Charlotte County Florida Weekly

Ancient HISTORY

Scientists at Archbold BiologicaBiological Station travel through the layers of time in the heart of Florida.


 

HILARY SWAIN stood on a narrow truck trail about 200 feet above the Florida beaches lying 80 miles to her east and west, staring into the immemorial past. Scrub palmettos and their above-ground, wrist-thick entanglements surrounded her — trunks emerging from sand beneath them to stretch away like a wild indecipherable calligraphy. Slash pines, scrub oaks and other flora punctuated their bristly ranks as far as she could see.

And she could see a great distance, even across time. Waves from the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico once broke on shores only two or three miles from Ms. Swain’s perch on the backbone of Florida. Giant sloths and armadillos, sabertooth cats, and llama-like animals and many other species thrived here much later. But she wasn’t dwelling on that pre-history, or the failure of those animals to adapt and become, somehow, contemporary. Instead, Ms. Swain was seeing Florida’s most iconic hope for the future at one of its most challenging and unprecedented moments in human time. Beneath the eternal blue of a late-winter sky stretched a landscape that may have appeared roughly similar a million or more years ago, she said.

Conservation photographer Carlton Ward, above, and Archbold’s Joe Guthrie traveled 1,000 miles of the Florida Wildlife Corridor through high and dry or swamp and soaked, defining a future with remnants of the wild past. COURTESY PHOTO

Conservation photographer Carlton Ward, above, and Archbold’s Joe Guthrie traveled 1,000 miles of the Florida Wildlife Corridor through high and dry or swamp and soaked, defining a future with remnants of the wild past. COURTESY PHOTO

In those days, living elements existed that still shape the current incarnation: this hot-sand, fire-dependent heart of the gnarled, the twisted, the razor-sharp, the thorny, the nutrient poor and seemingly inhospitable, coupled with the luxuriously verdant and flowering.

They call it the Florida scrub, a landscape for which most people traditionally felt no affection.

Ms. Swain numbers among the others.

“I love walking into the scrub,” she announced suddenly — a comment made by no one who ever walked into it carrying ambition and a desire for profit, rather than inspired awe.

Once dominant, now rare, at this juncture the scrub lies smack in the center of the Florida peninsula, high on the Lake Wales Ridge between Lake Placid and Venus, a place preserved since the mid-20th century as one of the premier ecological research locations in North America: the independent, nonprofit Archbold Biological Station.

Hilary Swain, Archbold Biological Station executive director. PHOTO BY DUSTIN ANGELL

Hilary Swain, Archbold Biological Station executive director. PHOTO BY DUSTIN ANGELL

Ms. Swain is executive director.

Born and raised at more than 56 degrees north latitude, in Scotland, then educated through her doctorate in the ecological sciences at Britain’s University of Newcastle on Tyne, Ms. Swain has spent the last quarter century here in the subtropics at only 27 degrees north latitude, expanding the original 5,000-acre Archbold footprint to about 20,000 acres, roughly half of it grazing lands supporting cattle. The other half is Florida scrub.

At Archbold, rigorous science, long-term data collection, the passionate generosity of supporters, and grants, contracts or partnerships with universities and government agencies invested in ecology, climate and agriculture all create the big engine driving an effort crucial to every Floridian: To help the Sunshine State survive what’s coming, both in climate change and from population growth.

FORSBURG

FORSBURG

Marshaling 55 staff members including some of the nation’s preeminent field ecologists, along with scores of volunteers, rotations of visiting scientists and troops of school children or university students on site or virtually, Archbold points to a single purpose: “Build and share the scientific knowledge needed to protect the life, lands and waters of the heart of Florida and beyond.”

Simple enough, perhaps, as a mission statement. A monumental effort in the execution of that mission.

Under the surface

Scientists at Archbold so far have compiled more than 80 years of data to better understand creatures, landscapes and climate, while maintaining a collection of “more than 250,000 specimens of plants, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and arthropods probably unrivalled in scope and size among biological field station collections in North America,” as Archbold’s literature describes it.

Working cattle graze on Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch. The ranch produces science — data that can measure how ranches operate and affect the world around them. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

Working cattle graze on Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch. The ranch produces science — data that can measure how ranches operate and affect the world around them. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

But that’s only inside the station’s labs and collection rooms.

In the midday heat outside, the scrub around Ms. Swain and Zach Forsburg, an Archbold spokesman, appeared, if not lifeless, listless — a massive misperception of the inexperienced eye.

Mr. Forsburg once interned at Archbold then earned a doctorate in herpetology from West Texas State University.

But he felt compelled to return, he admitted — and for good reason.

Within yards or a few miles of Ms. Swain and Mr. Forsburg lay one of the most diverse and resilient living tapestries in Florida, threaded by the extraordinarily hardy and adaptable thriving in the exceptionally inhospitable: 21 species of amphibians, 27 of fish, 44 of mammals, 48 of reptiles, and 208 bird species with 47 that breed and nest at Archbold, underscored by almost 6,000 invertebrate species — the arthropods, whether insect, arachnid or crustacean.

All are inhabitants of a landscape chock-a-block with vascular plants hardy enough to adapt and survive over time.

Gene Lollis, ranch manager at Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

Gene Lollis, ranch manager at Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

There are 593 species of those, including the clustered scrub palmettos that only appear to be individual plants on the surface. They’re clonal, the trunks of 10 or 15 sometimes connected underground to form single organisms that grow only about 1.2 centimeters per year, “so a lot of biomass is underground,” said Mr. Forsburg.

They look fresh and new. Like so much else here, however, the perception can differ profoundly from the reality.

Scrub palmettos can be so old they make the bristlecone pines of the western Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountains seem of merely middling age (5,000 years); giant sequoias in California seem like young teenagers (3,200 years); and they make the oldest bald cypress trees in the world, in Collier County’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary where they were standing before Columbus and the Europeans stumbled into the Americas, appear merely infantile (700 years old).

Dawn on the 10,500-acre Buck Island Ranch. Buck Island was once owned by John D. MacArthur. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

Dawn on the 10,500-acre Buck Island Ranch. Buck Island was once owned by John D. MacArthur. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

For 8,000 years, Archbold’s oldest scrub palmettos have straddled the ridge — plants renewed regularly (like grazing lands) by fire, whether natural or controlled, and washed by summer rain. Up on the ridge, rain floods the ponds and lakes, fills the ditches, and swamps the wetlands before running off the ridge to join a giant aquatic party, of sorts — the subtropical southbound soiree known as the River of Grass.

The Lake Wales Ridge forms the watershed of the northern Everglades.

“What’s cool about all these species is so many are endemic — we have a high level of endemism here, plants found nowhere else on Earth,” explained Mr. Forsburg.

There’s a reason. “Tens of thousands of years ago when the sea level was high, all these plants got stuck on the Lake Wales Ridge, the ancient backbone of sand dunes.”

And they adapted and survived, which strikes wonder and awe even into longtime veterans of the scrub like Ms. Swain and Mr. Forsburg, or Archbold’s celebrated entomologist and senior field biologist, emeritus in name only, Mark Deyrup.

FLORIDA WEEKLY

FLORIDA WEEKLY

All things strange

Born and raised in New York City, with a doctorate in entomology from the University of Washington, Mr. Deyrup and his wife, Nancy, a science educator, rolled onto the Lake Wales Ridge at Archbold in a Volkswagen Beetle one day roughly four decades ago, and made a life.

Mr. Deyrup has discovered arthropods never before known to the world — he’s identified and collected many of the 1,709 species of beetles, for example, discovering only after Hurricane Irma in 2017 a ridge-centric world of them living under the bark of dying or dead laurel oaks. They break it down, converting it to a food source for other flora and fauna. And he’s demonstrated that Archbold has the greatest diversity of ants known in a single location in North America — 117 species, as his book, “Ants of Florida, Identification and Natural History,” reveals.

Buck Island Ranch’s 30-year partnership with the Archbold Biological Station is a visionary marriage of science and sustainable rangeland agriculture that engenders biological resilience. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

Buck Island Ranch’s 30-year partnership with the Archbold Biological Station is a visionary marriage of science and sustainable rangeland agriculture that engenders biological resilience. PHOTO BY CARLTON WARD JR.

What difference do ants or beetles at Archbold, or anywhere else, make to people living in Lee or Charlotte counties, in Palm Beach County, or for that matter even in Highlands County on the ridge? Why study or protect any of these creatures?

“It’s the right thing to do,” says Mr. Forsburg, “but there’s a pragmatic reason — the canary in a coal mine. If it’s living, you’re going to live. If it’s not …”

Preserve the landscapes and waterscapes that keep these creatures healthy, in other words, and you’re preserving the landscapes and waterscapes that keep human communities healthy.

And Mr. Deyrup himself doesn’t have to know specifically what role one arthropod plays in the environment to recognize it as a thread in the living tapestry.

“The sight of a beetle hurrying across the sand should be a reminder of the busy intricacy of a natural community that is home to at least 1,709 beetle species,” he noted in an Archbold blog. Whatever their biological roles, he added, “we can be confident that all these beetles are hard at work making a living, not sitting around scrolling through Facebook.”

GUTHRIE

GUTHRIE

Like Ms. Swain, Mr. Deyrup’s answer to a simple question is deceptively simple: Why would someone raised in the Big Apple want to spend much of his adult life in the Florida scrub — what does he love most about it, or even at all?

There’s only a fraction of a pause. “Staring at the sand,” he replied.

The sand — where everything is connected to everything else in or out of the sand, on and off the ridge, the length and breadth of the peninsula, and beyond.

In his lab and office, scores of Cornell drawers in aging cabinets hold many thousands of specimens painstakingly collected and taxonomically identified and displayed under glass. But Mr. Deyrup also displays on his wall the words of the 19th century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who celebrated the connection of all living things in “Pied Beauty” and other verse.

Dustin Angell, photographer, director of education: “I’m a bit spoiled by the educator’s toolkit I have at my disposal here: 20,000 acres of outdoor classroom space, dozens of ecologists on hand, a fantastic education center building, and a rural community that Archbold has built strong relationships with. That’s just the short list.” COURTESY PHOTO

Dustin Angell, photographer, director of education: “I’m a bit spoiled by the educator’s toolkit I have at my disposal here: 20,000 acres of outdoor classroom space, dozens of ecologists on hand, a fantastic education center building, and a rural community that Archbold has built strong relationships with. That’s just the short list.” COURTESY PHOTO

The 21st century entomologist can also recite long passages once written by the 19th century poet, from memory.

“All things counter, original, spare, strange;/ Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)/ With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim…”

That’s how Hopkins described the magnificent world — in effect, the world of the Lake Wales Ridge.

Florida’s great almanac

Those words are particularly resonant at Archbold, where creatures can seem otherworldly, an effect the writer Michael Grunwald pointed to in his book, “The Swamp,” about life in the Everglades.

Here on the ridge, 3-foot tubes of muscle with two toes and bites like bear traps, slick as eels, hide in wetlands or ditches (aquatic salamanders known as amphiumas); miniature reptiles with abbreviated limbs swim through sand, eating invertebrates (Florida sand skinks); lizards with tiny scales and shovel-shaped heads appear so vividly pink they look like giant bubblegum worms (the Florida sand lizard); reptiles the size of dinner platters dig burrows 30 feet into the ridge then share their underground homes with other reptiles, amphibians and mammals, living as long as 70 years (gopher tortoises); and birds can be so intelligent they recognize family members and neighbors as individuals, so social the parents allow helper birds to join in feeding their young for two years, and so curious and bold they may even perch on the heads or arms of well-intentioned humans (Florida scrub jays).

 

And sure enough, like little ambassadors of a magic kingdom, the jays came wing-dancing across the tops of the scrub from one palmetto to another, right up to Mr. Forsburg, a reporter and his son. Endemic to Florida and once widespread, unfortunately now only about 4,000 breeding individual scrub jays remain on the planet, ornithologists estimate.

There’s even a nearly pristine lake, 90 acres at the surface, about 68 feet deep at the center, with 36 feet of sediment lying at the bottom, where the bass may look like whales. But the scientists don’t care.

From that sinkhole source, researchers taking core samples have now retrieved records of pollen and its plants reflecting climate influences and weather patterns that may have shaped them going back at least 45,000 years.

“Working at Archbold, you have a longer real view,” Ms. Swain said. “You can look up the weather as it was in 1946 (or the pollen-producing plants that grew 45,000 years ago). You can look at our old aerial photographs going back decades. What was happening to scrub jays in 1970 populations?

“You can look at fire history and water levels back decades. It helps put things in context. Rare events — storms, deep freezes, droughts: you can see when they occurred and how often. So we are like one of Florida’s great environmental almanacs.”

But there’s a problem.

Although such an almanac offers scientists trends they can use to forecast what’s coming, that may not work in the 21st century.

“We know from our weather data, lakes data and plant data that some of the long-term trends in Florida are driven by conditions in the oceans,” Ms. Swain said.

Distant oceans.

“The temperature in the middle of the Atlantic or Pacific, surprisingly, can have a significant impact on rainfall, on growth patterns and on lake levels here going back over decades.

“So if we know what conditions were in those series of years, we can predict what the likely responses would be under the same conditions now.”

Unfortunately, climate change will create conditions no scientist has ever seen or measured, along with consequences that can’t be predicted from the record.

“The challenge in nature is, everything is coupled,” Ms. Swain said. “So we may know the relationship between rainfall and plants’ productivity — the timing and growth rates — but if that’s happening with effects never before experienced, those couplings may be unpredictable.”

And one more thing, a caveat from a scientist as sober and rational as the proverbial judge: “Biologists are worried about cascading or dominating effects.”

Knowledge and adaptation

We can’t know where those effects will take us. But this isn’t a Chicken Little story — the sky isn’t falling. Instead, ecologists and cowboys alike are working to create healthy ecosystems because “those are more resilient to threat than systems under stress,” Ms. Swain said.

“You don’t need to be a Ph.D. scientist to know this. So things like reducing invasive species, applying the right fire management programs which are essential in Florida, restoring wetland hydroperiods, the wet and dry cycles — all those types of activities mean the ecosystem has a better resilience to cope with change.”

And change will come. But at Archbold, so will knowledge and adaptation.

“You can’t throw a rock and not hit a research project here,” Ms. Swain noted, speaking not only of the scrub, but of Archbold’s sprawling ranch lands: “Wildlife projects, carbon projects, water projects, burning projects, weather stations, and so on.”

Archbold may inhabit ancient terrain, but it’s also a home to ultra modern, high-tech data tools.

There are radio-transmitter backpacks on birds detailing their habits, movements and social lives in the scrub that can track their locations every two minutes, for example.

And there are so-called Eddy Flux towers on Archbold’s ranch lands, six of them, measuring fluxes of gasses.

Part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Long-Term Agro-Ecology Research Program or LTAR, the towers are placed among grazing herds in different pastures. They resemble mini cellphone towers, recording data every 10th of a second for soil temperatures, heat from the sun and wind direction while creating a carbon analysis, among other things. They’ll show where and how much carbon is captured or released in cow country, and suggest how cows, water and fire may be managed more cleanly.

Such a study could only occur at Archbold’s Buck Island Ranch, one of the bigger remaining Florida spreads in a state once ranked No. 2 behind Texas for beef production. Gene Lollis, the longtime ranch manager, maintains about 3,000 head of cattle raised on the big-pasture grasslands and sold on the beef market.

Reared in a ranching family, Mr. Lollis holds a degree in animal science from the University of Florida and an MBA, but running cows up on the ridge, on horseback or off, may be all he ever wanted to do.

That and preserve his way of life.

“How do cowboys and scientists get along?” he asked rhetorically.

“We find common ground. We have to. The land, the waters and the wildlife is what makes us. And we need to conserve not only our land for water and wildlife, but for our food security.

“So there is a coexistence that has to happen. Maintaining land in open space and not developing it — that’s essential.”

Buck Island once was owned by John D. MacArthur and later the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, devoted to philanthropy. The foundation leased it to Archbold at $1 a year after MacArthur’s death in 1978, then sold it to Archbold 30 years later, in 2018.

And now beef isn’t Buck Island’s only product or arguably, nowadays, its most compelling reason for existing.

The ranch produces science — project derived data that can measure how working ranches actually operate, and how they affect the world around them. The science will help preserve not just flora and fauna, but sustainable ranches that can manage water, fire and methane-making cows on undeveloped grazing lands more cleanly and economically. They’ll be partners of environmentalists, and neighbors of wild preserves right up through Florida, all tied together like knots on a long rope.

As a result, more fragile, much less bio-diverse environments characterized by housing and commercial clusters — formed like bumps in an endless parking lot, right up through Florida — will not further weaken the Sunshine State.

Everybody knows now: As the century moves on to the middle years and beyond, climate change could become not just a discomfort but an onslaught.

En masse at Archbold, therefore, scientists defy older stereotypes that seem to place environmentalists at odds with ranchers or farmers.

Now, Ms. Swain and her colleagues embrace agriculture, and defend it — and at Archbold they also help manage and maintain it. Going forward, she insists, conservation of agricultural lands across Florida is as crucial as preservation of wild lands, a part of the whole.

“Florida will never be like it once was — we can’t restore that; it’s gone,” Ms. Swain said. “But we can save and preserve remaining wild lands and the agricultural lands that are home to wildlife — it’s either that or they turn into developments. When that happens they’re gone forever.

“So we have to learn from and work with those who live and work on the land in order to have a 21st century conservation.”

Florida Wildlife Corridor

Among numerous other data-producing projects both in the scrub and on the ranch are camera traps that can track wildlife and transmit images even to the cellular telephones of wildlife biologists. Led by Joe Guthrie, director of the Predator-Prey Program at Archbold, these sophisticated game cameras will ultimately form a “Corridor Observatory” at the center of a formalized plan of more than a decade known as the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

The corridor aims to secure 18 million acres of contiguous public and private lands with conservation protections, from Florida Bay in the south to the Alabama border in the northwestern Panhandle.

Among Archbold allies is the widely recognized environmental photographer who helped hatch the plan, Carlton Ward Jr., feted for his compelling National Geographic magazine pieces.

Mr. Ward has worked in and out of Africa for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in the past, and focused his lenses on natural worlds from the Amazon to Africa to Archbold.

As it happens, he also hails from generations of a family of Florida farmers and cattle ranchers. He joined Dustin Angell, a photographer and Archbold’s director of education, in contributing photos for this story.

“Geographically speaking, Archbold is an island in time,” Mr. Ward said. “It’s at once a remnant of this most ancient Florida, and at the same time a place of hope for protecting and reconnecting other remnants of Florida throughout the state.”

Together with Joe Guthrie, Mr. Ward has traveled the 1,000-mile distance from one end of the Wildlife Corridor to the other on foot, bicycle, in kayak and on horseback — more than once.

A black bear helped give them the idea, Guthrie recalls.

“One bear led to the first expedition Carlton and I did in 2012,” he said. “And it remained a theme across several of those long expeditions since 2012 — another 1,000 miles in 2015, and several expeditions of a week in length in 2018 and 2019, with a youth expedition in 2020.”

That male bear, collared and tracked, known as M-34, traveled “more than 500 miles from May through July in 2010,” explains a map display at Archbold.

“Crossing conservation lands and agricultural areas, he headed north from Sebring to I-4, back south down the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, west toward Fort Myers, then back east close to Archbold.”

Data from the bear’s collar showed Mr. Ward, Mr. Guthrie and others where conservation protections could help secure traveling routes or underpasses and decrease the risk of road mortality — wildlife corridors that would also assist such animals as bobcats, otters, panthers and deer.

“The basic thing we learned: these animals are capable of showing us the path ahead,” Mr. Guthrie said.

“If we have insight into how they move around — say the bears in Highlands County — we could understand how and where the best forest and wetlands and scrub exists between ranches with lots of good wildlife habitat.”

That understanding relies “on large amounts of data from working landscapes — mostly private landscapes used for agriculture. Those properties are places biologists rarely get access to.

“But at Archbold we do much of the same management our friends and neighbors in the ranching community do. We share some common interests. So we can appeal to them for access, we can visit their properties and set up our monitoring stations.”

It’s not science merely for the sake of science, suggests Mr. Ward, and both ranchers and environmentalists of the new order know that.

“If we save the land we need for the grasshopper sparrow (only about 200 breeding individuals left on or near Archbold) or the Florida scrub jay, we’re going to save the headwaters of the Everglades, and the rest of the Everglades.

“What all these animals and places are showing us is what we need to do to save ourselves,” he said.

“I believe we are at the beginnings of a new environmental movement that can connect the wild places. Environmentalists and ranchers understand: This next decade is decisive for the future of the Wildlife Corridor.”

And by extension, for the state of Florida. ¦

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