Superheroes of the Natural World
By Justina Dacey and Rick O’Connor
If there were superheroes of the natural world, it would be Florida Master Naturalists. Instead of colorful superhero outfits, they would be found blending in with their environment, wearing earth tones head to toe: floppy hats, airy long-sleeved shirts and pants, and sturdy boots. They wield binoculars, field identification books and water bottles.
Their superpower? Knowledge.
As UF/IFAS Extension agents and Florida Master Naturalist instructors, we (the writers) oversee several community science projects implemented with the help of volunteers. Volunteers serve a needed role in environmental assessments. Long-term monitoring projects are costly for agencies and often are not completed due to expense. But by using well trained volunteers, costs can be reduced and much of this work can be completed. In many cases, these volunteers are Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP) graduates who continue to seek engaging opportunities to serve Florida’s natural areas.
Florida Master Naturalists in this area are involved in projects like:
- Monitoring seagrass and surveying for mangroves in the Pensacola bay area. The information obtained is used by a researcher at the University of West Florida.
- Monitoring salinity at different points of the bay to determine if stormwater run-off is lowering salinities to a point where seagrass and scallop restoration will not work. These data are already in the hands of a scallop researcher at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Research Institute in St. Petersburg, trying to determine whether the state’s Scallop Sitter program would work on the Northwest coast.
- Surveying for existing scallops during our Great Scallop Search.
- Surveying for and monitoring diamondback terrapin activity. There is a lack of research on this coastal turtle in the Panhandle and collecting information on this possibly genetically isolated population could result in consideration of protective listing in the future. These data are being shared with both FWC and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
- Identifying and removing an invasive beach plant, beach vitex (Vitex rotundifolia). In addition to finding and reporting this plant, FMNP volunteers have been able to remove over 80% of the known population in our area – staying ahead of the invasive population curve.
There have been side benefits of these efforts. While monitoring seagrass, volunteers began to encounter manatees – an animal not common in Northwest Florida. Repeated encounters led to a new project partnering with the Pensacola-Perdido Bay Estuary Program and Dauphin Island Sea Lab, called Manatee Watch. In 2020, 66 manatee encounters were logged.
Likewise, volunteers searching for terrapins have come across horseshoe crabs, an animal thought to no longer exist in the area but that may be returning. This has led to a new local project that expands the FWC’s existing Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch, a monitoring program that is tracking horseshoe crab populations statewide.
The time and effort our FMNP graduates have contributed in our area has helped local and state resource managers with needed data and provided an economic value as well. In 2020 alone, the estimated value of their service was about $40,000.
On the opposite corner of the state, Master Naturalists are utilizing their superpowers in projects like:
- Scoping the beaches of Amelia Island during peak horseshoe crab spawning times for the Florida Horseshoe Crab Watch. They collect data and tag horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus), as well as educate curious beachgoers about the importance of horseshoe crabs to public health and the shoreline food web.
- Identifying invasive species along the beaches of Amelia Island. In the past year, many of these volunteers were trained to scout and identify problematic plants, with scouting events discovering high densities of Russian thistle (Salsola kali, subspecies pontica), a non-native plant that disturbs shorebird and sea turtle nesting habitat by invading typically barren areas. In two years, volunteers have removed over 800 plants, 278 pounds of plant biomass, contributing an estimated economic value of $70,000.
- Building a demonstration living shoreline along the Nassau River. Living shorelines are a nature-based alternative to armoring shorelines that provide habitat for coastal organisms, buffer wave action, and have a much longer lifespan than bulkheads or seawalls.
- Assisting with the placement of 320 Community Oyster Reef Enhancement (CORE) modules, 20 oyster reef balls and 40 oyster reef prisms at a park in Nassau County. These alternative oyster restoration methods provide biodegradable, plastic-free options for homeowners and practitioners for the implementation of living shorelines. Many of the Master Naturalists who help build this shoreline have become stewards of this site. They enjoy educating park visitors about their importance and benefits to estuarine organisms such as fiddler crabs, blue crabs, snails, shrimp, marsh birds, all the basis for the marsh food chain.
But one of the best outcomes of the project has been the satisfaction of the volunteers. The surveys don’t always yield a sighting of the creature they’re seeking, but we often hear the positives – getting the chance to see white pelicans, stingrays and other creatures in an interesting place they had never been.
These examples describe work accomplished in two small, opposite corners of Florida’s coast. The collective work of Florida Master Naturalists across the state makes them the true superheroes of Florida.
Justina Dacey is the UF/IFAS Extension Nassau County natural resources agent; and Rick O’Connor is the UF/IFAS Extension Escambia County Florida Sea Grant agent.