American Alligator at Jean Lafitte National Park
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Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve

Introduction to Jean Lafitte Coquille Trail

GPS Coordinates: 29° 47’ 36.27” N 90° 7’ 18.13” W

Estimated reading time: 14 minutes

At 4pm Saturday afternoon, May 4, 2019, the temperature at the Jean Lafitte Coquille Trail was 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and mostly cloudy. Located just south of New Orleans, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve protects significant examples of the rich natural and cultural resources of Louisiana’s Mississippi River Delta region. The park, named after the pirate Jean Lafitte, also interprets the influence of environment and history on the development of the unique Cajun regional culture. The park consists of six physically separate sites and a park headquarters. During this visit, we focused on the Coquille Trail in the Barataria Unit, and often just referred to as JELA.

Nature Field Notes and Reflections refer to informative notes recorded by scientists, naturalists, or researchers in the course of field research, during or after their observation of a specific phenomenon they are interested in. The field notes are intended to be read as evidence that gives meaning and aids in the understanding of the subject. In addition, a reflection is a short essay in which you carefully consider your experiences and observations by writing about them in an organized manner.

Information about the Bayou Coquille Trail

Length: 0.5 miles (0.8 km) one way. Boardwalk and packed gravel. Wheelchair and stroller accessible.

Access: Bayou Coquille Trail Parking Area. Highlights: giant live oaks, Bayou Coquille, Native American shell mound, the “Monarch of the Swamp” (600-year-old bald cypress tree), seasonal wildflowers, cell phone tour, trail side signs with information on history and nature.

Jean Lafitte National Park Topics for Discussion

Evidence of Louisiana’s Indigenous Peoples Past

Nearly 2,500 years ago, Chitimacha, Houma, and other Native American tribes populated the Mississippi Delta. These peoples had broad-based economies, permanent settlements, and seasonal camps that utilized the full range of environments and resources of the diverse and fertile region. Visitors can find evidence of their ways of life throughout the Jean Lafitte Historical Park and Preserve.

For example, in the Barataria Preserve the “Bayou Coquille Trail” starts at the site of a prehistoric Indian village and continues for 0.5 miles through undisturbed wilderness. After that French settlers, who obtained the area through land grants in 1726, named the bayou for the mound of clam shells (coquilles) visible here.

Later, hundreds of immigrants from Spain’s Canary Islands settled in the Indian village. Middens, mounds, and shell beaches that date to the early period of tribal habitation are still evident throughout the Barataria Preserve. The middens contain remnant piles of ancient meals such as discarded shells and bones. Burial mounds and foundation mounds (used to elevate housing structures above flood level) are also interpreted features of sites.

Midden sign at Jean Historical Lafitte Park

Being in the park as day turns to night was amazing. For instance, I was immediately struck by the fact that there were two large tree species that look very similar, yet different:

  1. CYPRESSTaxodium distichum
  2. WATER TUPELO-GUMNyssa aquatica

1. Cypress – Taxodium distichum

Thread = Resource partitioning

Taxodium distichum (bald cypress) is a deciduous conifer in the family Cupressaceae. It is native to the southeastern United States. Hardy and tough, this tree adapts to a wide range of soil types, whether wet, dry, or swampy. It is noted for the russet-red fall color of its lacy needles. Therefore, this plant has some cultivated varieties and is often used in groupings in public spaces. Similarly, common names include bald cypress, baldcypress, swamp cypress, white cypress, tidewater red cypress, gulf cypress and red cypress.

2. Water Tupelo-gum – Nyssa aquatica

Thread = Resource partitioning

Nyssa aquatica, commonly called the water tupelo, cotton gum, wild olive, large tupelo, sour gum, tupelo-gum, or water-gum is a large, long-lived tree in the tupelo genus (Nyssa) that grows in swamps and floodplains in the Southeastern United States. In addition, Nyssa aquatica trunks have a swollen base that tapers up to a long, clear bole, and its root system is periodically under water. Similarly, water tupelo trees often occurs low, wet flats and in deep swamps.

Side by side – Cypress and Tupelo:

Weird attractions and fascinations at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park

Thread = Indicator, keystone, flagship, foundation species & apex predators

Some may say that my attraction and fascination to the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) is weird… even a little baffling. I kayak in the bayous in southeastern Louisiana and frequently encounter alligators. The saying goes: “they are more afraid of you than you are of them…” well, I’m not so sure that is completely true. However, I’ve never (knowingly) been within 10 feet of an alligator in the wild. However, they take off quickly, and I’m OK with that! Growing up in South Africa, we grew up with a healthy respect (fear) of crocodiles. It may just be an old wives tale, but as kids were told that we don’t have to be afraid of the crocodiles where a river flows into the ocean… the sharks will keep them away! Needless to say, we never swam anywhere close to the mouth of a river…

Once again, even though these two species that are very similar, yet they are different:

  1. AMERICAN ALLIGATOR Alligator mississippiensis
  2. CROCODILES – subfamily Crocodylinae

1. American alligator – Alligator mississippiensis

Thread = Apex predators

Adult male American alligators measure 11 to 15 ft (3.4 to 4.6 m) in length and can weigh up to 999 lb. (453 kg). Females are smaller, measuring 8.5 to 10 ft (2.6 to 3.0 m) in length. The American alligator inhabits freshwater wetlands, such as marshes and cypress swamps from Texas to southeastern and coastal Virginia.

American alligators are apex predators and consume fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Therefore, hatchlings feed mostly on invertebrates. They play an important role as ecosystem engineers in wetland ecosystems through the creation of alligator holes, which provide both wet and dry habitats for other organisms.

Throughout the year, in particular during the breeding season, American alligators bellow to declare territory and locate suitable mates. Male American alligators use infrasound to attract females. Eggs are laid in a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot in or near the water. In addition, young are born with yellow bands around their bodies and are protected by their mother for up to one year.

American alligator

2. Crocodiles – subfamily Crocodylinae

Thread = Apex predators

Crocodiles are large semi aquatic reptiles that live throughout the tropics in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia. Crocodylinae, all of whose members are considered true crocodiles, is classified as a biological subfamily. The most obvious external differences between alligators and crocodiles are visible in the head, with crocodiles having narrower and longer heads, with a more V-shaped than a U-shaped snout compared to alligators and caimans. Another obvious trait is that the upper and lower jaws of the crocodiles are the same width, and the teeth in the lower jaw fall along the edge or outside the upper jaw when the mouth is closed; therefore, all teeth are visible, unlike an alligator, which possesses in the upper jaw small depressions into which the lower teeth fit.

Crocodile snout with large teeth Apex predator

Finally, when the crocodile’s mouth is closed, the large fourth tooth in the lower jaw fits into a constriction in the upper jaw.

Crocodile

More Night critters from the Jean Lafitte Coquille Trail at Jean Lafitte National Park

Arachnids

Spiders, scorpions, and tick are arachnids. Arachnids have only two parts: a cephalothorax, which is the head and thorax region stuck together, and an abdomen. They also have four pairs of legs. In conclusion, this guy was spotted on the boardwalk handrail: Tiger wolf spider, Tigerosa georgicola

Large Tiger wolf spider closeup
Tiger wolf spider
Tigerosa georgicola

Amphibians

Thread: Flagship species

Amphibians are small vertebrates that need water, or a moist environment, to survive. The species in this group include frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts. All can breathe and absorb water through their very thin skin. Amphibians also have special skin glands that produce useful proteins. Some transport water, oxygen, and carbon dioxide either into or out of the animal. Similarly, others fight bacteria or fungal infections. And at least one—in each species—is used for defense.

Dr. Bob Thomas holding a Cricket frog, Acris blanchardi (native to Louisiana). Notice the webbing on longest toe extends to last phalanx (bone of the finger or toe).

Hand holding a Cricket frog displaying webbing between toes
Cricket frog
Acris blanchardi

Crustaceans

Thread = Foundation species

Crustaceans live in water and vary greatly in size. Most crustaceans have antennae, chewing appendages, and five pairs of legs. Therefore, crustaceans include crabs, lobster, water fleas, shrimp, barnacles and crawfish. Crawfish, also known as crayfish, crawdads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies are freshwater crustaceans resembling small lobsters (to which they are related). In other words, taxonomically, they are members of the superfamilies Astacoidea and Parastacoidea (Native). In addition, they breathe through feather-like gills. (And, they are delicious!)

Crawfish - Crustaceans in shallow water at Jean Lafitte National Park
Crawfish

Technology you can use at Jean Lafitte National Park

Avoid the confusion and take control of nature – scan and identify with the iNaturalist Seek App.

iNaturalist Seek App Logo

Take your nature knowledge up a notch with the iNaturalist Seek App! Use the power of image recognition technology to identify the plants and animals all around you. For instance, earn badges for seeing different types of birds, amphibians, plants, and fungi and participate in monthly observation challenges with Our Planet on Netflix.

  • Get outside and point the Seek Camera at living things
  • Identify wildlife and plants you see and take pictures to earn badges
  • Therefore, learn fun facts about the organisms all around you

Open Your Camera and Start Seeking at Jean Lafitte National Park!

Found a mushroom, flower, or bug, and not sure what it is? Open up the Seek camera to see if it knows! Above all, the app is drawing from millions of wildlife observations on iNaturalist, Seek shows you lists of commonly recorded insects, birds, plants, amphibians, and more in your area. Scan the environment with the Seek Camera to identify organisms using the tree of life. For instance, add different species to your observations and learn all about them in the process! Finally, the more observations you make, the more badges you’ll earn!



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