Florida Keys Animals: A Traveler’s Guide

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Four dolphins raising their heads over the water for a treatOne of the things we love the most when traveling is catching a glimpse of the local wildlife. If you're the same and if - like us - you're planning a trip to the Florida Keys, then this post is for you.

The Florida Keys are a unique habitat like no other in the United States. The southernmost point in the country, the keys support a fascinating ecosystem, unique to these islands. While invasive species and general human intervention have taken their toll over the years, current conservation efforts abound, allowing visitors to experience this rich and unique collection of living inhabitants.

We've curated a list of the wild animals we expect to see when visiting the Keys and arranged everything in a fun FAQ format. The list is arranged by a sensible order of land animals, followed by the air and finally the ocean (after all, the area is a national marine sanctuary!). Let's get going!

Are there Alligators in the Florida Keys?

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 that common as they are elsewhere in the state. If you want to see them, it is recommended you visit the Everglades National Park.

Are there Crocodiles in the Florida Keys?

American crocodiles opening mouth

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 go 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.

The Key Deer

Florida Key Deer on the road with calf

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 Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit

Marsh rabbit of the Lower Keys

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 at the National Key Deer Refuge, as they have a small natural habitat which has been reduced by urban development.

The Florida Keys Tree Snails

Florida Tree snail

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.

Are There Bears in the Florida Keys?

Rare Florida black bears

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 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.

Are There Panthers in the Florida Keys?

North American cougar

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 an endangered and protected animal with carefully conserved habitats. Again, while in theory, they can reach the Keys, we found no indication of sightings there. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Keys are not considered 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.

What Kind of Snakes Are There in the Florida Keys?

Red Rat Snake hanging at tree

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.

What Kind of Spiders Are There in the Florida Keys?

Green crab snake raising its legs

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 widow and recluse spiders, including the Southern Black Widow (Latrodectus mactans).

The Southern Black Widow is the 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.

Are There Scorpions in the Florida Keys?

Guiana striped scorpion

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 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.

Are There Cockroaches or Other Large Insects in the Keys?

Ok, now that we've discussed alligators, bears, cougars, snakes, spiders and scorpions, it's time to address the scariest of all animals - at least to me personally. The cockroach. Taking a big breath here before sharing what I've learned with you.

Because the Florida Keys are tropical, there are giant flying cockroaches (called Palmetto bugs), which are natural pests everywhere. They can be found in the wild but also in your hotel room and are characterized by their hard, dark brown backs. Most grow to be between 1.2 and 1.6 in. in length, but residents have seen larger.

Cockroaches are considered a significant pest in the region and are not considered worth saving. Personally, this is one animal I do NOT want to encouter anywhere. Kill it with fire, I say. Or at least get someone from the hotel to get it out of your room.

Mosquitoes in the Florida Keys

Aggressive black salt marsh mosquito sucking blood

There are mosquitoes in Florida, and they can be found everywhere. The most common species is the Black Salt Marsh Mosquito (Aedes taeniorhynchus), an aggressive biter with a massive population. You don’t need to go searching for these pests: They will find you everywhere.

Because mosquitoes are considered a pest and nuisance, they are not preserved by wildlife habitats. You will want to pack some bug spray, as well as a few other essentials. At this point, there are no known cases of Zika in the Florida Keys, or anywhere in Florida, but with global warming being what it is, that could change any day. If you're traveling to the Florida Keys are are trying to concieve, or are already pregnant, please talk to your doctor before coming here. Here's a link to the CDC page about Zika, where you can get the most current updates.

Florida Keys Dolphins

Bottlenose dolphin jumping swimming with baby calf

The most frequently seen dolphin in the Florida Keys is the common or Atlantic bottlenose dolphin (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.

Florida Keys Sharks

Lemon shark swimming at ocean floor

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 a 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 a glassbottom boat tours if you prefer to keep dry.

Florida Keys Jellyfish

Amazing cannonball Jellyfish

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.

Sea Turtles in the Florida Keys

hawksbill turtle swimming near ocean floor

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 the 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.

Birds of the Florida Keys

Magnificent Frigatebird stopping by at tree

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:

  1. The American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
  2. Double-Crested Cormorant
  3. Anhinga
  4. Gannet
  5. Magnificent Frigatebird
  6. White and Brown Pelicans
  7. Common Loon
  8. Ibis
  9. Heron
  10. 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.

Where to see Flamingos in the Florida Keys?

Flock of American flamingos at shallow water

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.

Where to see Pelicans in the Florida Keys?

Flock of American white pelicans

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.

Keep looking for these Florida Keys Animals!

We're certainly going to be doing that! And hopefully, we'll return with some cool images of our own (the ones in this post are stock photos or embedded from social media). If you found this post helpful, please leave us a comment to let us know. You may also find these posts helpful when planning your Florida vacation -

66 Things To Do In The Florida Keys – From Key Largo To Key West

Our Florida Bucket List (11 items!)

What to pack for a trip to Florida

11 Best Day Trips around Miami, Florida

And if you can, please help us spread the word about these guides by sharing this post on social media, including by pinning these images in your Pinterest account - thank you!

Big lemon shark swimming near ocean floor

Famous everglades alligator resting at sand beneath shade

Compilation of animals found in Florida collaged

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