Do you crave the thrill of encountering exotic wildlife in their natural habitats?
Are you ready to explore an ecosystem that's unlike anything you've ever seen before? Then pack your bags and head to the Florida Keys, where adventure awaits!
Nestled at the southernmost tip of the United States, the Keys are a haven for nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts alike.
With a unique and diverse collection of creatures that call this place home, you'll be mesmerized by the sights, sounds, and smells of this tropical paradise.
From playful land animals to majestic birds and awe-inspiring marine life, we've curated a list of the wildest creatures you can expect to see during your visit.
So, get ready for a wild ride through the untamed side of the Florida Keys. With our guide, you'll be able to spot, identify, and appreciate the local wildlife like a pro!
Florida is famous for its alligators (there's even a Florida Gators football team!).
But can you find these prehistoric reptiles in the Keys too? The answer is yes, there are definitely alligators in the Florida Keys.
The type of alligator present in the swamps, ponds, rivers, and lakes of the Keys is the common American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).
People often confuse alligators with crocodiles, but there are both in the Florida Keys.
Alligators differ from crocodiles in that the snout is broader and more shaped like a “U.” The body is long, stocky, and powerful.
At their largest, an American alligator can be 15 ft. long and weigh around 1,000 lbs.
They can be seen in the Keys but are actually not as common as they are elsewhere in the state.
If you want to see them, it is recommended you visit the Everglades National Park.
Just as there are alligators, there are also crocodiles. These American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) can be up to 20 ft. long and weigh as much as 2,000 lbs.
They can be aggressive when confronted or disturbed by humans, so it is best to leave them alone whenever possible.
Like all crocodiles, the American crocodile is short and stocky with four muscular legs, a long body and tail, and an impressive snout full of sharp teeth.
It is best not to confront one in the wild. Crocodiles are not common in most of Florida. You can only view them in the most southern ends - and that's if you're lucky.
You could try going for crocodile and alligator spotting by taking a mangrove kayak tour while visiting the Keys, or you could try your luck by visiting the Flamingo areas in the Everglades National Park.
3. Key Deer
The Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium) is an endangered subspecies of the white-tailed deer.
It is the smallest American deer and can be seen easily swimming between islands to reach their targeted destinations.
Because these animals have spent so much time in close proximity to humans, they do not fear people as much as their cousins.
The petite Key deer varies in color from reddish-brown to gray and stands between 25 and 30 in. tall.
It commonly weighs between 55 and 75 lbs. depending on gender. You can easily see these chill mammals at the National Key Deer Refuge at Big Pine Key.
The species found in this region is the West Indian Manatee (Trichechus manatus), a gentle aquatic mammal that grazes in the warm, shallow waters of the Keys.
With a rounded, grayish-brown body that can reach lengths of up to 13 ft. and weights of 1,300 lbs., manatees are hard to miss when they surface for air.
Their large, paddle-like flippers and spoon-shaped tail distinguish them from other marine life. Despite their considerable size, they are known for their peaceful and slow-moving nature.
Manatees are herbivores and spend most of their time grazing on a wide variety of submerged and floating plants.
Although they are mainly solitary animals, they can be seen in small groups, especially during the colder months when they gather in warm water sources.
To spot manatees, your best bet would be to visit the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. While not in the Keys, it's a prime manatee location.
However, in the Keys, you can often see them in marinas, canals, and near the shoreline. Remember to maintain a respectful distance to avoid disturbing these beautiful creatures.
We were lucky enough to see a huge manatee gracefully swim right past us while standing on the 7 Mile Bridge viewpoint at the Keys!
Manatees, often affectionately referred to as "sea cows," are a delightful sight in the Florida Keys.
4. Marsh Rabbit
The Marsh rabbit of the Lower Keys (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri) is an endangered subspecies of marsh rabbits named after Hugh Hefner of all people.
These are small dark brown rabbits with gray or white fur on the stomach region. At their most, they weigh 3 lbs. and measure 15 in. in length.
The best place to see one is the National Key Deer Refuge, as they have a small natural habitat that has been reduced by urban development.
6. Tree Snails
The primary tree snail in the Florida Keys is the Liguus Tree Snail (Liguus fasciatus).
It comes in numerous colors ranging from black to white with elaborately whorled shells with long, rounded tips.
The snails themselves could be described as yellow-brown.
The Island tree snail can be found throughout the Florida Keys in tropical environments on smooth-barked trees.
There are tons of snakes of all shapes, sizes, and colors in the Florida Keys. Most can be discovered in the wild, but the most popular include the:
- Red Rat Snake
- Black Racer
- Indigo Snake
- Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake
- Rim Rock Crowned Snake
- Key Ringneck Snake
Some of these species are venomous, and all are good at camouflage, so if you do spot one in the wild, consider yourself lucky and keep your distance.
Use your phone or camera's zoom options instead of getting closer.
And please don't harm snakes - they are not out to hurt you and as long as you don't bother them, they won't bother you.
There are numerous spiders in the Florida Keys, both benign and venomous.
You can find numerous varieties belonging to the jumping, crab, wolf, orb weaver, and spitting families.
Most are not harmful to humans, but the Florida Keys is also home to the widow and recluse spiders, including the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).
The Southern Black Widow is a scary black spider with a red hourglass shape on its abdomen. Most are less than 0.5 in. long and can be found in the wild.
They prefer areas with lower levels of activity, including undisturbed forest settings, underneath logs, and even under houses.
There are two types of scorpions in the Florida Keys, but none of them sting hard enough to be fatal to humans.
The types include the bark scorpion and the Guiana striped scorpion. Both prefer hotter, dryer climates but tend to invade their homes.
Scorpions are distinguished by their small bodies, front claws, and long tails with stingers.
These Florida Key pests range in color from yellow to dark brown and are between 1 and 3 in. in length.
While the scorpions in the Florida Keys are not lethal, they possess an intense sting that will hurt anyone who is caught.
The Florida Keys are also home to a creature you might not expect to see in the United States: the Green Iguana (Iguana iguana).
Originally from Central and South America, these large lizards have established themselves in the Florida Keys due to the region's warm climate and lack of natural predators.
These reptiles can grow quite large, with adults often reaching lengths of up to 6 ft., including their long, whip-like tails. Their bodies are a vibrant mix of green shades, though some can appear bluish or almost orange.
Iguanas have a row of spines along their backs and tails, and a saggy skin underneath their throats known as a "dewlap". They are mostly herbivores, feasting on a diet of leaves, flowers, and fruit, but they have been known to eat eggs and small animals too.
While they are not native to Florida, and are considered invasive, Iguanas are a common sight in the Keys, often seen sunbathing on tree branches, sidewalks, or even by the pool.
Despite their prehistoric look, Green Iguanas are generally not a threat to humans, but they can damage landscapes and infrastructure with their burrowing habits.
For a chance to spot these interesting reptiles, consider taking a walk in local parks, along canal banks, or near golf courses. We saw multiple iguanas while visiting Key West, including this large one -
The Atlantic bottlenose dolphin is the most frequently seen in the Florida Keys (Tursiops truncates).
These are gray mammals that measure between 6 and 13 ft. long and are known for their long, narrow snouts.
While dolphins can sometimes be seen from the beaches, the easiest to get up close is by signing up for an encounter or excursion.
Some popular choices include Dolphins Plus Bayside and the Florida Keys Swim with Dolphins Tours.
Because of their playful nature, dolphins are a popular tourist attraction in the Florida Keys but are also studied and kept safe at locations like the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, FL.
Sharks are common in the ocean which surrounds Key West.
There are several species known in the area, including the Nurse, Mako, Lemon, Blacktip, Bull, Hammerhead, Spinner, Tiger, and Great White.
All of these sharks have distinctive gray skin with white underbellies, dorsal fins, and large mouths filled with rows of sharp teeth.
Don't worry, though. Sharks are generally smaller and seeing a large one in the Keys isn't common.
Also, even the big ones rarely attack human beings - apparently, we're not that tasty.
According to the Key West Aquarium, there has only been one shark attack recorded since 1800, and even that was not fatal.
Sometimes sharks can be spotted in the Atlantic reefs near the beaches of the Florida Keys.
If you want to see one, the best way is to visit the local aquarium (Florida Keys Aquarium) or hire a charter cruise from a company like SeaSquared Charters.
Snorkeling anywhere in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park can also bring you closer to these beautiful fish - if you're lucky.
They also have glass-bottom boat tours if you prefer to keep dry.
Several types of jellyfish can be found in the Florida Keys.
The most common are the Cassiopeas (Cassiopea fronosa or Cassiopea xamachana), which have upward-facing tentacles, a yellowish hue, and a mild sting.
Another type of jellyfish is the cannonball jelly (Stromolophus melegris). It is, naturally, cannonball shaped with small tentacles, a wide top, and a pinkish hue.
They can sting, but many people don’t feel it. In the springtime, you might see the sea thimble (Linuche unguiculata).
Come winter, and you will encounter the translucent moon jelly (Aurelia aurita).
All of these species live in the ocean and can be found near the beaches, depending on the time of year.
If you don’t want to encounter one in the wild, you can view them at the Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters or at the Key West Aquarium.
14. Sea Turtles
There are four species native to the region: green, loggerhead sea turtle, hawksbill, and Kemp's Ridley.
All of the subspecies belong to the broader species of sea turtles, which are unique reptiles with soft bodies mostly hidden by hard shells.
Their long flippers allow them to traverse water with ease but make them slow on land.
Individuals interested in sea turtles can see them on Florida beaches during the mating season, but it is simpler to visit them at state parks and aquariums.
The Turtle Hospital in Marathon also cares for sick and injured sea turtles, which you can see up close.
If you want a genuine encounter, try Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters.
If you are a birdwatching enthusiast, then a trip to the Florida Keys manages to be both fun and educational.
There are numerous significant species to discover, including these top ten:
- The American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
- Double-Crested Cormorant
- Magnificent Frigatebird
- White and Brown Pelicans
- Common Loon
- The Common, Snowy and Cattle Egret
Many of these tropical and subtropical birds stand out because of their long legs, exotic colors, unique cries, and the tendency to sunbathe.
Most survive by eating fish from the local fresh and saltwater and can be found in nature as well as animal conservatories.
The Florida Keys Wild Bird Center just south of Key Largo, comes highly recommended.
The American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is a large bird known for its brilliant pink feathers and curved white beaks with black tips.
Their feathers can range from light pink to deep red. They are wading birds that are between 47 and 57 in. tall with a life expectancy of almost 40 years.
If you would like to meet a flamingo up close, visit the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.
Rhett and Scarlet walk free in their enclosure and will come up to meet people who seem interesting.
Flamingos, in general, are wary of humans and do not want to be approached in the wild. Attempting to get too close will cause them to fly or swim away.
If you want to see the American white or brown pelican in the Florida Keys, they can be found at almost every ocean beach or state park.
Injured or sick animals are cared for at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center in Tavernier.
Pelicans are opportunistic birds with short white or brown feathers. They have an average wingspan of 7 ft. and large beaks capable of holding 2.5 gallons of water.
They will dive down to the surface of the water to catch fish but have been known to become trapped in fisheries and manufacturing centers while looking for food.
Rare Animals You Can See In Florida Keys
The Keys are also home to some of the rarest animals in the world, making it a truly unique destination for nature lovers.
In addition to the animals we've already explored, there are a few more fascinating creatures you might encounter during your visit and these are:
Known to some as the Florida panther, the largest feline in Florida is actually the North American cougar (Puma concolor cougar).
These wild cats are rare in the wild and have tan coats, long tails, and blue or yellow-green eyes.
They weigh anywhere from 65 to 160 lbs. and tend to be between 6 and 7 ft. long. Most are only 24 to 36 inches tall at the shoulders.
Florida panthers are endangered and protected animals with carefully conserved habitats.
Again, while in theory, they can reach the Keys, we found no indication of sightings there.
According to the FWC, the Keys are not considered a panther habitat.
If you want to get a chance of sighting one of these panthers, you need to try the areas around Orlando.
The big cats have been documented at Fakahatchee Strand, the Bear Island Unit of Big Cypress National Preserve, the Raccoon Point area of the Big Cypress National Preserve, and the eastern region of Everglades National Park.
You will be even luckier to see a puma than you will a bear though.
As a point of reference, we managed to see around 150 bears in the wild, but have never as much as glimpsed a cougar.
The primary bear in Florida is the Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus).
This subspecies has a large body with shiny black fur, a stubby tail, and brown fur around the muzzle.
The adults can be between 4 and 6 ft. and have non-retractable claws on each paw.
In theory, some bears do live in the wetlands and upland hardwood forests of the Keys.
However, they are classified by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) as "rare" in this area.
If you would like to see one, check out Ocala National Forest, Big Cypress National Preserve, Apalachicola National Forest, Osceola National Forest, or the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge.
And even then, sightings are few and far between, so consider yourself lucky if you catch a glimpse of a bruin.
Keep Looking For These Florida Keys Animals!
As you bid farewell to this captivating exploration of the Florida Keys, remember that the wonders we've unveiled are just the tip of the iceberg.
Soak in the sunshine, embrace the sea breeze, and keep your eyes peeled for the countless other incredible creatures that call this enchanting archipelago home.
And may these encounters bring a smile to your face and remind you of the infinite beauty and joy that nature has to offer.
Until we meet again amidst the splendor of the Florida Keys, continue seeking those moments that ignite your spirit of exploration.
Embrace the wild, cherish the extraordinary, and let this tropical paradise forever inspire your sense of wonder.
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