They have displaced American alligators as the Everglades' top predators and have been found responsible for putting a dent in the populations of raccoons, opossums and bobcats, according to The National Parks Traveler.
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Ninety-five false killer whales were stranded off the coast of Hog Key in Florida's Everglades National Park over the weekend.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wrote in a Facebook post this morning that 82 animals are now confirmed dead and 13 are unaccounted for. Earlier reports put the death toll at 81.
False killer whale stranding-area around scene in Everglades closed per the National Park Service-asking for no fly… https://t.co/LN8xAE5Xmx— NOAA Fish Southeast (@NOAA Fish Southeast)1484591654.0
Officials told the Miami Herald that this is the largest recorded stranding of such species in Florida.
False killer whales belong to the dolphin family and get their name due to their resemblance to orcas. Females reach lengths of 15 feet and males are almost 20 feet. Adult false killer whales can weigh approximately 1,500 pounds.
The U.S Coast Guard first spotted the stranding on Saturday near Hog Key, which is located in a dense network of islands off south west Florida.
According to the Palm Beach Post, a rescue team reached the false killer whales—which included adults, juveniles and calves—by Sunday but could not save the vast majority of them.
"Once on the scene, the response team attempted to herd the whales into deeper water, however, they were ultimately unsuccessful in that effort," NOAA's mammal stranding network Blair Mase explained to the publication.
Mase said that the false killer whales were beached and scattered along the shoreline in poor condition and "deeply embedded in the mangroves," making the effort to rescue them nearly impossible. Rescuers had to humanely euthanize nine of the animals. Seventy-two of the dolphins died on their own on Sunday.
95 false killer whales stranded off Hog Key, 81 dead, 1 seen alive, ~13 unaccounted for https://t.co/rrltA7iVB6— NOAA Fish Southeast (@NOAA Fish Southeast)1484591355.0
NOAA said that response teams are now working to assess the scene, but its remote location makes it challenging to gain access. The National Park Service is conducting aerial flyovers to help make it easier for the response teams to enter the area by boat.
It is currently unclear why the massive stranding occurred. In the coming months, biologists will conduct necropsies to determine what exactly happened, NOAA said.
Local marine biologist Stefanie Wolf told FOX 4 Now that one theory behind the stranding could be due to the pod getting lost and entangled in the area's thick maze of mangroves.
"Down in that area of Everglades National Park it's very shallow—very easily for even a human to get lost navigating through those waters," Wolf said, adding that the pod might not have been able to use their echolocation to find their way around.
As the FOX 4 reporter noted, while strandings are rare, when they do happen they usually happen in large groups because the dolphins are social animals.
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A team of explorers paddled into the serene waters of the Everglades Jan. 17 beginning the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1,000-mile journey that will take them from the River of Grass to the Okefenokee National Forest in South Georgia. For the next 100 days, photographer Carlton Ward Jr., biologist Joe Guthrie, conservationist Mallory Lykes Dimmitt and filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus will travel by foot, kayaks and bikes to raise awareness of a functional ecological corridor that spans the entire state of Florida. The Florida Wildlife Corridor aims to connect the natural lands and waters from Florida to southeast Georgia.
“Despite extensive fragmentation of the landscape in recent decades, a statewide network of connected natural areas is still possible,” said Ward. “The first step is raising awareness about the opportunity we have to connect natural and rural landscapes in order to protect all of the resources that sustain us, and wildlife.”
Before launching, the expedition team conducted a video interview with former Florida Gov. Bob Graham that was broadcast during the kickoff luncheon for the Everglades Water Supply Summit hosted in Tallahassee by the Everglades Foundation.
Throughout the expedition, the explorers will utilize technology to send daily updates on their trip—posting photographs, videos, radio reports, social media posts and blog entries (see online links below) to keep followers informed and engaged. Stoltzfus, an award-winning cinematographer, is documenting the journey to produce a film about the expedition and the Florida Wildlife Corridor for public television. It will result in a comprehensive and informative insider’s view into the remarkable ecosystems that make Florida one of the most diverse and beautiful natural areas in the country.
“Documenting this expedition is a tremendous opportunity to place a spotlight on Florida’s delicate and diverse landscape,” Stoltzfus said. “It is an opportunity to showcase the many natural resources that make up Florida beyond the state’s beautiful and well-known sandy beaches.”
The trek will include various means of travel from hiking to horseback riding. Along their journey, the team will host various activities for reporters, landowners, celebrities, conservationists, politicians and other guests. Their far-reaching expedition will take them through some of Florida’s most treasured natural lands.
The team will make stops in more than 50 locations, including—Everglades National Park, Big Cypress, Okaloacoochee Slough, Caloosahatchee River, Babcock Ranch, Seminole Tribal Lands, Lake Okeechobee, Kissimmee River, Lake Green Swamp, Disney Wilderness Preserve, Ocala National Forest, St. Johns River and many others.
To follow the expedition, view the calendar of activities, and download photos and additional media materials about the Florida Wildlife Corridor project, click here.
For more information, click here.