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.
The status of many Floridian animal species, both native and non-native, has significantly been affected by human activity, and 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.
The Florida panther is a subspecies of the North American cougar, also known as the puma or mountain lion. It is a critically endangered big cat species that is native to the state of Florida in the southeastern United States.
Mating can occur year-round, but births are more common between November and March. Females typically give birth to litters of one to three kittens, who are born blind and rely on their mother for care and protection.
Historically, Florida panthers roamed a variety of habitats in Florida, including forests, swamps, and prairies. However, their current range is limited to the southwestern part of the state due to habitat loss and fragmentation.
With as little as 120 left in the wild, these solitary animals are a rare sight. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state wildlife agencies, has been working to protect and conserve Florida panther populations. This includes efforts to reduce road mortality, establish protected areas, and increase public awareness about the importance of panther conservation.
Bobcats, named after their 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 that conceals them in the wild.
While appearing tame, they have an aggressive side and are known to be unpredictable and moody. They sleep for 2 to 3 hours and prefer to hunt at night. They are comfortable in various habitats and mark their territory in the feline way, with urine, feces, and the addition of scratch marks to mark boundaries.
The bobcat prefers to live in rocky outcrops, where they choose to birth their young. They are medium-sized cats, with a body length ranging from about 28 to 40 inches and a shoulder height of 18 to 24 inches.
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 those in wetter areas having darker colors and in drier regions having lighter colors.
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 remains a mystery.
The White-nosed coati, originating in Central America, is an introduced species that resembles a raccoon. Unlike the raccoon which has a black mask, the white-nosed coati has a white mask and is larger, growing to a length of about 4 feet.
They have a long nose, which they use to sniff out prey. They are omnivorous and feed 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 easier to spot. The coati is invasive as they have adapted their diets to include human-generated pollutants, which could harm the food chain within which it lives.
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 black bears found elsewhere. They are concentrated in just eight areas which they roam around, foraging for food.
They can run faster than a human Olympic athlete but rarely use their speed to catch their prey. Their excellent smell means they can detect food from more than 1,500 meters away, and they can often be seen in urban areas scavenging for food.
The Florida black bear is solitary except during mating season and the short time after. While they do not hibernate, they will 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 smell of food.
The red wolf, which still faces extinction lives in the Everglades National Park in Florida and has become a much-needed sanctuary.
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, their diet consists of small mammals such as rabbits.
Red Wolves live twice as long in captivity than in the wild, increasing their lifespan from about 7 to 15 years. There may be wolf hybrids in Florida due to inbreeding, and these cause further threats to the future of the species.
Gray foxes are more agile than most canines and can often be seen climbing trees. They are carnivores but will also eat fruit and berries.
The gray fox is known for being skittish around humans and stays hidden from predators under bushy vegetation. Gray foxes are primarily nocturnal, which means they are most active during the night. They use their keen senses of hearing and smell to locate prey.
Gray foxes face threats from larger predators such as coyotes and bobcats. They use their climbing ability to escape danger by retreating into trees.
Gray foxes are named for their predominantly gray fur, which may have a reddish tinge on their sides and neck. They have a distinctive black stripe running down their back, a bushy tail with a black tip, and prominent white markings on their throat, chest, and belly. Their legs are often a rusty color.
Key deer are endangered small deer found only in the Florida Keys. They utilize every kind of habitat in the Keys and owe their continued existence to the National Key Deer Refuge, which has introduced measures to prevent their extinction.
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 to the species.
Females give birth to only one fawn a year after 6 and a half months gestation. 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 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.
The Everglades mink may growl aggressively and hiss if disturbed or scared, followed by a liquid attack that emits a potent stench. This odor is used to alert other minks of their presence.
The Everglades 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.
Florida Salt Marsh Vole
As its name suggests, the Florida salt marsh vole is found only on Florida’s salty grasslands, near Cedar Key, and within the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Florida salt marsh voles inhabit salt marshes, coastal grasslands, and wetlands, which are often inundated with saltwater during high tides. They are well-adapted to these brackish and saltwater environments.
With such a small and concentrated population, this species is constantly threatened with extinction. Any changes in its habitat or a natural disaster could see the end of the Florida Salt Marsh vole. The Florida salt marsh vole is considered a species of special concern in the state of Florida due to its limited range and vulnerability to habitat degradation and sea-level rise. Conservation efforts aim to protect its coastal wetland habitats.
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 lucky to spot a salt marsh vole.
Virgina opossums are small and have 50 teeth enabling the possum to deliver a painful bite when threatened. Opossums are the only marsupials in North America.
Opossums are primarily nocturnal, meaning they are most active during the night. They have adapted to a nocturnal lifestyle to avoid daytime predators and forage for food when many potential threats are less active.
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, the catatonic state is an involuntary response. They also secrete a nasty smell to confuse animals, making them think they have passed away.
Virginia opossums are highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of habitats, including forests, grasslands, urban areas, and wetlands. They are often associated with human habitation.
The armadillo is not native to Florida but has made it its 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 as they have low body temperatures and sluggish metabolisms.
They are nocturnal and have very poor eyesight, but are excellent swimmers and diggers. If you come across an armadillo, keep a distance because they can carry diseases like leprosy.
Female armadillos are the only animals to give birth to identical quadruplets, with each litter sharing the same gender every time.
Sherman’s Short-Tailed Shrew
Sherman’s Short-Tailed Shrew is a large gray-haired shrew and is a subspecies of the short-tailed shrew, named after the scientist Harley B. Sherman.
Sherman’s short-tailed shrew grows 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. Sherman’s short-tailed shrews are primarily insectivores, with a diet that includes a wide variety of invertebrates such as insects, worms, and other small prey. They are voracious eaters, consuming food equivalent to their body weight daily.
They breed twice a year and reach sexual maturity at around nine months. In the wild, these shrews have relatively short lifespans, typically ranging from 1 to 2 years due to their small size, high energy expenditure, and exposure to predation.
The American beaver is a semi-aquatic mammal known for its remarkable abilities as a builder and engineer of aquatic habitats.
Beavers are nocturnal and renowned for their building skills. They build dams to either slow water or use it as lodgings which they house themselves.
American beavers are the largest rodents in North America, typically measuring about 29 to 35 inches (74 to 89 cm) in length, excluding their tail, which can add an additional 7.9 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm). They can weigh anywhere from 24 to 71 pounds (11 to 32 kg), with males usually larger than females.
Beavers are well-adapted to aquatic habitats. They are excellent swimmers and can remain submerged for up to 15 minutes. They construct dams and lodges in freshwater environments, such as ponds, lakes, and slow-moving streams.
Florida Bonneted Bat
The Florida bonneted bat is a rare and endangered species of bat that is native to the state of Florida.
Florida bonneted bats are known to inhabit a variety of habitats, including pine flatwoods, subtropical hammocks, and cypress swamps. They are often associated with old-growth forests and large trees. They are known to roost in colonies, and while colony sizes can vary, they tend to be relatively small compared to some other bat species.
Florida bonneted bats are listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Their population is extremely limited, and their habitat has been significantly reduced due to urbanization and habitat loss.
Florida bonneted bats are known to roost in tree cavities, hollow logs, and sometimes in Spanish moss. They prefer large trees with suitable roosting sites. Natural disasters have destroyed many of their preferred roosting locations, such as hollow, dead trees.
Jamaican Fruit-Eating Bat
The Jamaican Fruit-Eating Bat has a wingspan of 16 inches. It resides in the south of Florida but is most associated with Jamaica and the Caribbean. Most in Florida are likely nomads or vagrants who migrate and have no permanent residency in the state.
They are frugivorous, preferring aromatic fruit, with figs being their favorite. However, they also eat flowers, leaves, nectar, and pollen and are good at dispersing seeds.
The Jamaican fruit-eating bat has brown to grayish-brown fur, which can vary in coloration. They often have a short, rounded snout and large eyes. Their wings are long and broad.
The Jamaican fruit-eating bat has an unusual behavior of creating a protective structure resembling a tent using pinnate palms.
The Oldfield mouse is a nocturnal rodent that prefers the sandy areas of northern and central Florida, where it burrows in the soil. Its fur comes in various brown shades, which allows it to blend in with the sandy habitat making it harder to spot.
They are capable of breeding every 30 days. They form strong mating bonds and are monogamous, helping one another to raise their young. Oldfield mice reproduce year-round, with multiple breeding seasons. They give birth to litters of typically 2 to 5 pups. The young are born relatively undeveloped and rely on maternal care.
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 have seen a decrease in numbers due to urbanization, invasive alien species, disease, and climate change.
They prefer to live in shrublands, grasslands, savannas, forests, sand pine scrub, oak scrub, and other sandy, well-drained environments.
They have large ears and reach lengths of approximately 22 cm. They have soft, dense fur that is typically a reddish-brown to grayish-brown color on their upper body, while their underparts are usually lighter. Their ears are small and rounded.
Florida mice are herbivores and primarily feed on a variety of plant materials, including seeds, fruits, and vegetation found in their scrubby habitats.
They live in colonies, and their burrows have multiple entrances. They sometimes use other mammals’ burrows, such as the Gopher tortoise or Oldfield mice to live.
Star-nosed moles live in the Okefenokee Swamp’s wetlands and the Counties of Leon and Alachua. Their main identifying feature is their nose, which is surrounded by 22 pink tentacle-like appendages resembling a pink star that is used as feelers. They can smell underwater using air bubbles, exhaling and inhaling to carry scent back to their star-shaped nose. Their sense of smell makes up for their poor eyesight.
Star-nosed moles are insectivores and primarily feed on small invertebrates, including earthworms, insects, and aquatic invertebrates. Their sensitive nose helps them locate prey in complete darkness or underwater. The star-nosed mole is the fastest-eating mammal alive, taking as little as 120 milliseconds to identify and consume prey. They are monogamous and rear their young in underground tunnels with a litter size of 2 to 7 babies.
The river otter is an aquatic mammal at home in water or on land. Their webbed feet, robust flat tails, and strong muscles, are adapted for swimming which give them an advantage over predators.
River otters are medium-sized mammals, with adults typically measuring about 2.5 to 3.5 feet (76 to 107 cm) in length, including their tails. Their tail can account for about one-third of their total body length.
They never stray far from fresh water and live in burrows along Florida’s watery banks except for the Florida Keys.
Their diet is primarily carnivorous and includes fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and various aquatic invertebrates. They are skilled hunters and can consume a significant portion of their body weight each day.
River otters play a vital role in aquatic ecosystems by helping control populations of aquatic prey species and contributing to nutrient cycling.
West Indian Manatee
The West Indian manatee is an aquatic mammal that lives along Florida’s coast but migrates north during warmer months. Manatees are large marine mammals, with adults typically reaching lengths of 9 to 13 feet (2.7 to 4 meters) and weighing between 800 and 1,200 kilograms (1,800 to 2,600 pounds). Some individuals can be even larger.
They inhabit salt and fresh water and are herbivores, grazing like cows 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.
Manatees are mammals, so they need to breathe air. They surface for air every few minutes when active but can hold their breath for up to 20 minutes when resting.
The blue whale is the largest mammal ever to have lived on Earth and 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 but 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.
Some of the places you may see blue whales are:
- St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay: These areas along the Gulf Coast of Florida offer opportunities for whale-watching tours. The Gulf of Mexico is a known feeding ground for blue whales during certain times of the year, typically in the late winter and early spring.
- Fort Myers and Naples: Along the southwest Florida coast, you may find tour operators offering whale-watching trips in the Gulf of Mexico. Blue whales, along with other whale species, can be seen here during their migrations.
- Miami and Southeast Florida: The Atlantic coast of Florida, particularly off Miami and the Florida Keys, is another potential area to spot blue whales. These majestic creatures may pass through the waters off the southeastern coast during their migrations.
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin
Atlantic spotted dolphins are social creatures that prefer warm, 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.
Atlantic spotted dolphins are relatively small dolphins, with adults typically reaching lengths of 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 meters) and weighing between 200 to 260 pounds (90 to 118 kilograms). They have a slender body and a distinct, spotted coloration. Their coloration is typically light gray on their upper body, with a noticeable pattern of dark spots on their sides and back. They have a pale or pinkish belly.
Atlantic spotted dolphins have been known to mate with bottle-nosed dolphins, which are commonly found in Florida. They communicate through squawks and whistles, while a third sound, the click, is used for navigation, hunting, and as a defense mechanism against predators.
They are primarily fish eaters, feeding on a variety of small fish and squid. They are skilled hunters and often work together in coordinated efforts to herd schools of fish for easier capture.
Bryde’s whales are social creatures that prefer warm to tropical waters and are found only in the Atlantic Ocean.
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 feed on krill, plankton, and crustaceans. They feed through a method known as lunge feeding. This involves swallowing large quantities of water teeming with prey, and filtering out fish and crustaceans using coordinated movements of their throat pleats, Y-shaped cartilage, and lower jaw.
Bryde’s whales are often seen alone or in small groups. They are generally not as social as some other whale species but may interact with other individuals when feeding in areas with abundant prey.
Harbor seals are relatively small seals, with adults typically reaching lengths of 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) and weighing between 150 to 250 pounds (68 to 113 kilograms). They have a sleek, torpedo-shaped body, short snout, and a round head. Their coloration can vary, but they are often gray to brown with spots or rings on their back.
Harbor seals are carnivorous and primarily feed on a diet of fish, such as herring, cod, and flounder. They are skilled hunters and rely on their keen eyesight to locate prey underwater.
Harbor seals are generally solitary animals but can be found in small groups, particularly during the breeding season or when hauled out on land. They are known for their curious and inquisitive nature.
These seals are highly adaptable and can be found in a variety of coastal habitats, including rocky shorelines, sandy beaches, mudflats, estuaries, and harbors. They are known for hauling out (resting) on rocks, sandbars, and other exposed areas.
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 the 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)
References And Further Reading
Florida’s Best Native Landscape Plants: 200 Readily Available Species for Homeowners and Professionals by Gil Nelson
Description: This book provides insights into the native plants of Florida, which are essential for the state’s mammalian wildlife. While it primarily focuses on plants, understanding native flora is crucial for supporting local wildlife, including mammals.
Mammals of Florida by J.N. Layne
Description: A comprehensive guide to the mammals found in Florida, including descriptions, distribution maps, and photographs. This book serves as an invaluable resource for those interested in the diverse mammalian species of the state.
Mammals of the Eastern United States by John O. Whitaker Jr. and William J. Hamilton Jr.
Description: While this book covers mammals in the broader eastern United States, it includes information on Florida’s mammals and their ecosystems. It provides a broader context for understanding the state’s mammalian fauna.
Florida’s Paved Bike Trails by Jeff Kunerth and Gretchen Kunerth
Description: Although this book focuses on bike trails, it also discusses the wildlife you might encounter, including mammals, along these trails in Florida. It offers insights into where you can observe local wildlife while enjoying outdoor activities.
Florida’s Living Beaches: A Guide for the Curious Beachcomber by Blair and Dawn Witherington
Description: While primarily focused on beach ecosystems, this book includes information on marine mammals and other wildlife commonly found along Florida’s coast. It’s a valuable resource for beachgoers interested in the state’s coastal wildlife.
Florida’s Seashells: A Beachcomber’s Guide by Blair and Dawn Witherington
Description: Similar to the previous book, this one focuses on seashells but also provides insights into the marine mammals and other creatures associated with Florida’s coastal environments. It’s a useful reference for beachcombers and nature enthusiasts.
Florida Wildlife Viewing Guide by Susan Cerulean and Ann Morrow
Description: A guide to observing wildlife in Florida, including information on where to see mammals in their natural habitats. It offers tips on wildlife viewing and locations for encountering Florida’s diverse fauna.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.