By Pat Foster-Turley
March 24, 2023
I often wonder where all the wildlife in our area gets drinking water. Sadly most of the available surface water on Amelia Island is contained in retention ponds that are designed to capture the often hazardous effluents running off of our roads, paved surfaces and housing developments. These water bodies are contaminated—not suitable for drinking by us humans, and not even suitable for fish that we would hope to consume.
Our own backyard retention pond has done just what is designed to do. When we moved to our development there were still empty lots not yet covered with concrete, lawns and houses. I spent countless hours digging up native plants like duck potatoes, cannas, and irises from roadside ditches and replanting them in the pond. Bucko and I spent many happy afternoons watching the snakes and frogs and the diversity of visiting birds but now things are different. Twenty years of lawn herbicides in a fully developed deed-restricted community that mandates green lawns have taken their toll. All the plants I planted, broad-leafed plants, have died due to the chemicals on surrounding lawns that kill dollar weed. The frogs and snakes and dragonflies have disappeared as well, and now, to my eyes, this pond is nothing more than a contaminated eyesore. The animals that used to live here have gone. But where to? There’s hardly any place left.
To make matters worse, natural springs that once adorned our island have been plugged to keep water in the ground table so that we humans can extract it for our own needs. Somehow, some animals survive the pollutants from our retention ponds, although studies show that over time drinking water with certain contaminants can lead to impaired reproductive capacity, and eventually lower the animal populations.
But some lucky animals live in Fort Clinch State Park. There are a few uncontaminated sources of drinking water for wildlife there. There are the series of borrow pit ponds making up Willow Pond, there is a manmade shallow pond in a bird viewing area by the beach parking area, and maybe a few springs elsewhere.
When it rains here, though, sometimes it pours and some wildlife in the park reap the freshwater benefits. Recently after a heavy rain Bucko and I watched deer on the road drinking from puddles. I’ve seen flocks of robins at puddles and watched seagulls bathing in freshwater puddles in parking lots. But never have I ever seen a gopher tortoise drinking water. At least not until now.
Bucko and I were doing our usual drive through the park when it was raining and he noticed an unfamiliar shape on the road in the middle of a new rainwater puddle. Upon closer inspection, it was a gopher tortoise slurping up water. This is a very unusual occurrence. Gopher tortoises generally get all the moisture they need from the succulent plants that make up their diet. Their habitat of sand dunes rarely if ever has standing water to drink from but the tortoises manage just fine without it. On the internet, the general knowledge is that gopher tortoises only drink water in extreme droughts, but hey, their habitat is always dry here.
But here it was, a lucky gopher tortoise standing in a wet puddle drinking water! I happily photographed this unusual scene and posted it on my Facebook page where I received astonished comments from some of my biologist friends. For the most part, they had never seen this either!
Bucko and I continued our drive through the park in the rain, and I was intrigued by the quick changes rain can make to the landscape. Many people here know that the resurrection fern plants that adorn the limbs of live oak trees look shriveled during dry spells, but within minutes, it seems, after a heavy rain they are rejuvenated (“resurrected”) into lush green ferny leaves. But something else happens when it rains in the park, too. All that greyish-looking Spanish moss (not Spanish, not moss) hanging from the limbs green up in moments too after a heavy rain. It took me years to notice this, because the moss turns grey again quickly, but I was able to catch it on film. Amazing.
The importance of clean fresh water sources cannot be over-emphasized for animals as well as people. We are lucky that Florida is a wet state, but even here we are using up our water supplies at a rapid rate, natural springs are drying, and water flows are reduced. Increasingly around the world, limited water is becoming an issue of conflict. And really, between the needs of humans and wildlife, the conflict is already here.
Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]