Friday, 5 April 2013

Odd Animals and Lizards of Levy County, Florida

Some Odd Animals and Lizards of Levy County,  Chapter XXIV
From Romantic and Historic Levy County (Florida) by Ruth Verrill, 1976. Digitized by Doug Frizzle, April 2013.

Many years ago when living was less hurried, the writer went on long, aimless walks about the countryside just to see what might be found.
Many things scientists call "specimens", were gathered and sent to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C, Department of Entomology (bugs, moths and such), and Herpetology (snakes and lizards), also the public zoo in Philadelphia. A large number of specimens sent proved to be unrecorded and unknown to science.

Three were of unusual interest in themselves. An adult shrew, a little smaller than a five-cent piece, found under a scrap of old felt roofing paper, lying on the ground at the old Clyatt farm at the side of Long Pond, was not only unknown in the Americas, but smaller than any known from other continents. It was velvety, dark reddish-brown, nearly blind as are all shrews. It was shipped in a can of dirt with food and water to a museum where it attracted a great deal of interest.

While raking out an old, rotted pine stump for "sawyers" with which to go fishing, a grayish, rust-colored lump wiggled. This turned out to be a variety of "nurse-frog", previously unrecorded in North America. It was about the size of an average lima bean, satin-smooth, pointed-nosed, and with fairly deep natural pits in its back.
In these pits, which only the males have, the females lay their eggs, then a delicate membrane grows over the eggs and pits, protecting the eggs during incubation. The frogs when hatched remain in their pits, a frog to a pit, until they have outgrown their parental incubator. The pits close and can only be seen by close observation.

Then there is the harmless so-called brittle or glass snake (Ophisaurus), which is not a snake at all, but a true lizard. Legs? Yes, it has legs, but they are embryonic legs which only an x-ray or autopsy can reveal.
The part that breaks off from the rear of the body is its tail. When this happens, if the lizard is otherwise uninjured, a new tail gradually grows back again.
There are a number of color-varieties of these harmless, insect-eating, handsome lizards. The most beautiful of them all is the turquoise and golden variety. These resemble Egyptian high-gloss enamel inlay. Several of these were shipped to museums. Two of the color-varieties were previously unknown to science and regarded as a great rarity.

A house lizard of the ANOLIS family, looking like a wee dragon, with an erectile "fan" on the back of its neck was also unrecorded until sent to the Smithsonian. Currently, July 1969, there is one of these miniature dinosaurs living around the writer's porch. The "fan" is a dull black, and only erects when the lizard, a male, is showing off or angry with an ordinary ANOLIS lizard.

From Levy County have also been sent new varieties of dragon-flies "Devil's darning needles", wasps, moths, grasshoppers, tumble-bugs and ant-lions. Several Goliath beetles, both male and female were also sent to the museum, and considered prizes.

It was a surprise to learn that the American Museum of Natural History had no "gopher" turtle smaller than a saucer until Mr. Verrill sent them two, freshly-hatched. They had been caught out in the full sun without shade and it had killed them. When soft, freshly-hatched, they cannot endure much heat. These also created a lot of interest, not only among the various curators, but the public as well.

When the writer began clearing away the woods from the land where home and garden was to be, called ANHIARKA for the winter camp of Captain Hernando De Soto, 1539-1540 that had been in the immediate area, a patch of aged and weather-bleached dog bones were found scattered on the ground near an old, fallen. rotted log with a hollow in it.
Mr. Verrill was called and at once declared: "Dog-Killer"! The smallest skull appeared to be that of a Pekingese, and the largest that of a bull-terrier or similar dog. The hollow log may have been the home of the dog-hating and eating mammal who had apparently inhabited the place for quite some time. These "Dog-Killers" are given different names according to where they are found. In early Bolivia in South America, they were called WARI-WILKA'S. Wari meaning fierce or war-like. They are represented in symbolical, or cult-arts, carved in stone, and in paints on ancient pottery, relics well-known to archaeologists interested in South American cultures. These WARI-WILKAS were considered sacred to the sun, and as its guardians.
Carved stone likenesses of them are also found in Mexico and Yucatan, where they too were considered sacred. A finely engraved sea shell from Spiro mound, Spiro, Oklahoma, has representations of these "Sun-Dogs" that had some part in the religious cult of the people who constructed the mound, with its burial chamber. These felines are graceful, with a tail as a friend said: "like a gun barrel", long in proportion to the body and varying in size and color. Some are golden-reddish brown, others dull, light-brown, and only rarely are they black. An adult has been reported that measured six feet in length, including the tail.
In temperament they vary almost from moment to moment. One may be stroked, cuddled and hand-fed in captivity while showing every indication of affection, gentle and docile. Then, quick as the proverbial flash, it is a tornado of snarls, hisses, flashing teeth and awful claws. Thrashing and lunging about in such fury, though chained it brings a chill to the observer's senses. Raging at the chain that securely holds it in its cage, it displays the most violent hate toward man, and for no discernable reason.
A laborer from a ranch in Honduras brought to us in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, a healthy, young, golden-brown one he had picked up while working on the ranch. The writer, with Mr. Verrill, was on an expedition to collect live birds, reptiles, and animals throughout Mexico from north to south, for an "animal farm", a public attraction on the coast of southeast Florida.
This feline, known to science as a BASSARICION seldom known in captivity, was added to the animal collection and all eventually transported by plane to Miami. We soon learned to feed, water and care for the "wild cat" with utmost caution.
The Florida Department of Conservation, and the Department of State Parks, call the felines, Teyra (Tayra) cats, and though not common they are known throughout Northern Florida. They have spread gradually, coming northward from Mexico, and around northern margins of the Gulf of Mexico. They are rarely seen, and more rarely shot and killed as they are extremely shy, cautious, and very fleet of foot. Dogs are their pet hate and favorite food, but they also attack young calves, goats and deer.
Two were shot and brought in to Anhiarka in 1941. Mr. Verrill had previously shot at one himself but did not hit it. Many do not know of this wily predator and its existence in Florida, but it has been in the state many years, having it is said, come in from Louisiana. As far as known, none have ever attacked a human being.   They are the most elusive and secretive of all mammals.

The writer has not heard or read of a manatee being seen in Levy County for several years. There are several varieties of the huge mammals. A dugong of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean is of this family. Florida's manatee or "sea cow" has been quite well-known in the past. The young are born alive and nursed as a mother nurses her baby. They are slow-motioned, harmless and lazy. The brain is small for their size and possesses no high degree of intelligence. Their bones are very heavy which helps them stay on the bottom underwater to feed or rest. They close the valve-like slits they have for a nose to prevent water getting in when they dive. The amount of air in their lungs is so controlled they can float, sink, or rest halfway between water surface and the bottom, though they must hold their noses above water every two or three minutes to breathe.
The Florida variety is the smallest of them all, an adult being about nine feet in length. They are dark gray, the skin finely-wrinkled and very thick. The ears are not noticeable, there is no forehead or shoulder blades. The tail is flat, rounded and paddlelike. The head is small and joined to the body without a neck. The eyes are also small and nearly covered with loose folds of thick skin. The upper and lower lip have short, stiff bristles as whiskers. They have a voice and can bellow like a bull, moan or scream. When in the water they will at times come to the surface and make a loud blowing sound. When they find a place undisturbed by people, they will crawl upon the shore and sunbathe. Some scientists have denied this, but Mr. Verrill from his own observation, reported that they can and do come onto land, and if stranded by a receding tide, drag themselves back into the water.
The Florida manatee lives in the comparatively shallow water of creeks, rivers and lagoons that are connected with the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean; but do not live in the ocean itself. They feed on aquatic vegetation, grasses and weeds. Manatee grass was named for them as it is their favorite food. They are very shy and several may live in a place and not be seen. Hunters would have exterminated them years ago if they were not protected by strict conservation laws. They were valuable for their thick, tough skins, oily fat and excellent meat.
Early Spanish colonists in the West Indies gave these mammals the name of MANATEE because they use their paddle-like flippers as hands, for they are well-jointed. These flippers are where arms would be, and each flipper has three flat nails or claws.
Manatees do not thrive in captivity, but there is the case of one kept in an aquarium in England for sixteen months, which is highly unusual. It was fed with lettuce, endive, tender cabbage, turnip leaves and carrot tops. It was published that this manatee was one of the earliest to be studied while living, and that its habits were very interesting.

The armadillo is not a native, but an immigrant, having wandered up from Mexico around the Gulf. It has spread over the entire peninsula of Florida becoming a menace to sugar cane shoots and some crops. When first born they are a very pretty dusty-rose color and quite flexible like a soft purse. When grown, the carapice over the shoulders and hips are fairly rigid, though not thick. Between these are nine bands of a more pliant covering, all of which is hinged together by strong, tough, but thin skin. The underparts are ordinary soft skin with long, stiff bristles sparsely covering the belly. Legs and head are covered with hard, glossy, gray scales, and the feet provided with sharp, strong claws that are not retractile like those of a feline. The eyes are lidded, the jaws have no front teeth and cannot bite, but there are well-developed molars at the back of the jaw with which to crush and chew its food. The heavy, long, tapered tail is covered with segments or rings of overlapping, rather hard "leather" over its entire length. The ears are delicate, elongated, leaf-like ovals, and hearing is excellent. They can dig and burrow in almost an instant if opportunity and need require it. They swim readily and enjoy bathing. They are very clean animals. When fully adult they become very large and heavy. A female brought from Mexico weighed seventeen pounds and was a very difficult creature to handle.
The flesh is very delicate and in taste and texture is much like the meat on the neck and back of a chicken. Natives dress them, place the meat with herbs and vegetables in the armadillo's carapice or shell, and bake the whole. When done it is served in the shell, even at the table.   (No baking pan to wash!)
The young after weaning may be brought up in the home as a pet. They are readily trained to "walk" as one might his dog, morning and evening, and are completely "house-broken", they are not destructive, nor do they have any odor. They enjoy a bath in the family tub and scrub all over with minute care; they are intelligent affectionate and interesting. The writer had one for over two years. until he slipped off a bookcase he was climbing and fell to the floor, breaking his back and had to be killed. They are nimble climbers, have no voice and are easily fed. They like canned dog food, chopped boiled eggs, sliced grapes, bits of beef or horsemeat, lettuce, spinach, bits of apple, a saucer of milk, and drink quite a bit of water.

The flora and fauna (vegetable and living wild creatures) of Levy County were of such interest to science, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City sent a panel truck, laboratory-equipped, to the Suwannee River area with a staff of scientist-collectors to collect specimens of those things. In the mind of the writer it had an all too hurried schedule to do more than "scratch the surface" of Levy County's natural history. The writer has lived in the county off and on since September 1937 and still discovers new and interesting things.
Fossils collected in the county have been welcomed by the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, Scotland, which it is said has the largest, finest collections of fossils in the world. Some of the specimens were requested, and eventually obtained.
Crabs from the shore and bordering waters of the Gulf of Mexico have been preserved and prepared for a natural history museum in Milan, Italy, along with other Florida collections, and some from the British West Indies.
No, Levy County is not an unknown, uninteresting place, an isolated portion of Florida's geography. It is rich in many ways for those who possess sufficient interest and take time to look for and enjoy what it has to offer.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.