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Subspecies of the Lower Florida Keys

December 1, 2011

I am constantly amazed by how little people know about the plants and animals they encounter every day. Being able to identify what you’re seeing and why it behaves as it does makes being outdoors so much more engaging. I am lucky to live in a  unique ecosystem which houses wildlife you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Lots of people don’t even know that when you see a raccoon or a rat snake in the lower Florida Keys, you are witnessing a rare, unique subspecies.   

You see, an interesting thing happens when a species of animal finds itself in a balmy, subtropical ecosystem with very little fresh water.  Many animals which occur in the lower islands of the Florida Keys, furthest away from the mainland, differ in appearance from their North American counterparts, and several are offically designated “subspecies” which occur no where else in the world.  Apparently, scarcity of fresh water tends to make critters smaller, while year-long warmth and sunshine leads to lighter coloration.

Photo by Nancy Goodwin

Our most famous example of this miniaturization is the Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium.) Key deer are a subspecies of the Virginia white-tailed deer which inhabit a cluster of tiny islands around Big Pine and No Name Key. Key deer are much smaller than their mainland counterparts, and they have developed the unique ability to drink small amounts of salt water. Only about  800 exist in the world.

photo by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen

This rosy red rat snake (Elaphe Guttata Rosacea) is a frequent visitor to my yard– the lower Keys version of the cornsnake. It is smaller and slimmer than its mainland counterpart, and has unique red/pink coloration with very little black.

According to my friends at the Raccoon Rescue of the Florida Keys, the lower Keys are  home to TWO unique subspecies of raccoon which have likely interbred prolifically and with the subspecies occuring in the upper Keys. Our Keys raccoons are smaller, leaner, and lighter than mainland raccoons. The Key Vaca raccoon (Procyon lotor auspicatus) originated in the Middle Keys, while the Torch Key raccoon (Procyon lotor incautus)  inhabits the islands from Big Pine to Key West.

Dr. Roger Wood has extensively studied the Mangrove terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin rhizophorarum)  a subspecies of the Diamondback terrapin. Mangrove terrapin inhabit the Key West Wildlife Refuge. According to Dr. Wood, Mangrove terrapin have the ability to tolerate water with extremely high salinity–though they are not marine turtles. And unlike their northern counterparts which hibernate in winter, mangrove terrapin sleep away the hottest summer months and are active during cooler winter temperatures. 

Other unique subspecies within the lower Keys include the critically endangered Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri,) the Florida Keys mole skink (Eumeces egregius egregius,)  and the Lower Keys striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii baurii.) Even our rats are a subspecies of roof rat, alternately called palm rats or fruit rats (Rattus rattus frugivorous) depending on who you ask.

Want to learn about some of our most interesting invasive species? Check out my blog post Florida Has Six Invasive Species Every 500 Feet! 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 15, 2016 4:58 pm

    I saw a raccoon on the Sigsbee Annex of Key West NAS. I thought at first it was a yellow tom cat, as it was walking towards me on an infrequently used gravel road behind little-used housing. When it saw me it turned and ran and that’s when I realized it was a racoon. It’s back wasn’t as highly arched as raccoons I’m used to seeing in the Mid Atlantic area. Also, it was around 9am, so I was surprised and worried to see a raccoon out in daylight. I found your blog (and enjoyed it) while researching this raccoon for my blog: daveandjaneofnoknownaddress.blogspot.com

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