22 March 2012

Science Café: The wild world of the Panhandle


North Florida ecologist Bruce Means is often seen holding a snake. A big, venomous one.

Bruce Means.Bruce Means, the founder and director of the Tallahassee-based Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy, takes a high-tech dip in the Aucilla River.But Means, who has been featured in several National Geographic documentaries dealing with serpents, won'€™t be handling any vipers when he hosts Science Café on April 3, from 6:15 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Ray'€™s Steel City Saloon. Instead, he'€™ll talk about another subject dear to his heart: What a unique area the Panhandle is, why it'€™s special and how we can keep it that way.

"It'€™s the third richest turtle spot in the world," says Means, the founder and director of the Tallahassee-based Coastal Plains Institute and Land Conservancy. "We have more species of snakes here, and more frogs, than anywhere else in the U.S. and Canada. We have a huge number of salamanders. We probably have the most species of carnivorous plants — pitcher plants, butterworts, bladderworts — in our area than anywhere else in world."

We live in what'€™s called a biodiversity hotspot, one that Means, who has a doctorate in ecology from Florida State University, has been studying for more than four decades. He grew up in Alaska and moved here in 1961.

"From the '60s until today, I've been the main naturalist who has been fascinated by studying this region — and I've been very lucky because it is such a hotspot," Means, 71, says.

One of the reasons so many species of animals and plants live here, he says, is because we live at a biological crossroads.

"Some species come into the Panhandle from the west, northeast, peninsular Florida and the Appalachians."

Means, an adjunct professor at FSU, advocates for greater protection of both the Panhandle area and its creatures, especially those without fur or feathers. During his many years studying reptiles, he has become particularly fascinated by the eastern diamondback, which he calls "the Gentle Ben of rattlers." It'€™s the eastern diamondback that'€™s hunted and killed during the rattlesnake roundups in our area, annual events held in nearby Georgia and elsewhere.

"I'€™ve been fighting these roundups for years to get them to become wildlife appreciation festivals. ... They slaughter the snakes in front of hundreds of people ... It sends terrible messages. The eastern diamondback warrants consideration as a federally threatened species, it is so reduced over its entire range."

Come join the conversation on Panhandle ecology at Science Café, an event sponsored by the National High Magnet Field Laboratory.