A Journey Into the World of Carnivorous Plants...and Snakes?
Our mission today was to find each of the different types of carnivorous plants found in northeastern Florida. However, it was quickly apparent that our day was going to be filled with much more than meat eating flora. Before beginning our trek through the first nature trail of the day, I walked with one of the students down the road to the closest restroom. During our short couple minute walk, we heard many different bird species like cardinals and a pileated woodpecker, and of course - buzzing insects. As we turned down a small dirt road that led up to the bathhouse, something caught my eye and I excitedly pointed out a special animal in the road. Sure enough, a couple feet in front of us was a small juvenile pygmy rattlesnake. Unfortunately, this individual had already been run over by a vehicle, but this allowed us to be able to get a closer look. My young friend was so excited to see a rattlesnake even if it was dead. We cautiously approached the snake and I told him to be careful. He immediately took out his phone and began a photoshoot of the little squished snake remarking things like "I can't wait to show my mom this!" and "Look at that tiny rattle!". After showing the other children what we found, our team of four young students, our volunteer Kelly, our SE Regional Director Tiffany, and myself finally began our hike.
The trails are filled with educational signage throughout with photos and facts about some of the wildlife you may see there. At first, most of the trail was pretty dry and sandy. As we got deeper into the woods however, the dry sand turned to a mushy groundcover of mosses and tiny wetland plants. Although some of the students were only wearing tennis shoes, they all seemed to enjoy tromping through the water covered portions of the trail splashing mud and water everywhere as most little kids do - probably returning home to exasperated parents as they jump in the car covered in mind after their adventure. Shortly before we arrived at our first destination, one of the students spotted our first carnivorous plant: a Drosera species called dwarf sundew. This tiny sticky trap type of carnivorous plant lures in its insect prey with its sweet, sticky secretions that also entrap its victim and begin digesting it. After examining the sundews for a few minutes, we made our way to our first stop: a wooden deck overlooking the pitcher plant bog. The wetland was filled with pitcher plants of various sizes and colors. Tiffany explained to the group how pitcher plants catch their prey and then proceeded to break off a dead pitcher from a live plant to show us up close. She broke open the dead pitcher to show the students all of the little snacks the pitcher caught. This sparked a frenzy of the kids all running through the bog looking for dead pitchers and their creepy crawly contents. They were amazed by the crazy things they found inside of the pitchers.
About an hour or so after we began our hike, it was time to head back to the trail head. As we turned down a dirt road with deep ditches on each side filled with water and aquatic plant life, I heard Tiffany at the front of the group talking about snakes - so I rushed to the front to see if she found something. Sure enough, in a swampy wetland area on the side of the road was a large Florida cottonmouth basking on the top of the water. We all kept our distance and admired the snake while Tiffany explained the difference between a water snake and a water moccasin. Suddenly, one of the kids began splashing at the edge of the water trying to get the snake to move. The snake was startled and in typical cottonmouth fashion, quickly swam off in the opposite direction. All the students were excited to see the snake swim away and of course, no one was chased by the snake - because that's not what snakes traditionally do. We were still able to snag a photo of him from afar and spotted a small southern toad on the edge of the bank.
While perusing the roadside ditches for fun finds like frogs, dragonflies, and flowers, an excited student pointed out a particularly tiny but quite beautiful purple flower peeking out over the top of the water. Tiffany was ecstatic, as this was the last carnivorous plant type we had been looking for - an Eastern purple bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)! The small plant was just far enough out of reach to pull out of the water for a closer look, so I went on a hunt for the perfect hiking stick. With the help of our big hiking stick, Tiffany was able to get the bladderwort closer to the edge of the water for us to see. She pointed out the tiny bladders and explained to the students how when the hairs are triggered, the bladder snaps shut trapping the food inside.
Once we reached the trail head, we took a short break for some snacks and water before continuing to the second trail. The students were eager to try and spot an alligator, so we took a boardwalk trail over the cypress swamp. Shortly into our walk, Tiffany spotted a juvenile water snake near the edge. Unfortunately, he was a bit too far off the boardwalk to try and catch to see up close, but it was a great opportunity to better show everyone the difference between the snake and the cottonmouth we saw earlier in the day. Although we didn't see an alligator, we did find a pretty cool giant golden orb weaver spider in her web and a bright green, fuzzy Io moth caterpillar. It's bright color and fuzzy texture made it highly appealing to tactile elementary kids, but our volunteer, Kelly, was quick to remind them that this species has stinging hairs on its back that give off toxins when touched. Additionally, we saw a large greenish gray frog just below the boardwalk that was tough to see, but was probably a pig frog! As we approached the end of the boardwalk to wrap up our journey, our eagle eyed snake whisperer, Tiffany, stopped and pointed out a little snake head sticking up out of the water. A glossy crayfish snake cautiously peering out from above the water stared back at us. Before Tiffany could get close enough to catch him, he slithered under the water into the vegetation and was never seen again.
We reconvened back at the picnic table to wait for the everyone's parents to come pick them up. They were tired from our hike and were ready to relax, so while Tiffany and Kelly went on a hunt for a live pygmy rattlesnake, the kids and I reflected on our day in the shade of the pine tree canopy. We built creatures and fences out of fallen pine needles and discussed our favorite parts of our hike. When Tiffany and Kelly returned, we had a quick ukulele jam session and heard a story about a girl and two clay pots before everyone went home.
Our STEM Station program is an awesome way to get kids a hands-on, outside experience to explore the natural wonders surrounding Jacksonville. To learn more about our upcoming STEM Station courses and sign up for future classes, check out the K-12 programs page on our website.