Growing up in Stuart in the 1970s, my mother and father gave me full reign to explore the undeveloped lands in the area of St Lucie Estates. I remember endless summers, wandering around in “the woods” and of course my eyes were drawn to the vine of the widely dispersed, perfectly shaped, red and black seeds known as rosary peas.
I would collect them tightly in my little, sweaty hands, pushing them far down into my pockets. I recall the first time I brought them home, my mother said, “Yes, they are very pretty, but don’t eat them, they are poisonous.”
“Hmmm,”I thought. “How can something beautiful be poisonous?”
I continued to collect the seeds, and over the years filled up many clear glass bottles that sat in my window sill; the sun never fading their brilliant color.
Later in life, I learned that bright color patterns, especially red, black, and yellow, as with some caterpillars, or the famous, shy, and deadly coral snake, are “warnings” in nature and actually provide the animal with protection from being eaten.
As I walk through Hawk’s Bluff today, I am thankful to my parents who allowed me to explore the natural world and grow confident, unafraid, even with all of its toxic beauty.
When I was a kid, I often walked to the Indian River Lagoon and just stood there in amazement watching the hundreds, if not thousands, of baby horseshoe crabs winding their way through the sands. They left circular trails, crossing over and over again…
Where were they going? What were they doing? Why were there so many?
Every once in a while, I would pick one up and place it carefully in the palm of my hand. Its sharp tail and prickly feet pushed against me. I watched in wonder at its strength as it bent in half. Once returned to the sand, the little crab went back to work immediately as if nothing had happened at all.
My mother had told me the horseshoe crabs were more ancient than the dinosaurs and had been here “forever.” “They are living fossils” she would say. “And they can live over 20 years and take 10 years just to mature.”
Although I picked them up with such care, today, forty years later, when I try to find them, they’re gone.
What happened to the horseshoe crabs of the Indian River Lagoon? How did a creature so ancient, resilient, and prevalent almost “disappear?”
Although there is quite a bit of literature on the Central Indian River Lagoon, I could not find much on the Southern Lagoon. Some of the best documentation came from Gretchen S. Ehlinger and Richard A. Tankersley. On line, they are cited multiple times for their paper “Reproductive Ecology of the American Horseshoe Crab, Limulus Polyphemus, in the Indian River Lagoon: An Overview.” I was also able to read “Evaluation of the Horseshoe Crab Fishery in the Indian River Lagoon Using Catch Data From Two Power Plants,” and a September 2014 “FPL Cape Canaveral Energy Center Horseshoe Crab Deterrent Fence Specifications” publication.
All of these lead to the following observations: decline of the species has been noted for around three decades. There have been UME’s or “Unexplained Mortality Events” where up to a 100,000 have died in the same area around the same time.
Factors that are related to their overall decline in the lagoon include intense coastal development, shoreline breeding grounds destruction, and unbridled human population growth; expansion of agriculture drainage watersheds into the IRL; deteriorating water quality; power plants sucking up as many as 100,000 a year into their intake canals; and over-fishing. The crabs are used as bait, collected for marine purposes, and more recently captured live and bled for their “blue-blood”that is invaluable to human health.
Unfortunately, for many years, the value and importance of the horseshoe crab was not recognized. For instance, Ehlinger and Tankersley note a one year study in the early 2000s at two Indian River Lagoon power plants that recorded a total of 39,097 crabs trapped on the intake screens at Cape Canaveral, and 53,121 at the Orland Utilities Plant. The scientists also mention a previous study from 1975 that estimated 69,662 at the Canaveral Plant, and 104,000 trapped annually at the Orlando Utilitility’s Indian River plant. “This alone could easily account for a decline in the Indian River population.” (Ehlinger and Tankersley 2007)
The St Lucie Power Plant located here in the southern lagoon did not agree to be part of the study and there is very little research one can now find on the subject.
In any case, the good news is that just recently the Cape Canaveral plant has installed a wall to protect the horseshoe crabs and science’s recognition of the species has people wanting them to come back.
The Florida Wildlife Commission notes:
“Horseshoe crabs are extremely important to the biomedical industry because their unique, copper-based blue blood contains a substance called “Limulus Amebocyte Lysate”, or “LAL”.This compound coagulates in the presence of small amounts of bacterial toxins and is used to test for sterility of medical equipment and virtually all injectable drugs. Anyone who has had an injection, vaccination, or surgery has benefitted from horseshoe crabs!”
…”in March 2000, a series of management measures for horseshoe crabs went into effect in Florida. The regulations required a license to harvest and set a limit on the number of animals each licensee could harvest per day (25 to 100 animals allowed per day per person depending on the permit). In 2002, a biomedical permitting rule created a mechanism to allow for biomedical collection.”
Personally, looking at these photos of the horseshoe crabs being bled is like a science fiction movie to me. Never as a kid would I have imagined my little friends with needles in their heads being milked for their blood.
….But if this is what is going to save them… I must say, if they could talk, I bet now is the strangest part of their 450 million year journey. In my mind, they will always be free and drawing circles in the sand.
One of my most vivid memories of growing up in Stuart, was befriending Lucifer. Lucifer was a Great Dane that lived in the neighborhood. In the 1970s, many dogs roamed free, some of the time anyway….
Lucifer was an amazing creature and he scared the daylights out of us kids. But we would taunt him too. Sometimes, when there was nothing to do, which was most of the time, we would walk outside when our parents were not looking and call “Lucifer….Lucifer….” and this huge, galloping, horse-like dog, with giant teeth and saliva dripping from his lips, would come running out of the bushes—and what would we do? We would smile and start running ourselves!
We would run, and run, and run with Lucifer at our backs, us shrieking, eyeing one another in anticipation of a fall to the earth. And then, if we were lucky, we’d make it to the jungle gym. And there, we would climb to the highest level and look down on Lucifer, as he barked and jumped and tried to climb the jungle gym himself.
It was great fun for us, but not so much for Lucifer…
Somewhere along this journey in St Lucie Estates, a stone’s throw from the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, I realized I was being mean. That Lucifer had not given himself that name, nor had he asked to look so scary. He was just trying to play. I eventually got down off the jungle gym and befriended him. This took time. He was my height and barked and ran around a lot. He jumped on me and knocked me down. But over time, we trusted each other, and then it became my job to keep him from being tortured by the other kids. I took great pleasure taming this wild creature that we kids had called to kill us….this gave me power in the neighborhood kid hierarchy.
Is there a metaphor here for our river? I don’t know, but I looking through the old family photo album my mother gave me and upon reading the headlines this morning, I felt inclined to share this story today.
May we remember that names are given, and that we are really just grown-up kids, and that the power is in taming Lucifer.
When I was a kid in the 1960s and 70s growing up in Stuart, urban legend was that a large, male panther lived on Jupiter Island. Both local fisherman and doctors swore they had seen this panther swimming across the St Lucie Inlet to Seminole Shores, today’s Sailfish Point.
During my childhood, these stories resonated and inflamed my imagination, but I, myself, never saw a panther…
Now that I am older, I am still fascinated with these captivating creatures eking out a life as an endangered species in a much changed Florida. Recently, I came upon information that helps support my childhood beliefs that until fairly recently, they lived right here in Stuart as I usually associate them with Florida’s west coast.
Let’s take a look…
As seen above, before Florida was “developed,” and the animal was over-hunted; its range included the entire state and far beyond. Today, as seen in the map below, their range has been greatly reduced and no longer includes the Treasure Coast. Sightings and unfortunate “road kills” are usually in the -south-western part of the state.
When I started asking my historian mother, Sandra Henderson Thurlow, if there were any accounts of panthers here, she shared a transcript by Rush Hughes of Mrs Ethel Porter taped in 1960. At this point, Mrs Porter was of very advanced age. She lived right here in Stuart in what we know as todays “Owl House,” as a pioneer beginning in the late 1800s until her death. Her account of seeing a panther at her homestead along the shore of the St Lucie River is quite entertaining, here is an excerpt:
Did you ever have any trouble with the Indians?
Oh no. No.
Did you ever have any experience with the wild animals?
Well yes. I had company from North Carolina and we heard something coming up the path, where the bank is now. It was crying like a child. And I said, “That cannot be a child, because there is no child anywhere around. It couldn’t be lost because there is no family near enough.” When it got almost opposite the house – it was in the days of lamps – I took a lamp and I went out on the porch and took a lamp and held it above my head and out of a clump of bushes came two great big eyes of fire and I screamed and when I did, I could hear it jumping. Then my husband came in and I told him about it and he said, “You know you have such fear down here that your imagination goes ahead of you.” But next morning we went down on the beach – we used to have beach before the canal – and there was a footprint of a panther that a number two tomato can could not cover.
My goodness – that was a big one!
Yes, but I didn’t mind that like I did the snakes…
In my option, a woman’s knowledge of a #2 tomato can’s size in the late 1800s is about as solid as documentation gets!
Another sure-fire documentation is a photograph taken along the Indian River Lagoon area in around the 1870’s by Jupiter Lighthouse keeper, James A . Armour and/or Melvin Spencer. This photograph is widely distributed and is now in the archives of the Historical Society of Palm Beach. The photograph shows a dead, 106 pound, 6 foot 8 inches panther, a sad trophy but reflective of the values of the era.
Today, thankfully, we protect these graceful and secretive creatures and appreciate their struggle to survive…
In closing, before you go to sleep at night, never think that the panthers only belong to Florida’s west coast; they belong here as well. After all, the St Lucie Indian River Lagoon, is really a “jungle….” 🙂