southern Florida and saw fascinating birds, turtles, flowers, and alligators. Several stops were made along the way to highlight the range of diversity within the Everglades, which at first glance seems to be unchanging across its reach.

Another major stop was a visit to Corkscrew Swamp, a National Audubon Society Sanctuary.  Here, the class wandered the miles of boardwalks to study the flora and fauna of this amazing place, which includes the largest remaining bald cypress forest in the world.

Archbold Biological Station was the next attraction, and the class learned about the unique habitat of the Lake Wales Ridge, which is sandy, dry scrub home to many unique plants and animals.  One not-so-rare marvel was the humble saw palmetto plant, some specimens of which can be 10,000 years in age!

The final major tour was a behind-the-scenes look at the animal rescue facilities and programs at Sea World near Orlando.  Here the class could see veterinarians at work restoring the health of injured animals brought in from outside the park, including birds, reptiles, and mammals.  Close-up views of manatees, pilot whales, dolphins, sharks, and birds of all sorts (class members are now able to say they petted a penguin) were enjoyed by all, as Sea World experts shared their time and experiences. After the tour, the class was free to roam the “front end” of Sea World and enjoy the exhibits and shows.

We saw and learned about the beauty, interconnectivity, and wonders of nature as well as spoilage caused by mankind.  But we also met scientists and naturalists who are striving to preserve and restore nature.

AALL, and particularly those who were able to participate in the class, owe a big thanks to Jeff and Carol, who worked so hard to make this an enjoyable and fulfilling trip and who set avery high bar for future “travelling” classes.

———-Jim Whitehouse

Unless otherwise noted, all pictures are courtesy of Jeff and Carol Carrier.  All rights reserved.

Click on any image to see an enlarged view.