The Wild Bunch

What do you know about wombats, wood storks, white rhinos and other members of the animal kingdom? These Gators study and work with all sorts of wildlife, and strive to protect the environment through their results. Here is a peek into their world.

Alligator

A

Mark Hostetler (MS ’92, PhD ’97)
Professor, UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

The alligator isn’t just UF’s mascot, it’s also an archosaur, a type of animal a group that predates reptiles and lizards, going back 35 million years. Although they prefer to eat fish, birds, small mammals and other reptiles, alligators will occasionally snack on fruit.

Mark Hostetler and his department colleagues are among the nation’s leading alligator experts. Their work includes teaching people how to interact safely with alligators, conserving the species and studying the impacts of Burmese pythons and invasive species on gator groups, called “congregations.”

Alligators are more closely related to birds than reptiles. That’s because gators and dinosaurs evolved from the same ancestor, prior to the common ancestor of other reptiles.

Bees

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Jamie Ellis
Gahan Endowed Professor of Entomology, UF Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab

A beekeeper since age 12, Jamie Ellis leads UF researchers who are working to strengthen the world’s bee colonies. The team’s focus: combating the deadly varroa mite, pathogens and other stressors that are rapidly killing off bee colonies – last year by nearly 40 percent.

Beekeepers can combat this die-off by splitting strong hives so new queens produce more baby bees each year, says Ellis.

We can’t afford to lose honey bees: They are essential to pollination of fruit, flowers and vegetables, supporting about $20 billion worth of U.S. crop production annually.

Of the 20,000 species of bees, only nine produce honey.

Cuban Tree Frog

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Steve Johnson
Associate Professor, UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

An invasive nuisance in Florida for over 100 years, Cuban tree frogs gobble up native frogs and insects, take over birdhouses and clog indoor drains. They’ll even eat their own kind if food resources are low.

Herpetologist Steve Johnson has been studying these color-morphing cannibals for two decades. He recommends using this humane method of euthanasia if you catch one: (1) apply benzocaine to frog’s back or belly; (2) plop it in a plastic bag; (3) store in freezer for 24 hours; (4) dispose. (Wear gloves to protect yourself from the frog’s toxic mucus.)

Male frogs snort loudly to attract females during mating season.

Doberman Pinscher

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Amara Estrada (BS ’93, DVM ’98)
Professor of Cardiology, Small Animal Clinical Sciences, UF College of Veterinary Medicine

Doberman pinschers are prone to a fatal heart-muscle ailment known as DCM (dilated cardio-myopathy), which strikes nearly half of all Dobermans.

After a decade of preliminary research involving 1,000 Dobermans, veterinary cardiology specialist Amara Estrada and two of her peers are undertaking the first-ever lifetime study to evaluate the influence of genetic mutations in the breed. They will also examine how environment and nutrition impact the progression of DCM.

German tax collector Karl Dobermann bred the first Doberman pinscher in 1890; he wanted a fierce, loyal dog to protect him on his tax-collecting rounds.

Evening Bat

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Terry Doonan (BS ’77)
Mammal Conservation Coordinator, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

During zoology alumnus Terry Doonan’s 25-year career, he’s sought to help the 13 bat species in Florida. But he says his last five years have been a race through caves, buildings and other roosting locations to survey the number, health and environmental conditions of tiny evening bats and their cousins before the dreaded White-Nose Syndrome reaches Florida colonies. This disease has killed millions of bats across North America. “We need a lot more information … so we can better understand problems that occur when” it reaches Florida, he said.

While most mama bats give birth to one “pup” per year, evening bats typically have two babies at a time. This is good news for farmers who need the 2¼-inch-long critters to naturally battle caterpillars, beetles and moths.

Florida Manatee

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Dianne Behringer
School Programs Coordinator, Florida Museum of Natural Science

Once on the brink of extinction, the Florida manatee is making a comeback. The sea cow’s numbers in Florida waters are now at 6,500, after having dwindled to a few hundred in the 1970s. One reason for the bounce back: slower “no wake” zones for boats.

Each year, between 8,000 and 10,000 schoolchildren flock to the Florida Museum where they discover the origins of this gentle beast, thanks to Dianne Behringer and her fellow educators. Students use inductive reasoning to figure out the identity of a partial manatee skeleton. They also contrast the skeletons of a modern manatee and its extinct ancestor to understand how this mammal evolved over millions of years.

“One major difference students can observe is the extinct sea cow had hind limbs,” says Behringer. “These fossil remains show that modern manatees derived from four-legged land mammals.”

The Florida manatee is related to the elephant. Some historians believe the plump sea mammal also inspired the legend of mermaids.

Galapagos Tortoise

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Peter Pritchard (PhD ’69)
Director, Chelonian Research Institute; TIME magazine’s “Hero for the Planet”

Centuries of hunting and other threats have seen the number of giant Galapagos tortoises dwindle. Some subspecies have already gone extinct.

In June 2012, a male Pinta Island tortoise named Lonesome George drew his last breath, leaving no descendants. Renowned zoologist Peter Pritchard was among the devoted scientists who spent decades trying to find a mate for George.

“He had one unhappy defect, that he had no interest in reproducing,” said Pritchard.

For decades, the Charles Darwin Foundation offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could procure a female Pinta tortoise for George. It was never claimed.

House Cat

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Julie Levy
Fran Marino Endowed Prof. of Shelter Medicine Education, UF College of Veterinary Medicine

With 94.2 million owned felines in the country, house cats are America’s most popular pet.

Along with that popularity comes overpop-ulation. Researcher Julie Levy founded Operation Catnip, a life-saving program that has spayed, neutered and vaccinated more than 55,000 free-roaming cats in Gainesville since 1998.

Levy is also working on contraceptive vaccines and expanding spay/neuter to young kittens.

“I’m excited to be teaming up with wildlife biologists to develop practical methods to count and track elusive free-roaming cats,” she says. “That’s going to be a powerful tool for managing outdoor cat populations.”

Abe Lincoln was the first president to bring cats into the White House. He fed “Tabby” and “Dixie” from the table during state dinners.

Indian Rhinoceros

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Ron Magill (AA ’80)
Zoo Miami Communications Director; Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker

Zoo Miami made history in April 2019 when a rare one-horned Indian rhinoceros gave birth via artificial insemination and induced ovulation, a first for this vulnerable species. Wildlife champion Ron Magill documented mom Akuti’s 15-month-long pregnancy and delivery of female calf Sarita.

With only 3,000 to 3,500 Indian rhinos left in the wild, Sarita’s birth is “an insurance policy against a very uncertain future in the wild for these animals,” says Magill.

While rhinos are solitary animals, a group of mother and calves is called a “crash.” Also, each rhino has a unique dung scent, so they create large poop mounds to communicate with each other about their health, age and readiness to mate.

Jumping Spider

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Lisa Taylor
Assistant Research Scientist, UF Department of Entomology and Nematology

Most spiders cannot see colors, but jumping spiders do, notes entomologist Lisa Taylor. Her research reveals these tiny spiders evolved vivid colors on their bodies to facilitate communication during courtship.

“Females are voracious predators that sometimes attack and eat males before they have a chance to mate,” says Taylor. In other words, spider Romeo waves his brightly colored arms to alert his Juliet, “Hey, babe, I’m not dinner!”

National Geographic filmmaker and fellow Gator Felipe DeAndrade tapped Taylor’s expertise for an episode of “Untamed: The Weird Sex Lives of Jumping Spiders.”

Jumping spiders can leap up to 50 times their body length.

Collared Kingfisher

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David Steadman (MS ’75)
Curator of Ornithology, Florida Museum of Natural History

With its white “collar” and vivid blue-green plumage, the collared kingfisher is one of the most
striking birds of the tropical Pacific islands.

Curator David Steadman was one of the first researchers to survey this species on Tonga, and he says the plentiful birds are worth watching — not just for their beauty but for the dire environmental message their absence signals.

“It is one of the last species of birds to leave when an island’s habitat is destroyed or modified,” he says. “If kingfishers are gone, the place is in really rough shape.”

Collared kingfishers perform acrobatic courtship flights, after which the male offers the female a fish, small lizard or other treat.

Lice

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David Reed
Associate Director of Research and Collections, Florida Museum of Natural History

Having lived on humans for millennia, bloodsucking lice provide valuable clues in their genes about our evolutionary past, says biologist David Reed. By sequencing ancient louse DNA, Reed has confirmed homo sapiens began wearing clothes while in Africa 80,000 to 100,000 years ago, long before the need for warm clothing in places like Europe and Asia.

Most modern humans have a tiny bit of Neanderthal DNA due to interbreeding between the two species long ago, Reed says, and lice are the same way.

“We are using lice collected from people all over the world to pin down when and where modern humans and Neanderthals overlapped,” Reed says.

Cleopatra was buried with a golden nit comb – a sign of status in ancient Egypt, where only the rich wore wigs. Plebs and slaves went bald.

Rhesus Macque

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Jane Anderson (PhD ’16)
Assistant Professor, Texas A&M University Kingsville

Brought from Asia to Silver Springs in the 1930s to entice tourists, wild rhesus macaques are now a growing threat — destroying wildlife, attacking humans and carrying a deadly herpes B virus.

A 2015 study by Jane Anderson and UF’s Steve Johnson predicted the number of feral monkeys in Central Florida would double from 175 to 350 by 2022.
Now the state wants to eliminate the nonnative species, but many locals object to killing such an adorable animal. Anderson estimates you could reduce the population by one-third by sterilizing the females.

A rhesus monkey named Sam flew to an altitude of 55 miles in 1959 on a NASA rocket, paving the way for space travel.

Neotropical Leaf Miner

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Akito Kawahara
Associate Professor and Curator, UF McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity

Gracillariid leaf-mining micro-moths still boast hundreds of undescribed species in the tropical Amazon. But curator Akito Kawahara is working to change that. He has searched for them in Brazil, Ecuador and French Guiana, identified new species and collaborated on an illustrated catalogue that revises the insect’s classification.

Don’t hate the white blotches and tunnels that leaf miners inflict on leaves, Kawahara says. That cosmetic damage may have hidden benefits, such as delaying plant aging.

“We don’t know how they do it, but understanding this could have broad implications in terms of allowing crops and produce to last much longer,” Kawahara says.

Gracillariidae comes from the Latin word that means graceful and slender.

Florida Burrowing Owl

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Allison Smith (7 ALS)
UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

Weighing less than a can of soda, the tiny Florida burrowing owl is disappearing nearly everywhere except Marco Island, thanks to Owl Watch, a community/scientist research collaboration started by UF experts and funded by Audubon of the Western Everglades.

UF grad student Allison Smith manages 60 Owl Watch volunteers, who monitor burrows on this urban resort island. In 2019, they protected the homes of 241 breeding pairs, who gave birth to 563 chicks, the highest number on record.

“Burrowing owls are a big personality packed into a tiny ball of feathers,” says Smith. “They need to be bold to survive in a city.”

Owlets scare predators from their burrow by mimicking the sounds of a rattlesnake.

Florida Panther

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Madan Oli
UF/IFAS Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Professor

A subspecies of North American puma, the Florida panther once roamed the southeastern U.S. but is now found mainly in the forests and swamps of southwest Florida.

In 2019 ecologist Mandan Oli and peers from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission released a study showing efforts to increase the Florida panther’s genetic diversity have rescued it from extinction. In the 1990s, there were only 20 to 30 Florida panthers in the state, many suffering from physical abnormalities due to inbreeding.

Between 1995 and 2003, eight female Texas pumas were temporary released in Florida to mate with locals. Today, the Florida panther population is up to 230 healthy animals.

“There’s hope for endangered species,” Oli said.

Florida panther kittens are born with dark spots to camouflage them on forest floors.

Quahog

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Leslie Sturmer
UF/IFAS Regional Molluscan Shellfish Aquaculture Extension Agent

When the closure of local oyster beds and a 1994 statewide voter-approved gill net ban virtually killed the economy in Cedar Key’s historic fishing village, quahog specialist Leslie Sturmer and scientists from both UF and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution stepped in to help the town refocus its unique skills on farming the mollusks. Better known as clams, these marine animals are tasty to eat, but also serve as environmental purifiers, due to their filtration capacity.

Sturmer’s study of the town’s 2012 quahog harvest (135 million clams) showed that the animals filtered 544 million gallons of seawater daily and removed more than 25 thousand pounds of nitrogen and 761 thousand pounds of carbon from Florida’s coastal environment.

It takes 25 to 28 months for quahog larvae to reach market size. Left in the wild, their average life span is 33–36 years. However, in 2007, scientists discovered a specimen of ocean quahog that was between 405 and 410 years old.

North Atlantic Right Whale

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Tim Gowan (9 ALS)
Research Associate, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Measuring up to 55 feet long, the North Atlantic right whale is one of the largest animals in the world, as well as one of the most endangered — fewer than 500 remain. Historically, right whales were hunted for their oil, but today they are more likely to die from ship strikes or entanglements in fishing gear.

Florida plays a unique role in their survival, says specialist Tim Gowan: The state’s northeast coast is the only place in the world where pregnant North Atlantic right whales come to give birth.

Right whales have rough patches of skin on their heads, called callosities. Each whale’s callosity pattern is unique, enabling researchers to identify individuals from photographs.

Schaus’ Swallowtail Butterfly

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Jaret Daniels (PhD ’99)
Associate Curator and Director, UF McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity

Swallowtail butterflies can be found on every continent, with 500 colorful species fluttering about on tapering chevron wings. Among the rarest is the Schaus’ swallowtail, a chocolate-brown species that once flourished in Miami and the Florida Keys. By 2012, there were only four Schaus’ swallowtails left in their native habitat, making the insect all but extinct.

That’s when Jaret Daniels’ scientists at the McGuire Center rolled up their sleeves. They produced 1,000 Schaus’ swallowtail larvae, of which 50 adults and 200 caterpillars were released into Biscayne National Park in 2014.

Today, UF’s ongoing efforts have stabilized the Schaus’ swallowtail population at between 800 and 1,200 individuals in the wild — a small but miraculous step forward.

When a swallowtail isn’t sucking nectar, its flexible tongue coils into a spiral.

Malayan Tiger

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Kae Kawanishi (PhD ’02)
Director, Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT)

With fewer than 200 animals left in the wild, the Malayan tiger is the most critically endangered tiger species on earth, notes wildlife biologist Kae Kawanishi. She has spent the last 21 years trekking through remote Malayan rainforests to study and protect these big cats: first as a doctoral student (her research was the first-ever population study of Malayan tigers) and then as the founder and director of MYCAT.

Today, the MYCAT Citizen Action for Tiger Watch program draws NGOs and 2,000 people from 37 nations to patrol tiger habits.

While most people assume Kawanishi’s job is dangerous, she has never encountered a Malayan tiger in the wild — they are that rare. Her worst injury doing fieldwork? “I had an anaphylactic reaction to an insect sting,” she says. “I fainted and cracked my canine and a rib.”

The Malaysian nickname for this species is Pak Belang, “Uncle Stripes.”

Ungulates

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Samantha Wisely
Associate Professor, UF/IFAS Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

Ungulates are hoofed mammals, a diverse group including deer.

In the late 1800s, there were fewer than 20,000 deer in Florida; today, after intensive management and reintroduction, there are 700,000, says wildlife expert Samantha Wisely. Her team is working with deer farmers to test a new vaccine to prevent a deadly hemorrhaging disease in the animals.

“Nationally, deer trophy hunting is an $8 billion industry, so keeping deer healthy is economically important for farmers, and it helps improve the health of wild deer populations,” she says.

Deer see about five times better than we do, but they only perceive the colors yellow and blue.

Volcano Hummingbird

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Filipe DeAndrade (BSTEL ’12)
National Geographic Wildlife Filmmaker

Measuring only 3 inches long with purple throat feathers, the tiny volcano hummingbird is a mighty pollinator. This species feeds on nectar from brightly colored tubular flowers in the forests of Central America.

Documentary filmmaker Filipe DeAndrade happily spent months in Costa Rica filming these and other hummingbirds — up close and in slow-mo — for Nat Geo Wild.

“They’re one of the most colorful, charismatic, vibrant and lively creatures in the animal kingdom — little rainbow torpedoes,”
he enthused on social media.

“Everything I do in life is just a cover-up so I can spend time with hummingbirds,” he added, jokingly.

A volcano hummingbird’s tongue licks at a flower’s nectar 13 times per second.

White Ibis

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Peter Frederick
Research Professor, UF Deptartment of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation

With its white plumage and curved orange beak, the white ibis is the quintessential southeastern wading bird. Its native habitat is shallow wetlands, but flocks will also forage in urban parks and lawns, where they soak up mercury and other dangerous toxins.

In 2011, an experiment by UF’s Peter Frederick showed mercury contamination reduces white ibis reproduction by 50 percent. Male ibis exposed to mercury had low levels of testosterone, and more than half paired off with other males, behaving as though they had laid eggs.

“Hormones can be easily upset,” Frederick told CBS News. “I think that is the scary part. We are to some extent controlled by what we are exposed to.”

The University of Miami’s mascot is a white ibis named Sebastian.

Xenopus Laevis

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Dr. Jeff Hill (MS ’98, PhD ’03)
Invasion ecologist, UF/IFAS Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory

Almost 80 years ago, doctors commonly used Xenopus (ZEE-no-puss) aquatic frogs, also called African clawed frogs, for pregnancy tests. But when better tests were invented, many labs released the frogs into the wild creating an invasive species on four continents. Riverview, south of Tampa, is home to one of these populations. Associate Professor Jeff Hill and his doctoral student Allison Durland say the frogs aren’t quite at the same level as other invaders, such as pythons, lionfish or zebra mussels, but the carnivores can survive harsh environmental conditions and will eat just about any small aquatic animal. Hill’s research is being used to track environmental impact, teach fish farmers how to protect their ponds, identify which fish stop or slow the invasion and help the aquarium industry profit, since the little frogs don’t mind when owners forget to clean their fish tanks.

Xenopus’ eyes are fixed on top of their head so they can see food particles falling from above. They grab food with their front claws and push it into their mouths, unlike other species that use long, sticky tongues.

Yellow Fever Mosquito

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Barry Alto (PhD ’06)
Associate Professor, UF/IFAS Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory

If there is a mosquito you should fear most, it’s the yellow fever mosquito, says entomologist Barry Alto. This species carries not just yellow fever but dengue, West Nile virus, chikungunya and Zika, infecting hundreds of millions of people per year.

Alto heads the biosafety level 2 and 3 facilities for UF’s medical entomology lab, where he routinely oversees experiments on live mosquitoes carrying lethal diseases. To prevent infection, all scientists follow strict safety protocols and wear a body suit, gloves, head hood and a respirator. So far, Alto has never been bitten in the lab, but he admits he’s gotten “thousands” of skeeter bites doing fieldwork outdoors.

Only the female mosquito feeds on the blood of humans and other animals. Males stick to plant nectar.

Zebrafish

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James Liao
Associate Professor, UF Department of Biology, Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience

Part of the minnow family, the zebrafish is prized in research because scientists can peer through its transparent body to see organs and systems developing and functioning in real time.

Biomechanist/neuroscientist James Liao channels this unique feature to understand how delicate sense organs in the zebrafish (identical to those in the human ear) enable it to navigate turbulent currents.

“I want to know how underwater animals move and what they’re sensing so we can harness the genius of their evolutionary designs,” Liao recently told Hakai magazine.

Liao’s results can help us better understand human deafness and balance disorders.

Zebrafish are frequent fliers on the International Space Station, where researchers study their bone degeneration and muscle atrophy in space for clues about old age in humans.