Gulf Coast Wildlife
Wetlands along the coast have more different kinds of plants and animals than other kinds of wetlands. Millions of migrating birds such as geese, ducks, and songbirds find a winter home on these coastal wetlands. The state shell, the lightning whelk, is found on the shorelines. Other wildlife found in this region includes alligators, fiddler crabs, spoonbills, and sea turtles.
The alligator is a large, leathery-skinned reptile. Alligators are fascinating animals. Their ancestors were around before dinosaurs even existed! These powerful reptiles are carnivorous, meaning that they eat other animals. Some of the animals they eat include fish, turtles, water birds, and other alligators. Alligators are very vocal. They communicate with each other using grunts, barks, or hisses. They often float with only their eyes and nostrils visible in the water. The alligator’s short, strong legs allow it to travel on land. Its tail helps it swim. They are very quick on land and are excellent swimmers. Alligators used to be an endangered species. Laws were passed that protected them from being hunted too much, and scientists studied how to improve their habitat. Now alligators are recovered and they are no longer an endangered species.
Crabs burrow into muddy beaches or salty tidal lands. The crabs has a hard shell over its body and eight jointed legs, which puts it in the crustacean family. The Gulf Coast has blue crabs and fiddler crabs. The fiddler crab is very interesting. The male crab has an extra large front claw or “pincer” that is moved back and forth in the same way a violinist or “fiddler” moves their arm when playing a violin, hence its name. If the large claw breaks off, another small claw grows in its place and the other front claw then grows into a big claw. The extra large claw is used to fight other males and to court females. They eat algae and which are small aquatic plants.
Spoonbills are wading birds with long, flat, spoon-shaped bills. They find food by scooping up water in shallow areas and straining the mud and water through “gutters” on either side of their bill. Then they eat the small fish, frogs, and plants that are left trapped in their mouth. In the Gulf Coast region of Texas, it is very common to see roseate spoonbills. The feathers of roseate spoonbills are rosy pink with red on the edges of their wings, which is why they are described as “roseate” or “rosy.” They return year after year to the same nesting places, called “colonies.” There are many roseate spoonbill colonies in the barrier islands of the Gulf of Mexico.
Sea turtles live in warm coastal waters. The largest of all turtles are the sea turtles. Some sea turtles can grow as big as a car and weigh up to 850 pounds! Sea turtles have hard, bony shells. Unlike other turtles that live on the land, sea turtles can’t hide in their shells for protection. Instead, they have to rely on their enormous size and swimming speed to escape predators. Male sea turtles spend their whole lives in the water. The females only leave the water to lay eggs. Females will sometimes migrate thousands of miles to get to their breeding beaches.
The lightning whelk is the official state shell and is only found on the Gulf Coast. A whelk is a large sea snail, or gastropod, with a heavy shell. Whelks are actually carnivores, or meat eaters! They eat clams, scallops, and oysters. The lightning whelk gets its name from the colored lines on its shell that look like “lightning lines.” Most spiral shells open to the right, but the lightning whelk is one of the few shells that open on the left. Lightning whelks were very important to the Native Americans that lived here. They made tools from the heavy shells.