During your visit to the South Florida Everglades, you might expect to see Alligators in their native habitat, but did you know that the Everglades is home to hundreds of different animals?
This is because the Everglades sustains a unique environment that provides safe refuge to the wildlife that inhabits the wetlands; some of these species are not found anywhere else in the world. This article will cover some of the more common reptiles, mammals, amphibians, and birds you may encounter on your journey.
When thinking about the wildlife you might encounter in the Everglades, we’d be willing to bet that alligators and snakes are the first animals that come to mind. Although they may seem like a common sight, gators are a lot less common than you’d expect, depending on the time of year you visit. Let’s learn more about the various reptiles and amphibians you’ll see!
Due to overhunting, the American Alligator once found itself on the endangered species list prior to the enactment of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Thanks to conservation efforts, their populations rebounded well enough to be removed from the endangered species list in 1987.
Today, American Alligator populations continue to grow and thrive all over Florida. And, if you happen to find yourself exploring in the cooler months, you can bet you’ll see these famous reptilian predators getting some sun on the grassy banks of the pristine Everglades waters.
These massive reptiles can range between 11 to 15 feet for males and 8 to 10 feet for females and primarily inhabit swamps and marshes, although it’s not uncommon to find them in other bodies of water like lakes, rivers, and ponds. Their color can range from dark green, gray, brown to nearly black with a cream-colored underside. The American Alligator’s typical diet consists of fish, turtles, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and even small and juvenile alligators.
Although alligators have incredible power to close their jaws, the muscles used to open their mouths are very weak, making it easy for even a human to hold their jaws shut. Now don’t try this at home, kids!
A distant cousin of the American Alligator, the American Crocodile, is known to inhabit coastal areas of South Florida as well as brackish water and saltwater habitats. They can typically be found in Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Central and South America, too. Adult male crocodiles have been measured up to 20 feet in length; though it is rare for them to reach that size, adult females tend to be about 8 to 12 feet.
In comparison, crocodiles have long and narrow v-shaped snouts, while alligators have shorter U-shape snouts. Crocodiles eat pretty much anything that moves but typically go for fish, crabs, turtles, snakes, and small mammals, mostly feeding at night. Unlike their Australian and African crocodilian cousins, it’s not common for the American Crocodile to attack larger mammals. Contrary to the aggressive reputation, American Crocodiles tend to be shy in nature and would more likely run away from you rather than towards you.
An alligator or crocodile with its mouth open can look menacing, but the reason they keep their mouths open is to regulate their body temperature while out in the sun.
Commonly found throughout Florida, the non-venomous Banded Watersnake, or more commonly known as the Southern Watersnake, is well adapted to the Everglades ecosystem. As their name implies, these snakes can be found in freshwater bodies like ponds, lakes, marshes, and streams. Strangely, this particular species and its cousins, the Florida Green and Brown Watersnakes, are not found in the Florida Keys.
Ranging in length from 22” - 42”, these stout-bodied snakes wear broad black, brown, or red crossbands on their backs sandwiched in between lighter tan, grey, or reddish bands. As they age, Southern Watersnakes tend to darken, with some individuals turning completely black.
Due to their similar coloration and size, Southern Watersnakes are often confused with the venomous Cottonmouth (Water Moccasin) but don’t worry, a bite from a Southern Watersnake won’t send you to the hospital. We still don’t recommend picking one up as they will readily bite you in defense despite their preference to run from humans.
The typical diet consists of aquatic or semi-aquatic animals like frogs, toads, and fish, occasionally snacking on tadpoles and salamanders.
When threatened, the Southern Watersnake flattens its body and head to seem larger to predators.
This venomous snake species is one of the most common snakes found throughout Florida and many neighboring islands, including the upper Florida Keys and several islands in the Gulf of Mexico.
On average, these heavy-bodied snakes reach lengths between 30” - 48”, making it the largest species of the genus Agkistrodon with males being larger than females. They wear patterns of light and dark brown crossbands containing many dark spots and speckles spread throughout with light tan, yellow-white, or white bellies. As with the Southern Watersnake, older Cottonmouth colors tend to darken, with many individuals turning uniformly olive, brown, or black over time. Interestingly, young Cottonmouth snakes’ color patterns are much lighter than adults, with newborns having sulfur yellow-colored tails.
These pit vipers use specialized “pits” on their heads to track down their prey. Their diet usually consists of fish, small mammals, lizards, birds, small turtles, baby alligators, and even other snakes. Cottonmouths can be very aggressive and are known for standing their ground when approached, unlike their Copperhead cousins. Despite their aggression, Cottonmouths are not likely to bite unless physically molested, so don’t try to pick them up or move them.
The hemotoxic venom of these large snakes is very potent and poses a serious threat to humans. An individual that has been bitten will experience swelling and necrosis (the death of cells and living tissue) in the surrounding areas. In some cases, the bite can be severe enough to cause death if prompt medical attention is not received. Cottonmouths can deliver “dry bites” too; however, any bite from a venomous snake should be treated as if it were any other bite.
The Florida Cottonmouth gets its name from an interesting behavior. These snakes open their mouths to reveal the white fleshy interior when threatened; the coloration is reminiscent of cotton, hence their name.
A highly aquatic species, the Florida softshell turtle prefers lakes, ponds, ditches, large springs, and canals. Softshells may spend some time buried on the bottom of the water in the soft sand with only their head sticking out for air or for ambushing passing fish.
These turtles are carnivores that eat mollusks, crayfish, insects, fish, frogs, snakes, other turtles, birds, and even corpses.
Just like its name, this turtle has a soft shell and a noticeable flattened body. They have a long neck and elongated head with a tube-like snout. Florida softshell turtles have been measured up to 25 inches and are the largest and heaviest of all North American softshell turtles. They have highly webbed, three-clawed feet.
Softshell turtles can be aggressive, sometimes biting each other spontaneously or while feeding, perhaps because of how vulnerable they are due to not having a hard shell. Their sharp claws and strong jaws could result in a “memorable experience” for an unlucky predator.
Softshell turtles are surprisingly fast swimmers; they use their speed when catching prey and when they need to escape predators.
The Florida Snapping turtle, a species of aquatic turtle, is known to grow very large in size, measuring up to 18 inches and 35 pounds. These turtles are nocturnal and very active at night, spending much of their time lying on the bottom of the river and buried in the mud in shallow water. They are seldom seen basking in the sunshine like other freshwater turtles.
They are quite an aggressive species with a pointed beak and a long prehistoric-looking tail with a row of saw-tooth scales along the top. They have very long necks, which are usually in their shell until threatened, at which point it can shoot out instantly and can even reach back about half the length of their body. The Florida snapping turtle eats a wide variety of wildlife. It will eat almost anything it can grasp with its sharp jaws.
They have a hibernation season, which roughly runs from October, where they will bury themselves under mud and debris, reappearing again around late April. This is common in many turtles; they are able to remain submerged for months, sometimes in lakes that have been frozen over. The Florida Snapping Turtle is not endangered, but they do suffer poaching, habitat loss, and pollution of their environment.
Turtles can survive for months underwater because of cloacal respiration or butt breathing. You read that right! Turtles can breathe through their nose, their throat, and that one area on the turtle that is especially vascularized- their butt.
There are many different species of frogs that call the Everglades home. Among the variety of frog species in Florida is the Little Grass Frog, a subspecies of chorus frogs and the smallest frog in North America. The Little Grass Frog can be seen sporting tan, reddish, greenish, or pinkish colors with varying patterns. A distinguishing characteristic is a bold, dark line that passes through its eyes on to the sides of its body. These tiny amphibians are slender with long legs, small toe pads, and a pointed head. Males can grow to about .4” to .6” in length, with females being slightly larger at .5” to .7” in length.
The Little Grass Frog lives in moist, grassy environments, especially near ponds or wetlands in the coastal plains. They have a comparably long breeding season in most places they inhabit, typically running from January to September. In Florida, their breeding peaks between March and April, but like much of the other wildlife in Florida, they are known to breed year-round.
Little grass frogs eat a wide variety of arthropods, mainly insects, including ants, wasps, bees, and beetles. Most of their prey is associated with leaf litter and soil, which leads to the belief that they spend their time foraging on the ground for a bite to eat.
Little Grass Frogs are not protected by state or federal laws because their population is thriving. They remain common throughout much of their range, and no substantial changes in their numbers have been reported at this time.
When avoiding a predator, these little frogs can leap an astonishing 20 times their body size. Wow!
Found throughout Florida, especially on the coastal plains, the tiny Oak Toad makes a home in the sandy soils. You’ll most likely find them hanging out in pine Flatwoods, savannas, sandhills, shrub bogs, and even maritime forests. Where you won’t find these tiny toads is in the lower Florida Keys, where they’re oddly absent.
A smaller species of Toad, the Oak Toad, comes in at a tiny .75” to 1.5” in length. They can be distinguished by the bright white, yellowish, or orange stripe that runs from its snout to its tail. They are typically brown, grey, or almost black, often with scattered reddish warts and mottled black spots across their back in sets of 3 or 5. If you’re lucky, you might get to see the bright orange on the underside of their feet!
When Oak Toads get hungry, they will seek out their favorite food, ants! When ants are in short supply, you’ll find these toads munching on beetles, centipedes, spiders, and other invertebrates.
As these frogs are nocturnal, they spend most of their time chirping away as their ovular vocal sacs inflate. Their chirping is usually heard during their breeding season, between April and October. During this time, you can find Oak Toads tucked away in temporary wetlands, like shallow ponds, ditches, rain pools, or flooded agricultural fields.
Predators beware! Oak Toads secret toxins from the parotoid glands on their backs, and their eggs appear to possess some toxic properties, too.
More common than not, several of our mammalian friends inhabit the Everglades. You can expect to see raccoons and opossums fairly often; however, there are a few other lesser-known mammals that you might happen to encounter while you explore Florida’s famed wetlands. Let’s get to know them!
A subspecies of puma, the Florida panther is the only known breeding population of puma in the Eastern United States. First listed as an endangered species in 1967, population numbers hit their lowest numbers in 1995, with only 20-30 panthers documented in the wild. These low numbers were attributed to the extreme isolation from similar breeding populations of panthers in the Eastern U.S. 2007 welcomed an increase of more than 100 documented Florida panthers in the wild thanks in part to the Florida Panther Recovery Program.
Florida panthers tend to be smaller than their cousins in higher elevations; males weigh between 100 and 160 pounds, with females weighing between 50 and 115 pounds. They are roughly 7 feet in length with tawny, reddish, or greyish brown coats, occasionally melanistic or black coats are seen; however, there are no documented cases in the Northern or Southern United States.
Their diet primarily consists of white-tailed deer and wild hogs; however, smaller mammals like raccoons, armadillos, and rabbits are an important supplement when larger prey is less available. Panthers are opportunistic predators and have also been known to prey upon unsecured livestock and even our beloved pets.
As opportunistic predators, Florida panthers will go after pretty much any animal they can eat. They have even been recorded catching alligators and crocodiles!
The Florida Black Bear is the only species of bear found in Florida, and its population has been expanding since 1980. Solitary in their hunting and foraging, male black bears can roam up to 60 square miles of claimed territory. At a humble 15 square miles, females typically roam much less area. These lucky bears are listed as a recovered species and are no longer considered a conservation concern.
Large-bodied with shiny black coats and a brown muzzle, Black bears weigh between 250 to 450 pounds for males and 125-250 for females. Excellent swimmers with the ability to run up to 35 miles an hour and climb 100 feet up into a tree very quickly, Florida Black Bears spend most of their days foraging for food. Most active during dawn and dusk, these omnivores eat both plants and meat. However, roughly 80% of their diet will consist of berries, acorns, fruit, grass, seeds, and nuts.
You can find these bears roaming through the dense foliage of wetland forests but will seek out various habitats depending on the season. Sadly, as local populations increase, humans continue to expand into new areas causing habitat loss and fragmentation of the breeding Florida Black Bear population. A more commonly known side-effect of habitat loss is the increased chances of human and bear interactions, which can be dangerous for both animals and humans alike.
The largest adult male black bear in Florida weighed in at a whopping 760 lbs!
North America’s only marsupial, the Opossum, is a smallish creature sporting a greyish white coat, hairless prehensile tail, hairless ears, and a pink pointy snout. These shy, funny looking furries can be found throughout the state of Florida and are about the size of a cat, ranging in length from 27” to 33” with their tail extending another 11” to 14”.
Nocturnal in their habits, Opossums are great climbers and forage for food in the trees as well on the ground. These opportunistic omnivores snack on frogs, mice, rattlesnakes (yup, it's immune to pit viper venom), fish, worms, insects, eggs, fruits, nuts, seeds, and the occasional farm chickens. They also partake in plants that include cedars, persimmons, grapes, mulberries, tupelos, and pawpaws.
You’ll find Opossums hanging out in oak hammocks, wetlands, Flatwoods, scrub, and grasslands. You might also find them in your backyard and other urban areas. Despite their scary looks, these solitary creatures are not aggressive. However, they will stand their ground if threatened, bearing their teeth (all 50 of them!), hissing, and growling. Opossums rarely attack humans unless someone is trying to handle them.
Opossums have a peculiar way of dealing with predators and perceived threats, they play “dead” by going completely limp when threatened or startled.
These water-obsessed aquatic mammals can be found throughout Florida, except for the Florida Keys. Preferring to hang out in freshwater, you’ll see River Otters in rivers, creeks, lakes, ponds, and swamps. Making their homes among tree roots or by digging their dens, occasionally, these slender, long-bodied creatures may move into and redecorate abandoned beaver dens.
Their unique, waterproof outer coats, also known as guard hairs, are typically light to a dark, rich brown and protect the undercoat from getting wet when submerged. River Otters take good care of their fur by grooming often, and at up to 5 ft long, there’s plenty to keep them busy.
Specialized in finding and capturing prey in the water, River Otters are carnivores meaning their diet is based on fish, frogs, crustaceans, and occasionally a bird or small mammal. As social animals, you’ll find these playful critters hanging out in groups that usually consist of a female and her juvenile offspring.
River Otters need to eat 15% of their body weight a day to survive.
Famous for their bandit-like masked appearance, Raccoons are a member of the Procyonidae family, which are typically smallish animals with generally slender bodies and long tails. These medium-sized mammals vary in length from 16 to 28 inches in length and up to 12 inches in height at the shoulder, with their tails reaching out another 17 inches! Raccoons can weigh as much as 20 pounds, males being heavier than females. During the winter months, Racoons can increase their weight to twice that of the summer months due to fat storage.
Also known for their banded tails, these furry creatures wear a mostly greyish and white coat accented with black features. Their ears are slightly rounded and bordered with white fur in contrast to the black fur surrounding their eyes. A dense underfur making up roughly 90% of their coat helps raccoons stay warm during cold weather.
Raccoons have hypersensitive front paws and plantigrade hind paws (where the heel and sole touch the floor) with five fingers. Raccoons have vibrissae, stiff hairs like cat whiskers, on their front paws, which enable them to identify objects before they even touch them.
Usually nocturnal, these omnivores eat whatever tastes good to them. During the summer months, their diet typically consists of insects, fish, and amphibians but prefer the fruits and nuts that are available during the later months.
Raccoons are great swimmers and can swim at around 4 miles per hour, and can remain in the water for several hours.
The Everglades is one of the most important rest stops and breeding grounds for resident and migratory birds. Also, a great place for bird lovers as there have been well over 350 various bird species sighted and recorded in this area. Here we will list some of the more common birds you may encounter on your visit.
The Wood Stork can be identified by their long legs, featherless heads, and prominent beaks.
They are approximately 3ft long as adults with a wingspan of about 59-65 inches. Wood storks have white plumage with the tips of the wings and tail in black. There is no obvious difference between the male and females other than their size, females being slightly smaller.
Their diet typically includes fish, frogs, insects, crabs, and other small animals such as young alligators. They wade in the shallow waters of the swamps and marshes with their beaks, slightly opened, in the water, ready to clamp down on any prey they might feel pass by their sensitive beaks.
The Wood Stork is listed as endangered due to populations decreasing from the loss of suitable feeding grounds. Particularly in South Florida, with the manipulation of water levels through levees, canals, and flood gates that change water regimes and affect the stork’s habitat.
The Wood Stork is considered to be an indicator species for restoration of the Everglades ecosystem. Indicator species serve as messengers because their specific habitat requirements are so closely associated with one particular environment.
One of six species of spoonbills in the entire world and the only one found in the Americas, the Roseate Spoonbill, is known for its bright pink plumage and distinctive spoon-shaped bill. These medium-sized birds stand 2.5 ft to 3 ft tall and a wingspan ranging from 47” to 52”; these beautiful birds sport pink shoulders and tails, a white neck, and a yellowish-green head that highlights their bright red eyes. When born, their young wear dull colors that brighten as they mature beyond three years of age.
Typically found foraging in the shallows of fresh, brackish, and marine waters, including bays, mangroves, forested swamps, and wetlands, the diet of roseate spoonbills consists of small fish, crustaceans, and insects found in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. They hunt by swinging their heads side to side with their bill slightly submerged in the water, feeling around for prey to clamp down on.
Spoonbills are known to forage, roost, and nest in groups often with other ibises, herons, and egrets. These unique wading birds are of the least concern on the endangered list; they are recovering from decades of over-hunting. The biggest threat they face today is the destruction of their natural habitat.
It is thought that the Roseate Spoonbill gets its bright coloring from the pigments of the crustaceans they eat.
The Great Blue Heron holds the title of the largest wading bird in North America, with lengths ranging from 3 ft to 4.5 ft. These majestic birds have a massive wingspan of 5.5 ft to 6.6 ft. Typically found in freshwater lakes, marshes, and along the shallows of rivers, as well as saltwater habitats, great blue herons can also be found foraging and hunting in grasslands and agricultural fields.
Their feathers are bluish-gray with a white chin and dark blue eyebrows ending in a cluster of long dark feathers. A large yellow, blade-like beak enables them to exercise excellent hunting skills, striking and even impaling their prey with incredible precision. As carnivores, their diet consists of insects, crustaceans, frogs, fish, small reptiles, and mammals. They have been known to hunt squirrels and even baby alligators!
Interestingly, these birds are mostly monogamous. As they are solitary hunters, it is somewhat odd to see great blue heron nest in large colonies during breeding months. Another interesting fact, both males and females take turns incubating their eggs for four weeks and continue these shared responsibilities when protecting and feeding their young.
There is an all-white color morph found specifically in Florida and the Caribbean, often referred to as the Great White Heron, but it is in fact, the same species.
Anhingas are tall, slender water birds with long fanlike tails and webbed feet. Year-round residents of sunny Florida, these beautiful birds reach upwards of 2.5 to 3 ft in length with long S-shaped necks. Males are black with silver to white streaks on the wings and back; females and juveniles have a pale tan head, neck, and breast.
Anhingas inhabit shallow freshwater lakes, marshes, and ponds and prefer shallow, slow-moving, sheltered waters. When swimming, their bodies are completely submerged with only their heads and necks above the waterline, giving the appearance of a snake swimming through the water. This is likely how they got the name snakebird. Their diet consists of small to medium fish, some crustaceans, and invertebrates.
Because their feathers are not coated in oil like many other waterbirds and require time to dry after each aquatic excursion, Anhingas can be seen perched on logs, branches, and shorelines where they spread their wings and tails to catch some rays while the sun dries them off.
The Anhinga is a sacred bird to many indigenous communities. Their tail feathers are believed to be powerful medicine, holding the energy for healing and clearing energy.
The double-crested cormorant lives in brackish and freshwater habitats. They wear dark brown to black plumage, have webbed feet, and long hooked bills with an orange throat pouch. With a total length of just over 2 ft, these majestic birds sport an impressive 4 ft wingspan.
Adult Double-crested Cormorants have feathered crests over their eyes. During mating season, males can be seen with double crests; otherwise, there aren’t any distinguishable features that set males and females apart.
These daring birds dive into the water at incredible speeds to capture fish and other invertebrates, bringing them up to the surface and then swallowing them whole. Similar to the Anhingas, Cormorants often dry their feathers by perching on branches or poles and displaying their beautiful feathers.
Cormorants are not endangered, but they are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits hundreds of species that migrate across international borders from being killed or harassed.
Double-crested Cormorants can dive to depths of 25 ft, but some Cormorant species have been known to dive to depths of up to 150 ft, making them some of the deepest diving birds in the world.
A common hawk of wet woodlands, they are the most vocal raptors, especially during spring courtship. You are more likely to hear this hawk before you see it. It sends a shriek through the air that’s piercing enough to place surrounding prey on alert.
Red-shouldered hawks have excellent vision and strike with precision. Their diet consists of frogs, snakes, lizards, and small mammals such as mice.
While both sexes are similar in color and appearance, the females are larger than the males. They measure between 15-19 inches in length with a wingspan of 37-42 inches. An adult Red-shouldered hawk has a tan/brown head, orangish patches on the shoulders and breast area, with cream and orange colors mixed on the breast. Their tails are barred black and white and slightly longer than the Red-tail hawk.
The Red-shouldered Hawk has a regal presence; it’s very posture exudes strength. You can almost perceive how sharp and intelligent they are just by observation. Current populations of the Red-shouldered Hawk are thought to be stable in most regions.
Resident Red-shouldered Hawks will harass migrant hawks that fly over their nesting territories, calling loudly and dive-bombing the other hawks and even Eagles.
Circling high above the Everglades, gliding effortlessly through the air, you can spot the Turkey Vulture. At first glance, it can be confused for an Eagle or other raptor, but a closer look reveals how this magnificent bird rides the rising thermal air currents and almost floats through the sky, conserving its energy while looking for a meal. Turkey Vultures are large dark birds that appear black but are actually dark brown with a red head and a pale beak. They grow between 2 to 3 ft in length, and their long, broad wings span an impressive 6 ft and end in “fingers'' at the tips.
Although their curved beaks can tear through the toughest hides, Turkey Vultures are the only scavenger bird that can’t actually kill their prey. Their feet are closer to a chicken than that of a raptor, making them virtually useless for ripping into prey. These massive birds are Mother Natures's clean-up crew and play a vital role in the ecosystem. Disposing of dead animals is what they do, and they prefer freshly deceased animals. Occasionally, these scavengers will wait for their meal to soften by way of decomposition in order to pierce the skin, avoiding carcasses that have reached the point of putrefaction.
The Turkey Vulture receives special protection under the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They are now among the most common large birds in North America, common to open areas such as subtropical forests, fields, roadside, grasslands, suburbs, pastures, and wetlands.
Look closely and you’ll notice that Turkey Vultures are missing feathers on their head and neck. This is a matter of hygiene and avoids having the gruesome remnants of their last meal hanging around their heads.