Brevard County Wildlife and Animal Resources
Brevard County is blessed to have such a unique abundance and variety of wildlife. This is due in part to the large variety of habitats that are also found in Brevard County. Because the Temperate air mass from the north meets the Tropical air mass from the south, many species are at the southern or northern limits of their range but co-exist here. Brevard County wildlife face many threats such as habitat loss, competition with non-native species, and pollution. There are 50 species of wildlife that are classified as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern.
Brevard Endangered and Threatened Species
A large variety of wildlife resides in Brevard County's many diverse habitats. Brevard County has one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America due to the rare combination of climates. Brevard County is exposed to a temperate climate to the north and a warm subtropical climate to the south, combining the habitat and environmental needs for a wide variety of animal life.
Brevard County is home to approximately 50 or more threatened or endangered animal species. Due to the rapid rate of development in Florida and subsequent habitat loss and fragmentation, some of our most prized wildlife is declining. Recognizing the importance of our local wildlife is an important step towards preserving these natural treasures.
Endangered and threatened species in our county:
Florida Sandhill Crane
These large birds can be found in both rural and urban areas. The Florida Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pratensis) is a subspecies the North American Sandhill Crane. Florida Sandhill Cranes are year round residents where as the North American Sandhill Cranes will migrate here for the winter. These cranes are omnivorous and will eat things like seeds, worms, insects, lizards, crayfish and mice. Sandhill Cranes will normally mate for life (monogamous) and will lay one or two eggs on their nest, which is often on the waters edge for protection from predators.
The beaches of Brevard County are some of the world's most important nesting beaches for sea turtles. Nesting season in Brevard County is March 1 - October 31 each year. During this time it is important to turn off lights on houses and businesses near the beach to prevent disorientation of both mothers and nestlings. Each summer, female sea turtles climb on shore to build a nest and lay eggs. That same summer, out of the nests emerge tiny baby sea turtles ready to swim as fast as they can to the safety of the floating sargassum. For more information visit the Sea Turtle Preservation Society's website.
These land dwelling tortoises are listed on the State of Florida's Threatened and Endangered Species list as a Species of Special Concern. While amazing to watch, please do so from a distance. They play an important role in the ecosystems they inhabit such as scrub and pine flatwoods, as many other animals utilize the burrow dug by the Gopher Tortoise.
These birds of prey are often seen near the Indian River Lagoon, and even nesting on channel markers and other structures above the water. The osprey utilizes its well adapted vision to locate fish, its primary prey, from as high as 130 feet over water. Ospreys also prey on rodents, rabbits, amphibians and small reptiles, as well as other birds.
The national bird was put on the Federal Endangered species list as endangered on February 14, 1978. While its numbers have improved to the point that it is now classified as threatened, the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) still faces decline due to encroachment of development, loss of food, and other factors. Adult Bald Eagles are easily distinguished by its dark brown body and white head, while juveniles are completely dark brown.
The Florida scrub-jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) is a 2.5 to 3-ounce, 12-inch-long, blue and gray crestless jay that is endemic to peninsular Florida's xeric oak scrub and scrubby pine flatwoods. In fact, the Florida scrub-jay is the only bird species entirely restricted to the state of Florida. In the adult plumage, a necklace of blue feathers separates the whiter throat from the gray underparts, and a white superciliary line or eyebrow often blends into a whitish forehead. The back is gray and the tail is long and loose in appearance. Scrub-jays less than about 5 months of age can be identified by their dusky brown head and neck and shorter tail. However, in late summer and early fall, juvenile scrub-jays undergo a partial molt of body feathers that renders them indistinguishable from adults in the field. Adult male and female Florida scrub jays are not distinguishable by plumage, but are differentiated by a distinct "hiccup" call vocalized only by females.
Florida scrub-jays occupy year-round territories averaging 22 acres in size. This species is one of the few cooperative breeding birds in the United States, whereby surviving fledgling scrub-jays usually remain with the breeding pair in their natal territory as "helpers, forming a closely-knit, cooperative family group. Group size ranges from 2 to 8 birds, but pre-breeding numbers are usually reduced to either a pair with no helpers or families of 3 or 4 individuals (a pair plus one or two helpers). Helpers participate in scanning for predators, territorial defense against neighboring scrub-jay groups, predator-mobbing, and the feeding of both nestlings and fledglings.
Because of their cooperative breeding strategy, Florida scrub-jays typically delay mating until at least 2 or 3 years of age. Nesting is quite synchronous, normally ranging from March 1 through June 31 and nests are usually placed in shrubby oaks, 1 to 2 meters in height. Scrub- jay clutches usually contain 3 or 4 eggs, are incubated for 17 to 18 days, and fledging occurs 16 to 19 days after hatching.
Fledglings remain dependent upon adults for food for up to 2 months after leaving the nest. Florida scrub-jays usually live their entire lives within a short distance of where they were hatched. Usually, a male pairs with an unpaired female within a portion of his natal territory ("budding") or within a few territories of his natal territory. Young females typically disperse from their natal territories earlier than males and wander greater distances from home before pairing with a male. However, most Florida scrub-jays pair and become breeders within two territories of their natal ground; most dispersals are two miles or less, and in suitable habitat, more than 95 percent of all observed scrub-jay dispersals are 5 miles or less in distance.
Scrub-jay dispersal behavior is influenced by the intervening landscape. Protected scrub habitats will most effectively sustain Florida scrub-jay populations if they are interspersed within a matrix of surrounding habitats that can be utilized and traversed by scrub-jays. Brushy pastures, scrubby corridors along railway and country road right-of-ways, and open, burned pine flatwoods provide links for colonization among scrub-jay populations. However, expansive bodies of water, dense forest, urban development, suburban residential areas, shopping malls, major highways, and treeless, wide-open pastures inhibit dispersal movement of Florida scrub-jays.
Florida scrub-jays forage mostly on or near the ground, often along the edges of natural or Man-made openings. Animal food items consist primarily of terrestrial insects, but may include a wide array of species weighing up to 1/3 the body weight of a scrub-jay including, tree frogs, lizards, snakes, bird eggs and nestlings, and juvenile mice.
Acorns are extremely important in the diet of Florida scrub-jays, especially from September through March. During this time jays harvest and cache thousands of scrub oak acorns throughout their territory. Each scrub-jay may cache 6,000 to 8,000 acorns per year. Acorns are typically buried beneath the surface of the sand in openings in the scrub during fall, and retrieved and consumed in winter and early spring.
The Florida scrub-jay was first listed by the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission as a State-listed threatened species in 1975. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) subsequently listed it as federally threatened pursuant to the Endangered Species Act in 1987. A 1993 statewide census documented about 4,000 breeding pairs of Florida scrub-jays remaining in Florida, including 374 pairs in mainland Brevard County. Coupled with the estimated 850 breeding pairs of scrub-jays on the Federal lands of Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Brevard County's 1993 Florida scrub-jay population was the highest of any county in the state. However, State-wide Florida scrub-jay population trends are closely correlated with scrub habitat loss and the 1993 population estimate of 4,000 breeding pairs was no more than 15% of the pre-settlement population estimate. In spite of legislated protection by the Endangered Species Act, the most precipitous Florida scrub-jay population decline has occurred during the last 15 to 20 years with an estimated 25 to 50 percent reduction in jay numbers. Recent studies in southern Brevard County have documented a decline in scrub-jay breeding pairs of more than 33 % since 1993.
Florida scrub-jay densities may increase in sparsely developed suburban areas where many patches of scrub remain and build out is 33 percent or less. These population increases in modified habitat probably result from supplemental food sources and the initial creation of openings in the scrub and visual buffers (buildings) to neighboring jay families. However, as development escalates toward complete build out, the survivorship of fledgling jays declines and failed nesting attempts increase. Because adult scrub-jays are long-lived, resident pairs often persist for years in some of the most densely human-populated Florida suburbs. Although these breeding pairs may continue to nest, they incur high nest failure rates and all suburban scrub-jay populations studied are declining. Annual nesting productivity must average at least 2.0 young fledged per pair for a population of scrub-jays to remain stable for the long-term.
Scrub habitats comprise an increasingly imperiled ecosystem characterized by nutrient-poor soils, periodic drought, seasonally high rainfall, frequent wild fires, and plants and animals endemic to Florida. Sand pines are the dominant tree species indicative of sand pine scrub, while the most abundant and conspicuous plant indicators of xeric oak scrub are four species of shrubby, stunted oaks: sand live oak, myrtle oak, Chapman's oak, and scrub oak.
Scrub is found on ancient dune ridges left thousands of years ago by retreating seas. Scrub habitats associated with Florida's barrier islands, mainland coasts, Ten Mile Ridge, and Lake Wales Ridge are some of the most endangered natural communities in the United States, with estimates of habitat loss since pre-settlement times ranging from 70 to more than 85 percent. Brevard County's scrub habitats have been reduced by more than 70 percent, mostly during the past 20 years. The most important and pervasive causes of scrub habitat loss are commercial/ residential development and citrus conversion. Much of the remaining parcels of scrub are fragmented and in various states of degradation due primarily to widespread fire suppression.
As of 1994, about 13,000 acres of scrub remained on the Brevard County mainland, complimented by around 16,800 acres on the Federal lands on Kennedy Space Center and Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and approximately 6,500 acres on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In 1999, some of the most expansive acreages of xeric oak scrub found within the State of Florida, remain in Brevard County.
The waters of the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County are considered to be critical habitat for the endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris). The presence of a warm water refuge, seagrass beds for forage, and protected areas in the north Banana River also make Brevard County attractive habitat for manatees. Brevard County has been described as the "hub" of the east coast manatee population and large numbers of manatees can be found in Brevard County waters year-round. Manatees using Brevard County can be divided into three major groups: manatees that spend the cooler months in south Florida and migrate to Brevard during warmer months, manatees that spend the cooler months in Brevard and migrate further north along the Florida coast during the warmer months, and manatees that spend all year in Brevard and the surrounding counties. During the spring and fall, manatees from all three groups can be found in Brevard. The largest spring and winter manatee aggregations (groups of manatees in the same area) in the state of Florida have been recorded in Brevard County. Spring aggregations in the north Banana River alone have exceeded 365 manatees, while winter surveys at Brevard’s warm water refuges have documented at least 529 manatees.
Brevard County also has the highest number of manatee mortalities (deaths), including the highest number of watercraft-related manatee mortalities, of any county in the State. From June of 1974 through 1995, there were 2613 manatee mortalities documented in Florida. Approximately 20% (523) of the manatee mortalities recovered in Florida were from Brevard County waters. Human-related causes of death include watercraft collisions, deaths due to water control structures, accidental feeding on trash, and entanglement in fishing line. Of the manatee mortalities recovered from Brevard County from June 1974 - 1995, 28% (147) were "undetermined", 26% (138) were attributed to perinatal mortality (young manatees less than 130 cm), 24% (125) were attributed to watercraft, 19% (98) were attributed to other natural causes, 2% (9) were attributed to other human causes, and 1% were attributed to flood gate/canal locks. For most of the manatee deaths recorded as "undetermined", the manatee’s body was too badly decomposed to determine a cause of death.
A major threat to the long term survival and recovery of the manatee population is the loss of habitat. Brevard County has experienced rapid population growth since the development of Kennedy Space Center in the mid-1960’s. Most of this growth concentrated along the shores of the Indian River Lagoon and the beaches. Extensive development with poor soil conservation practices, storm water runoff, the loss of wetlands that border the lagoon, and the discharge of large amounts of treated sewage into the lagoon has, over time, degraded the water quality of the Indian River Lagoon. As the Indian River Lagoon’s water quality became degraded, the seagrass beds declined. Recent studies on seagrasses in the Indian River Lagoon indicated that a 6% loss of seagrass from the lagoon occurred between the 1940’s and 1990’s. This loss over a fifty year period, however, can be misleading. While there are areas of the lagoon that have shown a stable or increasing seagrass community, there are other large areas that have shown dramatic declines. The areas that have experienced the most loss of seagrass are primarily located near the urban areas. In some instances, nearly 90 to 100% of the original seagrass areas have disappeared. Today, there are many programs working toward the goal of improving the Indian River Lagoon; and there are rules and regulations in place that try to prevent the kinds of damage to the lagoon that happened in the past from happening again.
High numbers of human-related deaths and human activity related impacts to manatee habitat, combined with the manatee’s slow reproductive rate, contributes to the Florida manatee being at risk of extinction. A more detailed description of the manatee’s life history, biology, abundance, mortality, and habitat is contained in the text of the Brevard County Manatee Protection Plan.
Manatee Protection Plan
On January 16, 2003, the Board of County Commissioners adopted the Manatee Protection Plan (MPP) which was subsequently approved by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) on February 7, 2003.
If you would like to purchase a copy of the Brevard County Manatee Protection Plan in another format, please call (321) 633-2016.
Brevard County's Natural Resources Management Office has a variety of educational manatee brochures and posters that are available to the public free of charge. These brochures can be picked up in the Natural Resources Management Office, located at the Brevard County Government Center at Viera, Monday through Friday 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Alternatively, you can request they be mailed by calling 321-633-2016.
Manatee related maps, brochures and signs available include:
- Brevard County Manatee Mortality
- Manatee Mortality Fast Facts (Text)
- Brevard County - By Year and Cause 1974-1996 (Table)
- Brevard County - By Month and Cause, 1997 to date (Table)
- State wide Manatee Mortality 1974-1996 (Table)
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