The American alligator was once hunted to near extinction in the 1960s. Conservation efforts helped increase the population to healthy numbers--a true success story of wildlife recovery. Over 1 million American alligators are now commonly found in freshwater environments like marshes, lakes, swamps and wetlands. The alligator has a rounded snout and a muscular, scaled black body that can grow over 15 feet in length. A carnivore species, the alligator feeds on fish, turtles, birds, frogs and snakes, catching and devouring prey with 70 to 80 razor-sharp teeth. The American alligator is an excellent swimmer and has superb eyesight--even at night.
One of Florida's most beloved species is the protected manatee. At home in Florida Bay, estuaries and warm, spring rivers, the manatee (also called a sea cow) is a massive aquatic mammal. This plant-eating species is a gray-colored, docile giant with two front flippers and a large, flat tail. The species can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh as much as 2,000 lb. An excellent swimmer, the manatee can propel itself forward and remain under water for as long as 15 minutes before surfacing for air. While the adult manatee has no predators in the wild, boat propellers commonly injure and kill sea cows. Conservation efforts promote no-wake boating zones and protected water areas to help increase Florida manatee numbers.
In the early 20th century, the nocturnal, nine-banded armadillo species migrated on its own into Florida from Mexico. It is now commonly spotted across the state, identifiable by its hard, armored body (made of horn and bone) segmented into nine distinct bands. The armadillo has a long tail and small head. Its mottled coloring of brown and yellow provide excellent camouflage in its preferred habitat of sandy soil, burrowed dens and tree-covered lands. The armadillo feeds primarily on insects, berries, cedar and plant sources. While this particular armadillo species cannot roll into a ball as a defense mechanism, its skilled burrowing techniques provide an excellent escape method. The nine-banded armadillo is commonly studied by biomedical researchers, as many are a natural carrier for leprosy. Additionally, armadillo populations are important as they are a major source of food for the endangered Florida panther.
Long ago, the Florida panther roamed the Southeastern United States in robust numbers. Due to habitat destruction, reduced food sources and species hunting, less than 100 adults remain in the wild, placing the panther as an endangered species in need of rescue. A shy cat and lone hunter, the panther will stalk unsuspecting hogs and deer, attacking with magnificent strength. It has a tan-colored coat, can weigh over 100 lb. and reach 8 feet in length. While the Florida panther is a subspecies of the feline cougar, it is called by many names, such as the puma, mountain lion and catamount.