Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2005

An Island Wilderness


Seahorse Key Provides Pristine Research Area

The island of Seahorse Key, Florida has been home to an interesting mix of inhabitants over the years, from Seminole prisoners to Civil War soldiers. But in recent times, it has gone to the birds...and the snakes and the horseshoe crabs. Located off the shore of Cedar Key, about a 20-minute boat ride from the town’s popular oceanfront boardwalk, the serene island paradise is uninhabited by humans, with the exception of researchers and educators using the University of Florida Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory.

“It is a magical place,” says Zoology Professor Jane Brockmann, who has been studying the island’s horseshoe crab populations since 1989. “One of the things that makes the lab useful is, since the island is a wildlife refuge, we can study the behavior of a species and know that it has not been disturbed.”

Part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, Seahorse Key serves as a safe haven for more than 100 different species of birds. A long-term agreement between UF and the US Fish and Wildlife Service allows the university to conduct programs associated with its 50-year-old marine lab on the island. In exchange, UF helps preserve the island and maintain its historic lighthouse, which celebrated its 150th anniversary in August 2004.

Built in 1854, the Seahorse Key Lighthouse was constructed on the highest Pleistocene dune in the Gulf. It is now under the care of the UF zoology department and serves as living quarters for researchers utilizing the Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory.
Built in 1854, the Seahorse Key Lighthouse was constructed on the highest Pleistocene dune in the Gulf. It is now under the care of the UF zoology department and serves as living quarters for researchers utilizing the Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory.

“People can come out here and study raw nature—from the marine sciences to coastal and estuarine ecology,” says Harvey Lillywhite, a zoology professor and director of the Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory since 1998.

With the approval of Lillywhite and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, researchers from across campus and other institutions worldwide come to study wildlife on the key and in its surrounding waters. In addition to the island’s bird population, scientists have access to hundreds of species of organisms, including snakes, numerous fishes and marine invertebrates, and terrestrial and marine plants.

According to the Cedar Key Historical Society, the Seahorse Key Lighthouse was built in 1854 and was based on a unique design by Lieutenant George Meade, who later became a famed American Civil War general, leading the Union Army in the Battle of Gettysburg. The island of Seahorse Key had already been established as an American military reservation in 1841 and was used to detain Seminole prisoners after the Second Florida/Seminole War. During the Civil War northern troops captured the island and used it as a cantonment where confederate soldiers were imprisoned.

The facilities at the Seahorse Key laboratory are used by numerous departments at UF, including zoology, botany, environmental and coastal engineering, veterinary medicine, environmental chemistry, mathematics and entomology. Though the lab is administered by the Department of Zoology, any legitimate educator or researcher can use the site and its facilities. Numerous outreach and environmental education agencies and organizations also bring groups to visit Seahorse Key, including the Audubon Society, Florida Museum of National History, area schools and teacher-training institutes. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts groups also occasionally tour the island.

“The influence on young people is very important,” says Lillywhite. “So many students, when they are young, go to a field station for the first time and they always remember it. The experience helps them to make career decisions, encourages stewardship, and is something they carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

If you would like to visit Seahorse Key, an open lighthouse event is held each year in October, usually coinciding with the Annual Cedar Key Seafood Festival. For more information on the open house or to schedule a research or educational visit, contact Harvey Lillywhite at hbl@zoo.ufl.edu or (352) 392-1101.

--Buffy Lockette


Photo:
Jane Dominguez

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