Our Aquarium Supervisor & His Mission to Save Coral Reefs – Day 1 (Windley Key State Park)

Credit: Nathan Wolkenhauer
Credit: Nathan Wolkenhauer

Windley Key State Park has great historical, cultural, geological, and biological significance to the area.  It is the site of a 20th century quarry for Key Largo limestone, which was used to build the Overseas Railroad.  Completed in 1912, the Overseas Railroad was the first terrestrial connection between the mainland of Florida and Key West.  After being largely destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, the rail line was abandoned and the remaining infrastructure was sold to the State of Florida.  Utilizing surviving supports, the state converted them to the highway known as U.S. 1 in 1938.  This highway was utilized until the early 1980s, when a new highway was constructed beside it.  The most impressive part of the construction is a bridge that extends all the way from Marathon to Little Duck Key, a seven mile stretch! The original stretch of the aptly named “Seven Mile Bridge” is accessible by foot and is worth a visit.

Northernmost point of the original Seven Mile Bridge.
Northernmost point of the original Seven Mile Bridge.

Even after the railroad was completed in 1912, quarrying continued for the highly decorative Key Largo limestone that can be found in some of the older architecture of the area.  Though the quarry is now defunct, examples of quarry equipment remain on the land today for visitors to view.

Example of quarry equipment on display at Windley Key State Park.
Example of quarry equipment on display at Windley Key State Park.
Photo of Hurricane Monument, fashioned of Key Largo Limestone.
Photo of Hurricane Monument, fashioned of Key Largo Limestone.

From a geological and biological standpoint, the Windley Key site offers exciting clues to the natural history of the region.  The highest elevation in the entire Keys (16 feet) occurs within the Park, the remains of an ancient reef that flourished here tens of thousands of years ago.

Though initial sedimentation began millions of years ago, the uppermost limestone formations found here are the result of an ancient reef that reached its peak around 100,000 years ago, when sea levels were 25 feet higher than they currently are.  At that time, this ancient reef was under 10 or more feet of water.  A modern reef flourished at this time and it teemed with life.

Later, at the height of glaciation (26,000 ybp), sea levels dropped 350 feet below current levels and these reefs were exposed as land…the predecessors of the current island chain.  As water receded, the life on the former reefs were compacted and fossilized into what is called Key Largo Limestone. It contains a countless number of marine organisms, cemented together with calcareous sediment and is prized for its aesthetic appeal.  This Key Largo limestone differs from Miami Limestone (which is found in Miami and the Lower Keys) in this respect.  Miami limestone is composed mainly of smaller sediments, while Key Largo limestone has numerous inclusions of large marine fossils…a result of being a massive ancient reef.

www.keyshistory.org Greyed area is shoreline from about 6000 years ago until present day. Blue area represents shoreline 125,000 years ago. Red shaded area represents shoreline around 26,000 years ago.
www.keyshistory.org
Greyed area is shoreline from about 6000 years ago until present day. Blue area represents shoreline 125,000 years ago. Red shaded area represents shoreline around 26,000 years ago.
Example of raw Key Largo limestone, found on the quarry walls of Windley Key.
Example of raw Key Largo limestone, found on the quarry walls of Windley Key.

As the last glacial period came to a close, melting glaciers began to refill the oceans.  By about 6,000 years ago sea level had risen to about its current level, leaving the chain of small islands now known as the Florida Keys.  During the sea level rise, as water spilled over the continental shelf, it cut passes between the limestone structures, creating the individual islands of the Keys.  The larger masses in the Upper Keys were able to withstand a lot more flow without channeling and now are able to shield shallow, eastward reefs from the influx of water from the Florida Bay.  Ancient, highly fossilized limestone is preserved near the surface in these areas.  The Lower Keys were more diminutive, so more channeling occurred.  They do not offer such protection to the eastern/southern side, so developed shallow reefs are sparse there.  Miami limestone dominates the upper layers of rock in the south because large amounts of precipitated calcareous sediment have accumulated on top of the lower-lying Key Largo limestone as a result of the influx of warmer, more saline and nutrient rich waters from the Florida Bay.

Looking at a map of the Florida Keys, it is possible to see the difference between these areas visually.  The Upper Keys (north of Big Pine Key) are much longer on an east-west axis than their Lower Keys counterparts.  The Lower Keys have a longer north-south dimension to them, riddled with numerous passes from the Florida Bay to the Atlantic Ocean.

Figure from Halley and Shinn, 1997. (http://sofia.usgs.gov/publications/papers/keys_geohydro/). Note the dramatic differences in geology and structure between the upper and lower Keys.
Figure from Halley and Shinn, 1997. (http://sofia.usgs.gov/publications/papers/keys_geohydro/). Note the dramatic differences in geology and structure between the upper and lower Keys.
Photo Credit: NASA via http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/ocean/limestone.html.
Photo Credit: NASA via http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/ocean/limestone.html.

A thin layer of rich soil developed on the islands, allowing for vegetative growth.  The culmination of the events that created Windley Key provide for a very diverse assemblage of trees on the Island.  The park offers five different hiking trails to explore the habitat, highlighting over 40 species of native trees and plants in the tropical hardwood hammock forest.  Visitors are likely to see many birds, insects and small reptiles, but mammals are sparse  in this island forest community.

A typical view amongst the hardwood hammock forest.
A typical view amongst the hardwood hammock forest.
A laminated guidebook helps you navigate and identify species and points of interest through the use of numbered posts.
A laminated guidebook helps you navigate and identify species and points of interest through the use of numbered posts.

At the end of the trails, an education center helps to fill in where the trail guidebook leaves off.  Displays help to demonstrate the formation of coral reefs and island forest communities.  Information is presented on a level that appeals both to serious scientists and curious children.

Displays in the Education Center focus on coral reef formation and island forest communities.
Displays in the Education Center focus on coral reef formation and island forest communities.

Windley Key State Park is a must see for visitors in my opinion.  If you enjoy birds, reptiles, trees, plants, hiking or history…you won’t be disappointed.

Read dive logs from each day of the trip!

Dive Log – Saving Coral Reefs:



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This morning, we humanely euthanized our male, 20-year-old jaguar, Kan Balam. Due to the tremendous care provided to him by his keepers and our veterinary team, Kan Balam lived well beyond his expected lifespan. Jaguars expected lifespan in the wild is between 12-15 years.

The carnivore staff and veterinary team made the decision after his quality of life began to decline. Quality care and continuous advances in veterinary medicine extends animals’ lives longer than ever, with most felines in human care living well beyond previous generations. Because of this, all cats, including domestic house cats and jaguars, often spend a significant phase of their lives as older animals, and are at a higher risk for geriatric complications.

Read more about Kan B, and the love his keepers had for him on our blog: www.houstonzoo.org/blog/mourning-loss-geriatric-jaguar-kan-balam/
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This morning, we humanely euthanized our male, 20-year-old jaguar, Kan Balam.  Due to the tremendous care provided to him by his keepers and our veterinary team, Kan Balam lived well beyond his expected lifespan. Jaguars expected lifespan in the wild is between 12-15 years. 
 
The carnivore staff and veterinary team made the decision after his quality of life began to decline. Quality care and continuous advances in veterinary medicine extends animals’ lives longer than ever, with most felines in human care living well beyond previous generations. Because of this, all cats, including domestic house cats and jaguars, often spend a significant phase of their lives as older animals, and are at a higher risk for geriatric complications.

Read more about Kan B, and the love his keepers had for him on our blog: https://www.houstonzoo.org/blog/mourning-loss-geriatric-jaguar-kan-balam/

 

Comment on Facebook

Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur; happy kitty, sleepy kitty, purr purr purr #RIP #bigbangtheory

I know he lived a lot longer due to the excellent care he got at the Zoo.

Is this the one that had the limp?

This was my daughters favorite critter at the Zoo. We always went to say hello to him before anyone else whenever we went. When she was 7 years old we sent a post out to out neighborhood on Halloween saying Paisley was asking for pocket change donations in lieu of candy for Halloween and all amounts would be donated to Kan thru the zoo. She raised over $40 in coins! I still have the letter from the zoo thanking her for her donation. He was a sweet boy and will be missed. 😔

I saw him limping about 2 weekends ago. The first time we walked by he was fine. When we walked by on the way out he was limping and moaning pretty loudly. I wondered what happened but I figured his keeper already knew or would find out shortly. Super Sad. He was always a lively one.

Sorry to hear about your loss. We also lost a jaguar(melanistic variety) at Reid Park Zoo about a year ago. Nikita was 21 years old and was euthanized due to health-related issues. Sad, but they have a GOOD life at the zoo! No predators, a steady food supply, medical attention, loving kindness from her keeper(s) and admiration by the public. Geriatric animals have unique problems and we are blessed to get to know them as long as we do.

Jaguar habitat is in the Zoo or Jungle's? ??or is only entertainments for person's? ??$$$$$$$!.Sorry animals the person's don't love you ..

Sending love to the keepers that are broken hearted right now. And thank you for all the care you’ve given.

Thank you Houston Zoo for taking such good care of him and all the animals! I've been going to this zoo since I was little bitty. I always enjoy it.

Dunno if the Zoo staff considered him a pet but he was certainly a family member, and because of that i offer this: RainbowBridge Author Unknown Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge. When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart. Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together....

Aww. When interning in the carnivore dept he was one of my faves. So smart! Ashley remember when Angie was teaching him to do the moonwalk after Michael Jackson passed?

Beautiful jaguar ....so grateful for the Houston Zoo keepers and veterinary team that gave their time and efforts to share this awesome jaguar with us for so many years.

He was well-cared for and most of all well-loved. My heartfelt condolences to those missing Kan B as well as me. What an amazing ambassador for his kind. What a beautiful old gentleman. Thank you for loving him into old age and giving him peace.

What a great long life he lived because of his excellent care at the zoo Thoughts go out to his keepers and the entire Houston Zoo staff

Thank you for doing what was right and kind for Kan Balam even though it was hard and painful for you. That’s true love for an animal. ❤️

RIP Kan Balam. You have given the visitors so much pleasure just watching you over these years. You were taken care of by top notch professional handlers, etc.

I'm so sorry for your loss. Thanks for taking such great care of him so he was able to live a long life. My thoughts are with his keepers and all who adored him. <3

Aww I’m so sorry for the loss, I’ve seen him many times, he was absolutely gorgeous! I’m glad that you guys were able to make him comfortable, sometimes the best thing we can do is let them be at peace. Will miss this handsome guy; play hard at the Rainbow Bridge friend, day hi to my cat, Junior for me!! Much love to the HZI staff!!

Jaguars are one of my favorite and he seems like a sweet boy. I'm so sad but I'm happy he can be painless and be free now. RIP❤️

The Houston Zoo staff has lost several animals this year and I am sure each one is so hard to go through.

I am soo sorry for the loss of this handsome fella Kan Balam. May he rest in peace and run free or any pain over the rainbow bridge.. My heart and prayers go out to each and every one of the staff at the Zoo.

Katie Rose Buckley-Jones I won’t ever forget the time you asked him to bring something and he ripped off a piece of cardboard and tried to hand it to you ❤️ thank you for introducing me to him. Sending you guys many hugs

So sorry to the keeping staff for your loss i cant imagine how youre feeling :( his old age is a testimony to the amazing care he received

I will miss him. The last time I saw him he looked tired, and it appeared his foot was bothering him.

Sad to hear of this. Thanks for taking such good and compassionate care for him and the other animals.

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Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

Sea Lion Keeper: Sure... (sends picture next to sea lion statue)

SMG: I'm still using this.
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Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

Sea Lion Keeper: Sure... (sends picture next to sea lion statue)

SMG: Im still using this.

 

Comment on Facebook

Are there some zoo animals that enjoy this weather?

SMG is another reason why Houston Zoo is the best Zoo!

Happy New Year “sea lion keeper “ 💖💖

More snow for TJ and Max ❤️ lucky them!

Are we positive that’s the statue rather than it really just being that cold? 😛

That’s my best friend Sophie for ya! 😂

Brrrrr

Omg the Zoo is so awesome 😂😂😂 Alana Berry

Omg be warm sweetoe

Haha!! Good one!

Sweetie 💞

Ashley Jucker 😂

Lauren Gonzales

Mike DePope

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