Evolution is on full display across south Florida, maybe most visibly in Miami, where America’s modern gateway to Latin America is quickly fashioning itself as one of the world’s most culturally cosmopolitan cities.
But more living and breathing examples of the evolution of the species can be found just outside the Miami metropolis, beyond the nightly natural selection happening in the trendy South Beach club scene.
Some of the planet’s wildest – and most endangered – creatures are lurking along some of the most well-traveled and popular tours in the area. Here’s your checklist of the top exotic and vulnerable fauna native to the region, many viewable via local tour operator or even from your rental car miami exotic car rentals.
5: Key deer – Travelers driving south to Key West along U.S. Highway 1 regularly report sightings of the smallest species of North American white-tailed deer, the key deer. Equal parts cute, cuddly and diminutive, these tiny roadside grazers were at one point one of the most endangered animals in the Florida ecosystem, their numbers dwindling to just a couple dozen. Today, the population is far more stable, and it is not uncommon to come across a baby-Bambi where the narrow road passes near the key deer’s preferred mangroves. Start your lookout at Big Pine Key, and keep a sharp eye all the way to Key West.
4: Florida manatee – Though their numbers have diminished in the Keys, these “sea cows” – once mythically mistaken by sailors as mermaids – hang around waterways up and down the East Coast. But in Florida, they are their migratory best, slowly traversing the shallows from the Everglades, to inland rivers, to Miami’s Biscayne Bay. Historically hunted for their flesh and oil, the manatee today is most threatened by coastal development and increasing conflict with motorized watercraft, but their numbers seem to have stabilized.
3: Sea turtle – With five specific species listed as endangered in Florida by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, the anachronistic sea turtle is extra-sensitive to coastal development because it nests in some of the most pristine beach fronts up and down the Florida coastline. So unless you’re out with a bright flashlight late at night along one of those beaches, your chances of spotting one of these prehistoric specimens are pretty remote. But take to the water, and your outlook for spotting one swimming along rises to the ‘probable’ level, with the right tour. Our recommendation: Hitch a ride on a glass-bottom boat tour out of Key West, and on your way to the coral reef, keep an eye out.
2: American crocodile – Head to the sprawling swamplands of the Everglades to catch a fortunate glimpse of the top two exotic and endangered animals of south Florida.
The iconic crocodile, which cohabits the Everglades’ sawgrass marshes and cypress forests with the often misidentified American alligator, is a keystone species to the ecosystem, and a heart-stopping thrill for folks lucky enough to witness their reptilian eyes break the surface of the murky water. One way to get a glimpse of the scaly throwback: Hop an Everglades Airboat Adventure tour. Or, keep your eyes peeled in Everglades National Park along the mainland shoreline of Florida Bay from the Cape Sable peninsula east to U.S. Hwy. 1.
1: Florida panther – Diminishing numbers of this majestic and eminently elusive cat mean a rare sighting should be truly treasured. A subspecies of the mountain lion, this ferocious feline once prowled much of the southeastern United States, but geographic isolation and habitat loss have driven the cat’s numbers down to near double-digits. Ecologists are going to great lengths today to protect what remains of the population, Florida’s state animal, but you’d be hard-pressed to come across a Floridian (much less any person) who’ve spied a panther in the wild.