Apple Snails at Loxahatchee
This summer I worked with an amazing group of people on a wildlife refuge called Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. It was established in 1951 under the authority the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, and is managed through an agreement with the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The refuge is part of the northern Everglades encompassing 145,800 acres of that land, providing water storage for floods and a habitat for numerous migratory birds and other native animals that call the refuge home.
I worked with a biologist, Melissa Better, who is working to help the native apple snail population overcome their invasive cousins. I did various jobs inside, putting numbers into a computer, and outside, feeding apple snails and checking enclosures. I had to get into water proof fishing waders to wade around in alligator, snake, and insect infested waters searching for spatterdock to feed the snails. Along with that, I collected the native snail eggs to bring to their enclosure, and killed the invasive species eggs.
One of the chapters that pertains to my service learning is Chapter 10: Evolution and Extinction. In South Florida, we see invasive species every day from lizards to snakes, though it is not more presented than in the Everglades, and this refuge is doing its best to combat the ever-present invasive species. This chapter covers how invasive species push evolution and/or extinction, which ties in well with what I witnessed. The thing that makes the native apple snails so threatened by the invasive species is that they reproduce at a much slower rate. Where an invasive apple snail can produce as many as 200 eggs a native snail only produces less than half of that. This fact makes the native snails much more susceptible to going extinct and being taken over by the invasive ones. What impacted me the most about invasive species was just how better adapted they seem to be for their environment. There I was looking for invasive eggs along the edge of the wetland area, and just seeing their bright pink coloring larger than I expected; then contrasted next to native eggs which look so pathetic and small in number. It shocked me that the native snails managed to survive for so long, because just by the look of their seemingly feeble eggs they should not have. Which may just go to show that Mother Nature can be really surprising especially with human help. Chapter 10 is about evolution and the extinction of species which is demonstrated so successfully by what I saw, it was amazing; such a tiny, slow creature facing incredible odds. Whether the invasive apple snails overtake the native ones seems to be an ongoing battle; maybe the native snail will evolve to be able to produce more eggs the way the invasive species do, or maybe it will become extinct, but for now Better is trying to further their survival.
Another chapter that related to my service learning was Chapter 8: Community Ecology. This chapter was essentially all about the Everglades ecosystem and its destruction, and now renewal. The Loxahatchee park is part of the extricate Everglades system of managing water, which filters water and delivers it to various areas. When humans first started developing the land we got rid of a lot of this system by building right over the water ways. Now realizing what a precious resource we had, we have been trying to restore the water ways that have been damaged. This main aspect in this chapter relates directly to what Loxahatchee helps to do, which is to restore the water ways. As I discovered by working at the refuge that each wetland serves as a mini ecosystem, connecting to the bigger wetland eventually. The water is stored through a series of pumps, canals, water control structures, and levees that push the water through, filtering it as it goes eventually into the Everglades. In this chapter, it also included the definition of a community and how it relates to an ecosystem. Loxahatchee is a wetland ecosystem that provides a habitat for many species that are native to Florida. Many of these species are birds, some of which are great egrets, white ibis, great blue herons, and wood storks. They call the refuge home and thrive there. Ecosystems are delicate things, as I learned in the chapter, and even an apple snail can change the way wetland ecosystem functions. Being that invasive apple snails and native ones are in an intraspecific competition, they compete over the same food source, which in abundant numbers could endanger the plant life. Every animal plays such an important role in an ecosystem, even nonliving things such as water, that when one dies, gets lost due to development it effects the whole ecosystem structure.
Finally, the last chapter that related to the work I was doing was Chapter 17: Solid Waste. Surprisingly, there were a lot of instances that the refuge reuses materials from past projects. There are four R’s that scientists use when being environmentally friendly. They are, refuse, reduce, reuse, and recycle. The refuge defiantly makes use of at least two of these, reuse, and recycle. Since there are always many separate projects starting and ending at separate times, the refuge takes the previously used materials and puts them to use for a new project. My first day working, Better had me and another volunteer take down the former shabby enclosures that had fallen apart. We worked to take apart the PVC pipes and netting that made up the old snail enclosure, which allowed snails to escape when water rose too high. Once out of the water and disconnected, she led us to a back lot which housed thousands of pipes, netting, and other materials to be reused in new projects. The pipes that were either broken or would not come apart were put into a construction sized recycling bin, which was piled with materials that were recyclable. It was incredible to see such a large sized recycling system being used, everything that went on in the refuge seemed to have another purpose later on. Seeing that helped me to understand that point that this chapter was trying to make, that it is as much of what we do as how we do it. Buying recyclable materials or making something into something else has a greater impact for the better than condemning the plastic materials to a landfill, polluting our planet even more.