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Naturalists to survey species in 2-day blitz

The Florida experts will roam the 5,800-acre Sugarmill Woods tract in the spring to identify the plants and animals there.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 31, 2001


The Florida experts will roam the 5,800-acre Sugarmill Woods tract in the spring to identify the plants and animals there.

BROOKSVILLE -- Sometime this spring, in tents in the pine forests once owned by Sugarmill Woods, the state's best zoologists, botanists and entomologists will gather for a two-day "bioblitz."

"What I'll try to do is get all the brain power from all over Florida to go crazy and identify everything on the property," said Vince Morris of the state Division of Forestry.

The division office in Brooksville has $35,000 available to conduct a survey of the 5,800-acre Sugarmill Woods tract that straddles the Hernando-Citrus county line.

This tract, which the state bought in 1998 for $15-million, has long been recognized as the centerpiece of the Annutteliga Hammock preservation area, which could eventually cover 20,000 acres.

It helps serve as a bridge between the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest to the east and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding state-owned land to the west.

Its sandy soil allows water to quickly seep into the aquifer, so it is crucial to the health of the coastal springs to the west: Weeki Wachee, Chassahowitzka and Homosassa. It supports a huge array of wildlife, from indigo snakes to fox squirrels.

Some elements of the survey, which is designed to give the state an even better picture of the land's environmental value, will begin almost immediately, Morris said.

He and workers from the Florida Natural Areas Inventory will begin tracking species in the tract after the beginning of the new year. They will try to estimate the populations of species considered especially important to this type of habitat: the high, pine-covered land known as sand hill community.

"We'll try to get a census of certain species: the bachman's sparrow, longleaf pines and probably gopher tortoises too," Morris said.

In most cases, though, scientists will simply verify that species are on the property. That is the purpose of the bioblitz, Morris said, getting large numbers of qualified naturalists to roam the property to identify plants and animals.

"We're trying to get 1,000 species," Morris said.

He has invited scientists from the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and Florida State University. He will not be able to pay them, he said. The draw will be the company of other scientists and a chance to view the Sugarmill Woods property.

It is considered an outstanding example of sand hill community, Morris said. It is also interesting to scientists because it is part of the Brooksville Ridge.

The ridge, a spine of relatively high land that extends nearly from Homosassa to Dade City, remained exposed during periods when sea covered most of Florida.

"We now think it is a couple of million years old, or maybe older," said Mark Deyrup, an entomologist and the author of Florida's Fabulous Insects, who has studied insects on the ridge.

It was isolated long enough that it developed some of its own plant and animal species.

Deyrup has identified two insects, a grasshopper and a form of mole cricket, that are unique to the Brooksville Ridge.

A more complete survey, he said, would probably reveal more species.

"The Brooksville Ridge, though it's very big, hasn't been studied very thoroughly," Deyrup said.

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