ARE BIG RODENTS
week, while I was returning the stare of a giant rodent 20 feet away,
my flashlight beam strayed into a pool of water 50 feet farther into
the swamp, revealing a pair of shining red eyes. The giant rodent was
a nutria. The red eyes belonged to an American alligator.
were exciting to see. Yet another surge of adrenaline came as someone
pointed out an enormous spider sprawled near my hand on the railing
of the boardwalk. Its outstretched arms were at least 5 inches from
front to back. I was rounding out my time at Southeastern Louisiana
University with a nighttime ecology field trip a fitting end
to my visit.
I had gone
to see the graduate students in the biology department and, after an
extended crawfish boil that stretched into the evening, someone suggested
a trip to a nearby swamp to see what we could find. One student gave
me a flashlight; another slapped a snake stick into my other hand. Two
more carried dip nets.
down the opportunity to venture out with half a dozen knowledgeable
tour guides was out of the question. We went forth into the spooky swamp,
listening and identifying calling frogs along the way.
In an earlier
daytime field trip, we had found several cottonmouths, watersnakes and
black racers in a state park. We also added a copperhead to the list
of snakes known from that area. I was pleased to see the enthusiasm
displayed by the ecologically minded students bent on enjoying the first
days of spring the way they should be enjoyed: outdoors investigating
most of the students were herpetologists interested in reptiles and
amphibians, enjoying the other wildlife that can turn up in a swamp
was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. We spent time watching the
nutria chomp on some vegetation until it decided we were worth keeping
an eye on and finally left.
also called coypu or river rats, are one of the largest rodents in America.
Big ones, which indisputably look like the giant rats they are, can
weigh over 20 pounds. They have hairless round tails, whereas beavers,
which hold the record for the biggest U.S. rodents, can be distinguished
by their flat tails. Muskrats, which can live in the same habitats as
nutria, have vertically flat tails and get nowhere near as large.
I was glad
we got to see a nutria simply because they are impressive beasts. However,
they are an invasive species imported originally from South America
and are not welcome guests in Louisiana and other states where they
have become established.
bounties and other programs to eradicate nutria, they are still abundant
and are perceived as a big nuisance because they eat native vegetation.
Nutria have spread into the southern marsh areas of Alabama, Mississippi
and Texas but are unlikely to expand permanently into more northern
areas as they are restricted to warmer climes in their native habitats.
the spider, it was one of the large, very large, fishing spiders that
prey on aquatic insects and small fish. Fortunately, my hand did not
look like a fish or an insect. We were rewarded with amphibian wildlife
in the form of both sirens and amphiumas, the latter being the longest
salamander species in the Western Hemisphere. We had seen a captive
one earlier in the day that was more than 4 feet long and as big around
as a softball.
not sure a nighttime visit to the swamp is the best way for budding
naturalists to start appreciating nature in its springtime glory, but
at this time of year, you need to be outside somewhere doing something.
Even your own neighborhood is likely to reveal sights and sounds you
have not experienced before.
the time of year everyone can appreciate the natural world around us
that we do not want to lose although the nutria are invited to
return to their native lands.
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