The Sunshine State, otherwise known as Florida, regularly teems with tourists, but far from the bustling crowd, there are also some special mammals that you won’t find elsewhere.
Tourists, or locals, may be lucky enough to enjoy an encounter with one of the many mammals residing in the State, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.
Florida’s tropical climate and diverse biosphere are home to various land and aquatic mammals. The swampy southern part of Florida is a large wetland spanning 1.5 million acres. While the ever-increasing destruction of the wetlands is real, this also brings about an ever-growing list of endangered animals found in Florida.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the barriers separating humans and wildlife have greatly diminished, resulting in more chance encounters with one another. These encounters can be scary or unpleasant due to a lack of human understanding.
You might be surprised to note that the status of many Floridian animal species, both native and non-native, have significantly been affected by human activity, in some cases, resulting in their imminent extinction.
The Everglades is best visited during the dry season when temperatures are more comfortable and animals are more visible due to the receding waters.
Florida’s state animal, the panther, is also its most endangered mammal. The Florida panther population’s most significant threat has been humans. A combination of their ever-dissipating habitat and hunting has resulted in their current imperiled status. They also have small litters of just one to four kittens, making the population very slow.
With as little as 120 left in the wild, these carnivorous, rust-colored, solitary animals are a rare sight indeed. Locals and tourists must learn to co-exist with these powerful cats as they are protected, making it illegal to harm them.
These exotic bearded felines, aptly named after the short ‘bobbed’ tail, have tufted ears, spotted backs, and bellies. They come in beautiful hues ranging from golden to smoky blue. Every Bobcat has a uniquely patterned coat, which not only conceals them in the wild but makes them easily identifiable.
As tame as they may appear, they have an aggressive side and are known to be unpredictable and moody. They sleep for a mere 2 to 3 hours and prefer to hunt at night. These highly adaptable felines are comfortable in various habitats and mark their territory in the usual feline way, with urine, feces, and the addition of scratch marks to mark boundaries.
The bobcat prefers to live in rocky outcrops, which is where they choose to birth their young.
The exact year of introduction of the Jaguarundi to Florida is unknown, but it is said to be around the 1940s when a few were either released or escaped captivity. Being the least catlike in their appearance, they are sometimes mistaken for otters or weasels due to their flattened head and small, rounded ears.
The coloring of their coats indicates their habitat, with darker colors appearing on jaguarundi in wetter areas and lighter colors appearing in drier regions.
They are dependent on the density of the local flora to hunt successfully. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not list Jaguarundi, and its supposed existence in Florida continues to be a mystery.
Originating in Central America, this introduced species resembles a raccoon. Still, whereas the raccoon has a black mask, the coati has a white mask and is larger, growing to a length of about 4 feet.
They also have a longer nose, which it uses to sniff out prey. It is omnivorous and feeds on mammals, insects, lizards, and fruit. Coatis are found in grasslands and deserts but prefer to live in forests. They are active during the day, making them slightly easier to spot. Coati is invasive because they have adapted their diets to include human-generated pollutants, which could harm the food chain within which it exists.
There have been a few sightings of the white-nosed coati in Florida, but whether they have firmly established themselves in the Sunshine State is unknown.
Florida Black Bear
The Florida Black bear is the only bear found in Florida, and its fur is black with no variation in color like the black bears found elsewhere. They are concentrated in just eight habitats and roam over large areas, foraging for food.
They are capable of running faster than a human Olympic athlete but rarely use their speed. Their excellent sense of smell means that they can detect food from more than 1,500 meters away, and their bear courage will have them enter human territory, scavenging for food in urban areas.
Overall, they are solitary except during mating season and the short time after. It is interesting to note that black bears do not hibernate. However, they laze around in their dens during the winter months, which are very mild in Florida.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has made “bear-proof” trashcans available. If you live in Florida or are visiting, do your part in protecting the local wildlife and use one of these bins. These reduce and prevent bear encounters brought about by the aroma of food.
The Everglades National Park in Florida has become a much-needed sanctuary for the Red Wolf, which up to this day, teeters at the fine line near extinction.
Although extinct in the wild by the 1980s, they were “saved” through a reintroduction program. The leading cause of their dwindling numbers has been hunting.
Red wolves have proven to be a pest for hunters in the past who claim that the feral canines eat “their” deer. Apart from deer, they subsist on small mammals such as rabbits.
It is interesting to note that Red Wolves live twice as long in captivity than in the wild, increasing their lifespan from about 7 to 15 years. There may be hybrids around due to inbreeding, and these cause further threats to the species.
These small foxes are more agile than a regular canine and can climb trees. Both instinctual and learned characteristics have served them well, and they are widespread. They occasionally stray from their carnivorous diet by eating fruits and berries.
The gray fox is known for being skittish around humans and stays hidden from predators under bushy vegetation. Gray fur covers most of the body, but its name is deceiving because it has some red, white, black, and yellow-colored hair.
These endangered small deer are found only in the Florida Keys due to loss of habitat and human poaching. They utilize every kind of habitat and owe their continued existence to the National Key Deer Refuge, which has put measures to prevent their extinction.
The key deer thrive around freshwater sources and have taken to feeding in artificially created environments. Although these environments have helped, they have also had the adverse effect of promoting disease.
Females give birth to only one fawn a year after about 6.5 months of pregnancy. Bucks reach a maximum shoulder height of about 32 inches, while females are smaller, with a maximum shoulder height of around 28 inches.
The Everglades mink is one of three mink species found in Florida, but this particular one is the only one found in the fresh, shallow waters of the Everglades. They have dark brown fur, beady eyes, a smooth head, short legs, a bushy tail, and tiny ears.
The Everglades mink is a relative of the weasel. They are semi-aquatic, with webbing between their toes.
Scaring one might be an unpleasant experience for both humans and animals, as they growl aggressively and hisses, culminating in a liquid attack that emits a potent stench. This same odor is used to alert other minks of their presence.
The mink are solitary, nocturnal creatures and opportunistic regarding their eating habits, consuming anything from insects to fish to amphibians, reptiles, and small animals. They give birth in dens with litters of about three to six.
There are three species of weasel in North America. Find out what they are and where they live in this article I wrote.
Florida Salt Marsh Vole
As its name suggests, this medium-sized rodent is found only on Florida’s salty grasslands, near Cedar Key, and within the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. With such a small and concentrated population, this species is constantly threatened with being wiped out.
Any changes in its habitat or a natural disaster could end this tiny mammal. The vole has dark brown back hair and a silver stomach. It spans about 17.5 cm in length. They are very rare, and you would be pretty lucky to spot a salt marsh vole.
Opossums are the only marsupial in North America. They carry their babies in a pouch on their front. Like a domestic cat, they are small and have 50 teeth enabling the possum to deliver a painful bite when threatened.
They are a low-risk threat to humans and pets but may carry diseases. Farmers might find them more nuisance because they eat crops and small livestock. Known for playing dead when cornered, this is an involuntary action. They also secrete a nasty smell to confuse animals, making them think they have passed away.
The armadillo is not native to Florida but has made it it’s home from as early as the 1920s. The North American armadillos appear to be armored due to their hard exterior consisting of nine bands of bony plates, but they cannot curl up into a ball like their three-banded cousins.
They are related to anteaters and sloths found in South America. However, Florida’s subtropical climate is perfect for these ancient creatures with low body temperatures and sluggish metabolisms.
They are nocturnal and have very poor eyesight. However, they are excellent swimmers and diggers. If you come across an armadillo, keep a distance because they can carry diseases, such as leprosy.
An interesting fact about this critter is that the female armadillos are the only animal to give birth to identical quadruplets, with each litter sharing the same gender every single time.
Sherman’s Short-Tailed Shrew
This large gray-haired shrew is a subspecies of the short-tailed shrew, which William John Hamilton discovered, a New York mammalogist, went on to name the creature after the scientist Harley B. Sherman.
It grows up to 10 cm in length and has small eyes and ears. Its fast heart rate and high metabolism require it to feed regularly at 2 to 3-hour intervals. They are an insectivore with a broad range of habitats, including a mix of fragrant grasslands and moist forest environments.
They breed twice a year and reach sexual maturity at around nine months. Not much is known about this decreasing species due to predatory wild cats and urbanization.
Florida’s largest rodent is similar to the otter, very sleek and muscular with webbed feet. The tail resembles a paddle, which it uses to navigate through water.
Beavers are nocturnal and renowned for their building skills. They build dams to either slow water or use it as lodging in which they house themselves.
Beavers are an engineering marvel, and their activities intricately alter the landscape and, as a result, the ecosystem positively for both plants and animals.
Florida Bonneted Bat
With a wingspan of 51 cm, the bonneted bat is Florida’s most abundant bat species. Its name stems from its large ears reaching over its head like a bonnet. Its coloring varies from black to brown to gray.
Restricted to Southern Florida, environmental factors, such as the rising sea level, threatens this rare creature’s habitat. They live in small colonies and are not fussy about where they roost. Natural disasters have destroyed much of their preferred roosting locations, such as hollow dead trees. Although not much is known about this bat, humans can hear their calls and the Florida bonneted bat flies higher than other bat species. Their diet consists mainly of flying insects, and they may fly for miles at night in search of prey.
Jamaican Fruit-Eating Bat
This bat is smaller than the Florida bonneted bat, with a wingspan of 41 cm. It resides in the south of Florida, and its most distinguishing feature is its nose, which resembles a leaf.
It is frugivorous, preferring fruit of the aromatic variety, with figs being their favorite. However, they also munch on flowers, leaves, nectar, and pollen and are good at dispersing seeds.
Likened nomads or vagrants who migrate and have no permanent residency are referred to as Florida’s ‘accidental’ species. This bat’s unusual behavior is its technique of creating a protective structure resembling a tent using pinnate palms.
This nocturnal rodent prefers the sandy areas of northern and central Florida, where it burrows in the soil. Its fur comes in a variety of brown shades, which allows it to blend in with its sandy habitat making it harder to spot.
Watch out when you visit the beach as they burrow into the dunes. They are capable of breeding at an impressive rate of every 30 days. They form strong mating bonds and are monogamous, helping one another to raise their young.
The Oldfield mice along the coast enjoy a diet that consists primarily of seasonal seeds, while those inland will feast on acorns. They also consume insects and nuts.
They have many predators ranging from snakes, cats, owls, and raccoons to skunks, weasels, and herons.
The Florida mouse population inhabits the drier northern part of Florida, although they decrease due to urbanization, invasive alien species, disease, and climate change. Its habitats are shrublands, grasslands, savanna, and forests.
They have large ears and reach lengths of approximately 22 cm. Its silky fur is brown with an orange tinge on the body’s cheeks, shoulders, and sides. They are nocturnal and omnivorous, with plants and insects making up most of their diet.
They live in colonies, and their burrows have multiple entrances. They sometimes use other mammals’ burrows, such as the Gopher tortoise or Oldfield mouse, to live.
These small moles live in the Okefenokee Swamp’s wetlands and the Counties of Leon and Alachua. Their main identifying feature is their nose, surrounded by 22 pink tentacle-like appendages resembling a pink star that it uses as feelers.
Their nose makes up for their poor eyesight. They are monogamous and rear their young in underground tunnels with a litter size of 2 to 7 babies.
As alien as this mole appears, it is impressive that it’s the fastest-eating mammal alive, taking as little as 120 milliseconds to identify and consume prey.
They consume fish, small invertebrates such as worms, and amphibians. Another fantastic fact is that it can smell underwater using air bubbles, which it exhales and inhales to carry scent back to its star-shaped nose!
Moles live their lives in a secret underground. Find out more in this article I wrote.
The river otter is an aquatic mammal but is at home in both water and on land. Their sleek bodies are adapted for swimming with webbed feet, a robust flat tail, and strong muscles, which give them an advantage over predators.
They never stray far from fresh water and live in burrows along Florida’s watery banks except for the Florida Keys.
The river otter is at the top of its food chain and prefers to eat crayfish and fish.
They don’t hibernate as they have a layer of fat insulating them against the cold under a thick fur coat, which has been the envy of humans who have hunted them for their pelt.
I have written an article here if you want to know how otters communicate.
This sizeable aquatic mammal lives along Florida’s coast but migrates north during warmer months. They may grow up to 13 feet long, and their anatomy makes them strong swimmers, as they have a broad tail and flipper-like limbs.
They inhabit salt and fresh water and are herbivores, grazing much like cows do but in shallow waters. Human interaction is detrimental to the manatee as they contact marine equipment such as propellers, injuring them.
They have extended resting periods of up to 12 hours, which allow algae and barnacles to grow on the surface of their skin. These growths detach when manatees migrate.
Their lives exceed 65 years in captivity. They like to travel solo but are sociable when encountering other manatees. Their movements are mainly based on searching for warm waters, finding a mate, or finding a place to rest. Breeding occurs all year round.
Manatees are best spotted during winter or the start of Spring.
LESS COMMONLY FOUND MAMMALS
If you want to spot the largest mammal on earth, you may be able to spot them off the coast of Florida. These gentle giants reach lengths of 30 meters and weigh around 200 tonnes. They are carnivorous and feed on small crustaceans called krill. They twist and turn their bodies to help sweep the krill into their mouths when hunting.
In summer, they enjoy ice-cold polar waters; however, they migrate towards the Equator in winter. Female whales are bigger than their male counterparts and give birth to just one calf after a year of gestation. This species is protected from commercial whaling due to a massive decrease in numbers during the 20th century.
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
These social creatures prefer warm to tropical waters and are found only in the Atlantic ocean. Dolphins are complex creatures who live in pods, which vary in size depending on the site. These pods have a social hierarchy divided by age and gender.
Males and females are generally the same in length at 2.3 meters, with the females reaching sexual maturity about eight years before the males at around ten years of age.
Atlantic spotted dolphins have been known to mate with bottle-nosed dolphins, more commonly found in Florida. They communicate through various squawks and whistles, while a third sound, the click, is used for navigation, hunting, and as a defense mechanism against predators.
If you’re headed to Sarasota, the best time to spot dolphins is in the morning during their feeding time.
These social creatures prefer warm to tropical waters and are found only in the Atlantic ocean. Dolphins are complex creatures who live in pods, which vary in size depending on site. These pods have a social hierarchy divided by age and gender.
Pronounced ‘Brood-dess’, they were named after Johan Brydes, who built a whaling station in South Africa. They are found worldwide but restrict their travel to tropical and subtropical waters only.
They live alone or in pairs and feed on krill, plankton, and crustaceans. They feed through a method known as lunge feeding. They swallow large quantities of water teeming with prey, filtered out using coordinated movements of their throat pleats, Y-shaped cartilage, and lower jaw. This method helps whales maintain their gigantic size.
The harbor seal is found in numerous North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans. The western Atlantic harbor seal occasionally wanders into Florida’s waters as they prefer ice-free water.
Seals are social creatures who live in large communities and feed on all types of marine life, from fish, mussels, and crustaceans. They have flippers and are excellent swimmers. Fisherman generally considers Harbor seals a nuisance.
Where To See Them
If you are interested in seeing any of the fantastic mammals that Florida offers, there are many parks and wild refuges you can visit. The following are a few of many places you might consider:
- Myakka River State Park (Armadillo)
- Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
- Big Pine Key (Key deer)
- National Key Deer Refuge (Key deer)
- Blue Spring State Park (Manatees)
- Three Sisters Springs (Manatees)
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park (Manatees)
- Wekiwa Springs State Park (Florida bears, Bobcats)
- St Marks National Wildlife Refuge (Bobcats)
- Ochlock River State Park (Fox, Squirrels)
- Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge (Florida panthers)
- The Everglades (Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, Florida panthers, Manatees)