At Risk: THE BIRDS AND BEASTS OF PARADISE

By Eric Eikenberg

Florida is famous for its many exotic species, but today it has a less honorable distinction: home to one of the highest numbers of threatened and endangered species in the nation.

America’s Everglades — containing one of the highest concentrations of species vulnerable to extinction in the United States— is alone home to more than 70 endangered and threatened species.

The Florida Panther

Now occupying less than five percent of their historic range in south Florida, by the 1970s their population had declined to between 12 and 20 individuals.

In 1995, eight female panthers from Texas were released into the Florida population, which helped increase the genetic diversity of the Florida population.

Today, their population has increased to an estimated 230 individuals — including at least one female and two kittens spotted north of the Caloosahatchee River.

Despite this progress, the Florida panther remains endangered, facing threats from development, habitat loss and being run over by auto.

The Everglades Snail Kite

The Everglades snail kite is an iconic bird of prey whose population underwent steep declines in the 1990s due to loss of wetland habitat and poor water quality. Today, the snail kite remains endangered, with a population of around 2,050.

As their name suggests, the snail kite feeds almost exclusively on snails — in this case, one particular species of apple snail. The birds hunt over sparsely vegetated marsh and lake shores and when snails appear close to the surface, they plungedown and grab them with their talons.

Their slender, curved bills allow them to extract the snails from their shells.

While eggs and chicks can fall prey to rats, birds, raccoons and snakes, adult snail kites have no natural predators and can live up to 25 years.

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Named for their rubbery shell, leatherback sea turtles are among the biggest reptiles in the world, normally reaching up to 6 feet in length and weighing 1,500 pounds.

Leatherbacks are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, nest on tropical and subtropical beaches, and migrate to higher latitudes to forage. They can migrate impressive distances, some as far as 6,800 miles!

Threats to this endangered species include hunting, egg collection, habitat loss and incidental take from commercial fisheries.

Sea turtles can become entangled in fishing gear, and since they need to surface to breathe, they can drown once caught.

Because they feed primarily on jellyfish, marine pollution such as balloons and plastic bags are often mistaken for jellyfish and ingested.

Currently, there are estimated to be between 34,000 and 36,000 nesting females.

ERIC EIKENBERG is CEO of The Everglades Foundation, the leading science-based organization working to restore America’s Everglades.

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