Florida – Day Six ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ

The Florida Files, University

Florida Golf Coast University partners with my University in The UK. (Bangor University). Today, we visited and had a tour of their mesmerising campus, which seemed to be a completely different world to the small Welsh town we were all accustomed to.

Arriving at approximately 9am, we were all soon astounded when we viewed the university. Filled with restaurants, tall colourful buildings, home to alligators and with a gym placed on each floor in the halls of residence, it really was a step away from little Bangor!

And I imagine the campus itself was larger than Bangor as a whole!

Two lovely guides (Katie and Rachel) who were current students at the university kindly guided us around the campus, filling our minds with facts about the university and in depth details about courses and student life. Fun fact: The medical campus has a realistic “doll” that gives birth to up to three babies at a time, and it can go off randomly, which gives the students a random and valuable practicing experience, enabling them to learn to deal with given scenarios, as they head towards their chosen careers.

It sounded extremely appealing. I particularly liked and respected the sustainability efforts FGCU engaged in, including food forests and the appliance of solar panels around campus. It’s always inspiring to see Universities encouraging students and staff to engage in more sustainable, better for the planet, changes.

Soon after our typical, tourist-y group photo, we headed up to floor four for a talk from a student, and his work on sword-tail fishes. This lasted for around an hour, as we sat comfortably in reclinable chairs in the most hi-tech computer lab. The talk was interesting and went into in-depth detail about molecular ecology and prey identification, alongside thrilling information about the sword tail species. Admittedly, not my favoured study areas, but an interesting talk all the same.

The afternoon had arisen, it was time for an adventurous swamp walk outside the university campus, which I loved taking part in! (Even if my Lecturer did threaten to drag me in when he almost fell…) And, with wet shoes at the ready, we were soon knee deep in water, surrounded with nature, whilst climbing freely over logs and clinging onto branches and leaves for trustworthy purposes with the *peaceful* sounds of students screaming as they attempted to avoid falling face flat in the murky swamp.

Of course, being Zoologists always up for an adventure and a new challenge, we followed our lecturer who remained enthusiastic to lead us down the pathway clearly labelled “NOT A TRAIL”, which I believe only added to the enjoyment and happy memories formed that day.

After an incredible time wading through the swamp, occupying a range of new bruises and insect bites throughout, we quickly dried ourselves off on the crisp green grass and headed to a nearby shopping mall.

Throughout the short journey, I attempted to remove a collaboration of twigs tucked neatly in my hair. A swamp memorabilia?

We firstly headed into a shop (which I apologetically forgot the name of) which sold a vast range of interesting outdoor items. From walking gear and tents, to guns!!

Of course, guns are legal in The US, but the experience of seeing them closely for a first time was a surreal experience. Guns of all sizes and colours (even pink!) I was personally unaware of how available guns were to the public, so it was reassuring to know that checks on individuals are vitally carried out before purchase. Though, worrying all the same…

After a wander around the first shop, we then headed into a surfers shop which was incredible and had a beautiful range of clothing items and accessories available, for both males and females. I purchased a stunning, colourful tie-dye t-shirt in aid of turtle conservation, with profits going towards helping the endangered species.

Interestingly, we strolled through the surf shop until we reached the exit, soon finding ourselves back outdoors in the blazing heat, surrounded with stunning views and the oddly silent surroundings.

In the not-so-far distance, a puppy shop was facing us, which I (prior to stepping inside) believed to be a common pet shop. However, I soon came to the realisation that this was in fact a puppy farm in disguise after noticing distressed puppies for sale inside, some overly crowded in enclosures whilst others were going mentally insane from the lack of company, alongside both physical and mental stimulation.

And, heartbreakingly, all puppies were away from their mothers, with very few toys to play with. We stayed for a little while, stoking the puppies (they weren’t allowed to be held) and issuing them with entertainment and love.

Again, with puppy farms leading such a huge controversy in The UK, it was baffling to encounter one in a different country which appeared to be completely normalised. It made me wonder about differences in animal rights and welfare across the globe, why some of us were campaigning for places similar to be abolished, whereas others evidently had no issues with them.

Conservation practice meets Behavioural Ecology – Chimp practical, measuring behaviour and compiling ethograms!

Behaviour Ecology, University

As a component of my Conservation Practice module, we began (much to my fulfilment) learning about the importance of, and the roles, of animal behaviour in conservation.

It’s been a joy to combine my two passions!

Therefore, in order to carry out our own study and to gain a further insight into the area, we headed to Welsh Mountain Zoo where we proceeded to carry out a chimp practical.

Peter (a keeper at the Zoo) gave us a talk about the chimps, their feeding habits and ways in which we could identify each individual, since there are 11 chimps living at the zoo (including males and females) this could’ve been considerably difficult. Some chimps were easy to distinguish, especially Mabel, since she was the oldest of the group, the smallest and had noticeable sexual swelling on her behind.

It was interesting to hear about the chimp’s captive diet, where they are fed a range of vegetables and special primate pellets, alongside fruits occasionally acting as a treat. I believe the prime feeding method used is scatter feeding, which is wonderful at replicating natural feeding habits and encouraging foraging (searching) behaviours. And, of course, limiting boredom and creating both mental and physical stimulation.

The process began by placing ourselves into groups of six, enabling us to work together to compile a list of behaviours and codes which we could implement into our ethograms. Ie: feeding, movement and resting behaviours. The behaviours noted were then coded, so (for example) feeding was listed as FE.

We divided the group into pairs, with one group observing their chosen male chimp, whereas my friend and I studied an easily identifiable female chimp – Katie.

For a duration of one hour we kept our eyes on Katie, closely observing her every move and flinch. To implement accuracy to the study, we ensured we didn’t take our eyes off Katie, as we wanted to avoid missing any behaviours, with one of us engaging in recording duties and the other acting as the source of information in regards to the behaviours being carried out, alongside the times they began and finished. And some behaviours interestingly had a longer duration than others and it was wonderful witnessing Katie using a stick as a tool to aid her foraging behaviour.

During the practical, we noted a range of behaviours. Including perching, feeding, climbing and vocalisations which were noted shortly after being fed, as Katie proudly left the outdoor area, walking back indoors mischievously armed with vegetables.

After an hour, the alarm ringed and it was time to end the experiment, which was a blast to carry out! The information gathered could then be collated into an organised ethogram, preferably in hierarchical order, which can be added to our behaviour reports.

Florida – Day Five ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ

The Florida Files, University

Our fifth day in Florida was spent in Naples, where we experienced the exciting privilege of visiting the FCGU (Florida Golf Coast University) research centre, visiting the majestic, stunning botanical gardens and driving our way to The Everglades.

We first stopped at the research centre. Listening to three different, informative, talks about different kinds of research carried out: including information about water flow and the movement of water in the wetlands, presented from a former masters student at the university and a bubbly lecturer from Spain.

After a morning spent in the research centre, we then proceeded to spend two hours roaming freely around the magnificent botanical gardens, viewing hundreds of unique, colourful plant and tree species. Some native to Florida, and others that were not – but gorgeous all the same. I thoroughly enjoyed the Botanical gardens and quickly became mesmerised by the vast amount of breathtakingly bright, beautiful and colourful sights and flowers around.

I even witnessed a plant therapy section of the garden, which I found to be an amazing idea. I hadn’t heard of plant therapy prior to this, so it was thrilling to expand upon my knowledge and understanding in that given area.

I could’ve happily spent an entire day in the gardens, simply strolling along and appreciating the natural beauty of nature.

The gardens were magical, peaceful and very scenic. I enjoyed the visit and I would definitely recommend it to other people. I loved witnessing new species I hadn’t previously encountered, alongside gaining further knowledge, such as vanilla being derived from orchid plants. (Vanilla being my favourite scent!) And embracing another stunning Floridan attraction.

The drive to The Everglades took approximately two hours from the botanical gardens, which I can confirm was completely worth it since it stood as a highly enjoyable, and unforgettable, experience, especially because we took loop road: A popular site to view wide abundance’s of wildlife – including alligators.

We made a few stops and eagerly left the mini buses to gain a closer look at the animals spotted along the way. We spotted alligators (including a juvenile on a log) anoles, and a range of bird species, like egrets. Spending time in Florida studying animals meant I was gaining more knowledge (and confidence) with identifying bird species!

We arrived at Coopertown Air-boat Tour, which I’d firstly like to admit I personally didn’t find a very pleasurable experience, from both an animal welfare and a personal perspective. And I can confirm that other students shared my unfortunate views of the attraction. However, I did feel that the experience was important as it allowed me to understand more about animal ethics in different parts of The World I hadn’t previously encountered.

Whilst visiting Coopertown, I found that the information issued to the public by workers wasn’t always accurate and could therefore be very misleading. The animals had very little space to roam around freely throughout their enclosures, especially the snakes, and they didn’t replicate their natural environment even in the slightest way, which was extremely disheartening to see.

Since a selection of the animals at the centre were invasive species, it became apparent that their welfare wasn’t really adhered. These animals are viewed as pests and tactics are routinely carried out in order to unkindly remove them, which I feel contributed to the unreasonable conditions the animals were kept in.

Our group and one of our lecturers took a ride on an air boat – a popular tourist attraction in Florida. It was loud, and disturbing to the animals inhabiting the surroundings, causing them unnecessary stress. Which, as Zoologists, we didn’t particularly admire. I personally believe that other, kinder, ways could be carried out in order to view animals up close, but in a way to reduce unnecessary stress to animals.

Additionally, at the end of the boat ride a worker proudly appeared in front of the small crowd armed with a tiny, juvenile alligator with the encouragement of getting people to have their photos taken with it. I strongly disagreed with this and believed that this shouldn’t have been carried out at all, never mind just for the sole purpose of entertainment. In my opinion, the rights of the animal weren’t taken into consideration and I believe it wasn’t a mindful idea to be handling a knowingly dangerous predator in front of visitors.

Florida – Day Four ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ

The Florida Files, University

Beginning the day at 7:45am, we embarked on a 45 minute drive to Corkscrew Swamp, listening to our new favourite American radio station (Bob.fm) along the way, excited to find a range of animal species and to gain a further insight into the work carried out throughout the popular attraction.

Arriving at the swamp, we were quickly divided into two groups, each touring with an experienced volunteer. My group had Sharon – who was approachable, very intelligent and knowledgable.

We were shown the drastic alterations in both human and bird populations over generations with looking at three large scaled maps. Evidently, with an increase in human population, meant the (unfortunate) reduction of bird species. It really was insightful to gain a view into just how negatively the Human population can have such drastic and negative implications on our stunning wildlife.

We walked across the boardwalk, witnessing cypress trees in the near distance and then going on to head on into the cypress trees, with the ability to view them from directly above. Listening to insightful talk of how some species of plants and trees at the swamp have adapted to withstand wildfires. And, additionally, some species can only grow with the assistance of fire – but will die three weeks after the fire has died down.

The walk lasted approximately 3-4 hours, with Sharon sharing her wide range of knowledge as our understanding of the swamp and it’s entailments increased. During the walk, we had the privilege of witnessing a wide diversity of animals in the swamp, which were all stunning and characteristic in their own ways. We noticed alligators, carrying out their camouflaging abilities extremely well as they remained immensely still whilst resembling a log.

The green anole – a Native species in Florida, with noticeably few than the Invasive brown anole. It was in Corkscrew we witnessed our first green anole, after days spent counting handfuls of brown ones.

The Great Egret.

Raccoon.

We then had the option of walking on the boardwalk again, or taking water and soil samples from a nearby location. My friends and I opted for the boardwalk, which seemed to be a refreshing decision as we witnessed more animal species we failed to see the first time around, whilst also viewing a feeding raccoon up close in the habitat of the stunning, tiny hummingbirds.

SPECIES LIST

  • Racoon
  • Great Egret
  • Alligator
  • Ruby throated hummingbird
  • American bittern
  • White ibis
  • Blue heron
  • Blue dragonfly
  • Red bellied tortoise
  • Lampkin
  • Green anole
  • Painted bunting
  • White spotted deer
  • Cardinal bird

Behavioural Ecology – Oystercatcher practical and measuring vigilance

Behaviour Ecology, University

A component of my second year Behavioural Ecology module (BSX-2018)ย was carrying out an Oystercatcher practical in order to learn more about, and measure, vigilance.

Vigilance: The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties

Prior to the practical experiment, we learned about vigilance during a lecture. And, evidently, vigilance can easily be measured in animals through assessing the number of times the animal raises their head, thereby scanning their environment in search of predators aswell as other potential threats.

Oystercatcher

Noticeably, animals in larger groups are known to be less vigilant following the ‘many eyes hypothesis’, since there are more eyes available to scan for predators, and more bodies to count for safety in numbers, it significantly reduces the need for individuals to scan on their own accord. In comparison to animals staying on their own, who need to scan more frequently in order to search and to keep themselves safe.

The experiment:

In order to successfully carry out the experiment, we were each assigned three videos of Oystercatchers to watch which had been previously recorded on Bangor Harbour.

We watched each video for a duration of three minutes, recording the number of times the Oystercatchers were vigilant (raising their heads) to measure the head-up rate with the use of a clicker, to provide accuracy to the experiment by ensuring we didn’t take our eyes away from the screen. Simply, whenever the animal raised their head, we were to press the clicker to count the head up rate.

During the experiment, we also had to assess which diet the Oystercatcher had to understand whether this did or did not affect vigilance in the individuals. This was done by monitoring how deep the animals searched for food. Noting that the animals engaged in a range of different searching methods, including:

  • Pecking
  • Boring
  • Sewing
  • Ploughing

And the prey handling methods for Bivalves consisted of:

  • Stabbing
  • Hammering (Dorsal)
  • Hammering (Ventral)

The information gathered was then recorded in the class datasheet for each of the Oystercatchers we observed, to which we could compare with the results of other students. Though, this wasn’t a component required for the completion of the practical experiment.

During the next part of the experiment, we were informed on how to use R statistics for the first time. Admittedly, I’ve always been nervous around stats, but I loved grasping the concept of using a new software and stepping aside from SPSS, and I quickly felt confident with using the software. The practical handout was a blessing and our knowledgeable, and kind, lecturers were around and keen to issue support and guidance if and when we required it.

We made our way through the practical handout, each of us working at our own pace and facing our own individual (but expected) hurdles along the way. The experiment took approximately four hours to complete as we were issued with codes we had to transfer into the software in order to create a graph, which could simply be done by running the code.

Following on from this, we made our own codes and plotted different categories on the X and Y axis, thereby allowing us to formulate our own graphs which could then be used to gain an insight and a further understanding into different relationships between Oystercatchers and vigilance. For example, how the diet affects the head up rate, or how group size affects head up rate.

And then we simply had to perform a stats test for each of the 6 plots we had previously created in earlier steps. Which, again, could be done by simply creating a code, running it and noting down the important parts of the test, such as the p-value to determine whether each of the relationships were significant or insignificant.

Behavioural Ecology – Habituation and morphology in the green shore crab

Behaviour Ecology, University

In a component of my Behavioural Ecology module (BSX-2018) we began learning about habituation, one of my favourite subject areas, which we were then able to study through a practical experiment using green shore crabs obtained from The Menai Straits, North Wales.

Habituation: Diminishing of an innate response to a frequently repeated stimulus.

The experiment:

In order to successfully carry out the habituation and morphology experiment, we paired up and collected a crab from the bucket sitting at the front of the lab after carefully reading the practical handout and stating our practical hypothesis.

We placed the crab in a large tray of salt water, setting the timer for thirty minutes for each individual crab, and the experiment was carried out on three crabs in total, per group. Though, Rosie and I opted to use a forth crab following our enjoyment of the experiment, and because we were keen to experiment using a Female after already using three Males. And that way, it would be interesting to distinguish differences in results between the two sexes.

Asked to label each of our chosen crabs, my friend and I excitedly named each of ours (appropriately, of course…)

Fred, Leo, Barney and Penny.ย 

Fred, our first crab and the largest we experimented with, was noticeably aggressive nearing the beginning of the experiment and would raise his claws as an indication of a warning signal to fend off predators. And our third crab (Barney) was unfortunately missing his right claws, which could’ve given him a disadvantage throughout the experiment in comparison to the fully-clawed crabs, since he had less limbs to assist him in turning himself back around.

The task was to gently flip the crabs over on their backs, distinguishing whether the individual was a Male or a Female. So we could time how long each of the crabs took to get themselves back over to an upright position. We carried this out for thirty minutes for each of the crabs, noting down in a table the duration of time the crab took to turn back over (without assistance!)

Hint:ย The Male’s abdomens are more triangular in shape whereas the abdomens of Females are more rounded, as pictured below.

Crab

We then measured the crabs carapace height and width alongside their left and right minor and major claws – also referred to as cutters and crushers – described which crabs were small (< 45mm) and which were larger (> 45mm) and recorded the information into a table.

The hypothesis being: When an animal is exposed to a stimulus, they’ll react differently to it over time and will no longer become affected, or stressed, by it. Similar to if a Human was constantly exposed to the ringing of a car alarm. At first, the alarm would be annoying and would cause distress, but over time and following more exposure to the stimulus, it would become more tolerable and significantly easier to deal with. The more times we flipped the crab over, the longer they’d take to flip themselves back over, since they learned that the situation wasn’t threatening and therefore didn’t invest as much energy into manoeuvring themselves.

We noted that different crabs had different reactions. Therefore, some were quicker at flipping themselves in comparison to others. For example, one of our crabs (who we named Leo) took approximately one second to turn back around to begin with, and a crab monitored by our friend took several minutes to obtain an upright position. Though, a series of factors could contribute to this, including: size, sex, exposure to the stimulus and possibly whether or not the animal has experienced a similar situation in their natural environment.

Additionally, one of the crabs we experimented with (Penny) appeared to be pregnant! As were many of the crabs used throughout the practical since it was mating season; we had permission from our lecturer to flip them over. So this may have also had implications on the results gathered. Ie: Her reaction rate could’ve been quicker due to predation risk and her maternal instinct to protect herself and her offspring.

Florida – Day Three ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ

The Florida Files, University

Today, we ventured out at 8:45am, filling our backpacks with cameras, swimwear, binoculars and (of course) plenty of water, amongst other zoologist necessities. Essential in the dazzling 40ยฐc heat!

The day was spent at Lovers Key, a barrier island consisting of three islands (Lovers Key, Inner Island and Black Island) – approximately a ten minute, scenic, drive from our accommodation where we saw unique mailboxes, ranging from dolphin and manatee themed to mermaid themed.

Evidently, Americans truly embrace their individualities and it was a delight to see.

Following a talk from our fabulous Lecturer, Christian, about Lovers Key, mangroves and fascinating barrier islands we perched ourselves excitedly on the bridge, keen to witness manatees in their natural environment, following the success of other students in previous years.

Binoculars at the ready, hopes running high, it wasn’t long before we joyfully encountered a manatee swimming elegantly in the distance. My first manatee sighting! Unfortunately not close enough for a high quality photograph, but enough for a breathtaking experience and long lasting memory. We manoeuvred quickly to another area close by and luckily witnessed another manatee within close proximity of us.

We walked for roughly 4 hours around Lovers Key, embracing high abundance’s of the stunning nature (including mangroves – which consist of 3 types) we had the privilege of experiencing. Also spotting more gopher tortoises, a juvenile included, anoles, butterflies and dolphins. I adored seeing such a wide diversity of animals up close, Florida is blessed with such fascinating wildlife!

We then made our way to the beach, accidentally becoming caught up in a man’s fishing net, to his disapproval, and being taken in by the biggest crashing waves.

Later on in the evening, promised a good view of the sunset, we made our way to the beach, walking the short route together as a friendly group of 16 students. The sky was a very pale pink and the bright sun was heading down, approaching it’s setting. I loved spending time with friends, whilst embracing our surroundings and having thrilling conversations. The sunset was truly stunning and an exceptional way to end another magical, fulfilling day.

We spent a while on the beach, relaxing and laughing. It was great fun!

SPECIES LIST OF THE DAY

  • Manatee
  • Dolphin
  • Brown anole
  • Turkey vulture
  • Black vulture
  • Black racer snake
  • Orange barred butterfly
  • Mangrove crab

Florida – Day Two ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ธ

The Florida Files, University

BAREFOOT BEACH RESERVE

Following a well needed sleep after a lengthy (though enjoyable) travelling period, we were ready to embrace our first full day in Florida, whilst fending off jet lag!

Meeting at 8am, lathered in sun cream and covered in protective gear, filling two buses we eagerly headed off to The Barefoot Beach Reserve. The drastic temperature increase was a delight, the sun was beaming down blissfully. Although it felt odd to be wearing minimal layers after succumbing to Bangor’s identifiable declining temperatures.

We had a scheduled talk from Jimmie Trulock – an (extremely knowledgeable) ex park ranger at The Everglades and a current volunteer at the reserve. And Florida’s Master Naturalist.

Jimmie kindly guided us around the reserve, showing us an array of beautiful fauna and tree species, aswell as telling us about their histories and their uses. Ie: some trees being used for pharmaceutical purposes. The talk was super interesting and Jimmie displayed a strong passion for nature and his work, which we made notes about in preparation for our assessed blog posts.

We were blessed to see animals freely inhabiting their natural environments, some of which included stunning gopher tortoises, brown anoles, raccoons and feeding pelicans.

We then had another lecture, listening to another naturalist talking about sound pollution, the different types of sound and the ways in which we can be kinder to our senses.

Following a few insightful hours at the reserve, we had 3/4 of an hour free time to roam around the reserve as we pleased. The majority of us headed to the beach, captivated by the stunning, soft, white sand and the dashingly beautiful blue water. We swam, splashed, and experienced animals feeding naturally – and peering for fish, whilst laughing lots and creating wonderful new memories.

Canoe time! We paired up and ventured out on the canoes, it was my first time canoeing so I was a little rusty; I soon grasped the concept of manoeuvring around the peaceful reserve, after frightening Carla a handful of times with my unpredictable steering methods (oops!) and it turned out to be a pleasurable experience, navigating around mangroves and embracing our surroundings.

Rowing our way eagerly around the calm waters, we witnessed gorgeous dolphins (my favourite marine mammal!) swimming both elegantly and closely to our canoes. The experience was incredible, it felt magical and captivating – to say the least. We also saw a number of magnificent bird and fish species, boats, and bubbly Americans.

Our accommodation gratefully has a pool, which we all went in afterwards for a swim and a cool down, before a debriefing about the day we’d experienced and the plans for the upcoming day. It was incredible to spend a day with wonderful people who share my passions and my admiration of animals, whilst experiencing new things and visiting new places!

SPECIES LIST OF THE DAY

  • Dolphins
  • Gopher tortoise
  • Brown anole
  • Ospreys
  • Red breasted woodpecker
  • Cuban tree frog
  • Raccoon
  • Ant lion