Surveying the River of Fire

 Alafia River. Photo by Bruce D. Colin.

Alafia River. Photo by Bruce D. Colin.

Tomorrow morning my research partner, George L. Heinrich, and I will begin a 22 mile survey of the Alafia River in west-central Florida. We are studying the status and distribution of the Suwannee cooter, Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis. This riverine turtle occurs in at least 18 rivers within Florida which flow into the Gulf of Mexico. This project was funded through a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and more information on the project can be found here.

The name Alafia Is derived from a Native American word which means ‘River of Fire.’ This name stems from the flashes of light that appear on the river at night due to the high phosphorous content in the water. This area of Florida is one of the most important phosphorus mining areas in the country and this mining has caused a great deal of environmental degradation to the surrounding watershed. One large event happened in 1997 when a phosphate mine process water reservoir burst during a heavy rainstorm. This released approximately 50 million gallons of acidic water into the North Prong of the Alafia River. This resulted in a drastic lowering of the river's PH (down to 3.3) and caused lethal conditions for all aquatic life (including large alligators) the length of the river.

 Suwannee cooter. Photo by George L. Heinrich.

Suwannee cooter. Photo by George L. Heinrich.

The Suwannee cooter is by no means rare, although it is protected by the State of Florida. It can be locally abundant in some of the rivers in which it is found. George and I have been studying anthropogenic threats to this species for over ten years. We have looked at the taking of wild animals for human consumption and the threat of boat collisions with this species. The Alafia River is known to be the southernmost range of this turtle and an interesting distributional gap occurs to the north for 79 kilometers to the next known population. A portion of this study is to determine if they, in fact, range further south or are found in small pockets to the north. The population in the Alafia River was first documented in 1953 and was studied briefly in the late 1960s. Our project is the first to look in-depth at this subspecies in this river system.

I will be blogging multiple times during the day for the duration of our survey. Please visit frequently to check in and hear how the project is going.

 

Tim Walsh

Citizen Science Coordinator