Photo by Kristin Salisbury

Florida Springs Wildlife

Everyone loves seeing wildlife in Florida and we're here to help make that happen. Click through our Wildlife page to learn about the diverse types of animals that live in the Springs and how to find them!

Go ahead, pick an animal!
 

Photo by Brent Fannin

American Alligator

Alligators are one of the most iconic animals in Florida, and for good reason! Growing up to nearly 16ft in length, these prehistoric reptiles can be a scary surprise if you’re not expecting to see one.

Natural History

Part of a larger group of animals called crocodilians, American Alligators are one of two reptiles of this size found in the United States (the other being the American Crocodile). They are ancestors of much larger crocodilians which dated back to around 250 million years ago. Alligators are ambush predators and feed on fish, small mammals, and even the occasional bird.

WHere to find them

Photo by Kristin Salisbury

You can find alligators all throughout the state of Florida. As carnivorous ambush predators and prefer murky waters in rivers or lakes. Unlike crocodiles, they do not tolerate saltwater for long periods of time and are rarely found in the ocean. 

On a sunny day, they can be found basking on the side of a waterway. To see them active, it’s best to look during dusk and at night. If you shine a flashlight across a dark lake, you can see their eyes reflecting the light back at you.

Alligators typically steer clear of areas heavily trafficked by humans, but are now and then seen warming up in the springs during the winter time when surrounding rivers drop in temperature.

 

Although it’s safest to assume that any body of water in Florida could have an alligator, they typically are not aggressive toward humans. But regardless of temperament, KOTS recommends viewing from a distance and not swimming in Florida waters at dusk or dark.

Conservation status

At one time, due to hunting, American Alligators were an endangered species. Due to successful conservation efforts, they are now designated Least Concern by the ICUN.

 

Despite this optimistic designation, they are still federally protected by the Endangered Species Act. Make sure to keep your distance, do not harass alligators, and do not feed them. An alligator that is used to taking food from humans can be extremely dangerous.

Photo by Kristin Salisbury

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Photo by Joe Vincelli

Florida Manatee

Also known as “sea cows,” these unique creatures have captured the hearts of many people throughout the world, with their whiskered faces and mermaid-like tails.

Natural History

Various species of manatees can be found throughout North and South America and Africa. Florida Manatees are a subspecies of the West Indian Manatee, and one of their closest relatives is the elephant! Weighing in at an average of 800 – 1,200 pounds, they can eat over 120 pounds of aquatic plants a day. These slow-moving mammals can stay submerged for long periods of time, but often float just below the surface of the water and come up to breathe every few minutes.

WHere to find them

Manatees are a migratory species, which means they are known to travel long distances with the changing seasons. Found in both salt and freshwater, they love shallow and slow moving water with lots of vegetation. Like many people, manatees spend their winters in the temperate climate of Florida! They need water temperatures above 65 degrees Fahrenheit to thrive, and the consistent water temperatures of natural springs are perfect for them in the colder months. Some of the best springs locations to see manatees are Blue Spring State Park, Crystal River's Three Sister Springs,  Chasshowitzka River, Wakulla Spring, Manatee Springs, Weeki Wachee River, and Silver Spring, but they are found all over the state.

Photo by Kristin Salisbury

Conservation status

Manatees have no natural predators, but they are listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN red list. Unfortunately, their decline is due mostly to human activities with boat strikes being the largest cause of manatee fatalities. Debris and fishing line caught in the floating plants they eat can find its way into their digestive systems and cause them harm, or they can get wrapped in the line and die from entanglement. 

They are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, and any harm against a manatee can be considered a civil or criminal offense. Through the actions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as many conservation groups and individuals, their status has moved from endangered to threatened. A few designated private facilities, including four in the Central Florida area, help with rescue and research efforts, and provide education to the public about these wonderful animals.

Photo by Joe Vincelli

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Photo by Kristin Salisbury

North American

River OTter

Humans aren’t the only animals that enjoy playing in the water! These cute aquatic creatures love to frolic in the rivers and springs of Florida.

Natural History

These furry mammals can weigh up to 30 pounds (14 kg) and enjoy eating fish, amphibians, crustaceans, reptiles, insects and birds, making them one of the top predators in their ecosystems. North American River Otters have webbed feet that propel them through the water up to 7mph (11 km/h) and nostrils that close when they dive, allowing a breath hold for up to 8 minutes. Otters are diurnal, meaning they are active during both day and night. They can be quite talkative and their chirping sounds can be heard up to a mile away!

WHere to find them

River otters can be found in almost any body of freshwater throughout Florida, and sometimes in coastal areas as well. Their dens are called “holts” and are dug into riverbanks or under tree roots. They are creative homebuilders and usually design underwater entrances that lead into multi-room homes. Listen for high-pitched squeaks, and keep your eyes peeled for them playing on riverbanks and swimming through the water. They can be fairly elusive, but if you do see an otter while you're out on the water, it’s important to enjoy them from a safe distance.

Conservation status

The North American River Otter is listed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List. Over the past 200 years, their beautiful and soft fur coats were coveted in the fur trade, and contributed to a decline in population. Successful reintroduction efforts have brought them back to stable levels. However, pollution and habitat loss are still the greatest threats to these amazing animals. They are highly sensitive to water pollutants, and scientists often look to otters to help indicate ecosystem issues. Keep this in mind the next time you enjoy a day on the water, and remember to leave nothing but bubbles!

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Photo by Kristin Salisbury

Photo by Kristin Salisbury

Freshwater Turtles

There are about 30 different species of turtles in Florida and each one is unique!

Types of turtles

Appearing on the planet in the Triassic Period (around 215mil years ago), these reptiles have been around since before dinosaurs. In Florida, some prehistoric turtles were often larger than our current ones, but with very similar features. It is not uncommon to find pieces of fossilized turtle shells in rivers and streams.

Once freshwater turtles reach a certain size, they have very few predators and thrive in Florida waters. They feed on vegetation, fish, insects and crustaceans and can be an indicator of current and potential environmental issues. For a visual guide to identifying Florida turtles, visit the Florida Museum website here.

WHere to find them

There’s potential to find turtles in almost any body of water in Florida, but the clear water of the springs makes it extra easy to spot them. As reptiles, they use the sunlight to regulate their body temperature and can often be seen basking on rocks and logs at the river’s edge.

In the winter, they will often swim from the cold rivers into the warmer spring waters and sometimes congregate in large numbers for mating purposes.

Photo by Kristin Salisbury

Conservation status

Water pollution and habitat degradation can have a negative effect on any population of turtles, but there are a few listed as “protected” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. You can find the list here. Because of this, it is best to enjoy the turtles you find from a distance, and do your best to make sure you’re not having a negative effect on water quality by avoiding use of fertilizers (or using slow-release products) and keeping any septic tanks you have in good repair to avoid leaking into the aquifer.

Photo by David Cobiella

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Photo by Kristin Salisbury

Florida Birds

The subtropical climate makes Florida one of the best places to spot many different species of birds!

Types of birds

With more than 500 different birds statewide, there’s something for everyone to see. From the bald eagle to the ruby-throated hummingbird, the bird species, size, and diversity in Florida is astounding. Since much of the state has an abundance of waterways, waterfowl are one of the most common types of birds to see.  Around the springs and rivers you’ll commonly find egrets, ibis, limpkins, storks, herons, hawks, falcons, and osprey. Now and then, you can see bald eagles flying over the rivers hunting for fish.

WHere to find them

It would be hard to find a place in Florida without birds, but there are areas that have higher concentrations. Check out the Great Florida Birding Trail website for resources and a list of good places to see birds in your area. 

If you’re near the Orlando area, we recommend paddling the Wekiva River to see many different bird species in one trip. For ocean-loving birds, any coast is a good place for pelicans, gulls, and osprey. Large freshwater lakes with large trees tend to be good places for bald eagle spotting.

Conservation status

With an abundance of small creatures to eat, many species of birds in Florida are thriving. But habitat loss and pollution have had a negative impact on species like the snail kite and the roseate spoonbill.

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Photo by Kristin Salisbury

freshwater fish

With an abundance of water in and around the state, Florida is one of the best places to find many different varieties of fish!

Types of fish

There are dozens of different types of fish you can find in the Florida springs and rivers, and since many waterways lead to the ocean or have a high salinity, even saltwater fish can be found inland. 

The species can be very diverse, some brightly colored like the bluefin killifish, and others with prehistoric lineage like the alligator gar. More common game fish like bass and snapper help to make Florida the “Fishing Capital of the World.”

WHere to find them

You can find fish in nearly every waterway in Florida, but certain fish prefer specific areas. For example, if you’re hoping to see gar, you’ll want to find a flowing river like the Ichetucknee or Rainbow River. To find fish that prefer brackish or saltwater, like sheepshead or snappers, you’ll want a high salinity spring or spring-fed river that leads into the ocean like the Homosassa and Chassahowitzka Rivers. 

Want to learn how to ID fish out in the wild? Check out this resource put together by our friends at the Florida Springs Institute.

Conservation status

There are a few different fish listed as “imperiled” by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and they’ve found that a decline in water quality and habitat loss are very common issues facing Florida fish. 

According to the American Sportfishing Association, in 2019 over 4 million anglers spent around 6.6 billion dollars fishing in Florida, and through licenses, taxes, and donations, about $1.6 billion went to conservation.

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Florida Mermaids

They may be elusive, but that makes finding one of these astounding creatures even more worth it!

Natural History

Debated by cryptozoologists for over a hundred years, the Florida Mermaid’s existence was recently proven by the scientific community. With the advent of the waterproof camera, it was inevitable there would one day be proven. 

Despite this, their range and longevity are still unknown. Their diet consists of small fish, crustaceans, and the occasional food items left behind by humans. 

Using their strong tails, mermaids can propel themselves through the water to great depths. When they are not swimming in the springs and rivers, they can occasionally be seen lounging in the sun at the water’s edge.

WHere to find them

The best way to see a mermaid up close is to have patience and know where to look. Due to their elusive nature, they are generally found in the deeper springs, giving them the ability to dive and hide, but more social ones are sometimes seen in the large clear springs along the Santa Fe River.

Closely related to the Florida species, other types of mermaids can be found in different waterways in the US including Texas, North Carolina, and California.

Conservation status

Due to their recent discovery, there is no current status on mermaid populations in Florida. Mermaids share many of the same dangers as the Florida Manatee, including habitat loss, boat strikes, and entanglement in marine debris and pollution

Photo by Cory Deemer

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