Teeth, Feathers and Sea Cows: A Look at the Fascinating Wildlife on Sanibel Island

According to USA Today, Sanibel Island is one of the best Florida beach towns for escaping the winter cold. A serenity- and peace-seeking tourist’s dream, Sanibel is home to beautiful white beaches that lead gently into warm Gulf water. The entire island is easily accessible by bike and foot — there isn’t a single traffic light — which makes it a perfect place to appreciate its wild creatures in between regular bouts of shell collecting and beach reading.

Whether you hope to take advantage of one of Sanibel Island’s fabulous resorts or are just out on a day trip, Sanibel Island’s wild things are worth a quiet walk and a silenced phone. From alligators to manatees, you won’t want to miss a thing.

Pelicans

Pelicans are large diving birds that feed on fish and other marine life. They are friendly birds, living in flocks of both sexes all year long. Incredibly buoyant, their skin and bones have internal air sacks. When looking for food, pelicans might fly a few feet above the water until they spy a school of fish, at which point, they dive into the water — often at very high speeds — becoming completely submerged as they consume their prey. Some pelicans have a more inactive feeding style and simply scoop up fish while they swim. When they live around people, they may also resort to foraging behaviors.

Pelicans are known for their unique mouths. The lower half of a pelican’s bill is really just a frame around a pouch that can expand to fit in more fish. Believe it or not, a pelican’s bill can hold up to three times more than its stomach can. When a pelican catches more fish than it can eat, it stores the excess in its esophagus.

Anhingas

Also called the Snakebird, the Anhinga is a large water bird that often swims with only its neck poking out of the water so that it looks like a water snake. A darter, it hunts by spearing fish and other prey with its thin, sharp beak. It is not able to waterproof its feathers, which means its feathers can become so waterlogged that the bird is barely able to stay afloat. This feature makes it especially well-suited to diving and seeking underwater prey, and it is able to stay submerged for long periods of time and travel great underwater distances.

Marsh Rabbit

The marsh rabbit is a small, short-eared and short-legged cottontail rabbit that lives in the coastal and southern United States. It’s a strong swimmer and is found only in regions that are close to water. Catching a glimpse of one of these little guys while they’re swimming is a special treat.

Alligators

Alligators live on Sanibel, and they do get out and about. To avoid them, stay away from grassy areas close to water. Of course, if you want to spy an alligator, that’s right where you should go — but be careful, alligators can reach 11 feet in length, and they are predatory animals. Never approach an alligator or feed it. If you happen to spot one in a residential area, report it to the city.

Manatees

The manatee is a large, solitary plant-eating mammal that is fully aquatic and can reach up to 13 feet and 1,300 pounds. Also known as the sea cow, the manatee’s closest living relatives are elephants and hyraxes, making their sea-loving ways seem all the more strange. They sleep half of each day in the water and come up to the surface for air in 20-minute intervals. The rest of their time is spent grazing in water around ten feet deep. They are slow-moving and curious, sometimes coming close to inspect human-powered watercraft like kayaks. Other fun oddities about the manatee:

  • Their eyelids close in a circular motion.
  • Their teeth are continually replaced their entire lives, with new teeth growing in the back of their mouths and moving to the front as older teeth fall out — the kangaroo and elephant are the only other mammals whose teeth do this.
  • Their intestines measure around 45 feet, which is incredibly long for an animal their size.

Sanibel Island has much to offer the wildlife-loving visitor. Rent a bike or hoof it by foot; however you choose to get about, keep your eyes peeled for predators, snakebirds and swimming rabbits, because this Florida vacationland is full of them.

Image by D. Gordon E. Robertson from Wikimedia Commons

 About the Author: Jeremy Birks is a retired zoologist and avid birdwatcher who calls Southern Florida home.