Florida is often the subject of strange and surprising news headlines, and for good reason. The Sunshine State is full of ecological anomalies and cultural fusions, and it carries a richer history than non-Floridians may realize. Here are a few interesting tidbits.
1. GIANT AFRICAN LAND SNAILS
With its warm climate and abundant yearly rainfall, Florida is a perfect host for a wide range of flora and fauna. Sometimes, however, nonnative species take up residence and wreak unexpected havoc. The Giant African Land Snail is one of the state’s more recent biohazards. The gastropod can grow to be eight inches long and eats a variety of problematic foodstuffs: agricultural crops, plaster, and even stucco, making it a threat to homeowners. The snails are also reported to carry a parasite that can cause meningitis in humans. The lesson here: If your backyard is subtropical, you probably shouldn’t let those aquarium pets go free.
2. THE PYTHON CHALLENGE
Giant African Land Snails aren’t the only unwelcome addition to Florida’s ecosystem. The state deals with a variety of creatures that find its lush greenery and scenic views as alluring as do its constant stream of tourists. One of the more frightening new arrivals spawned a unique cultural phenomenon: the Python Challenge.
The Burmese Python has adapted to life in the Everglades a little too successfully. The giant snakes have a voracious appetite, are well camouflaged for the area, and lack any natural predators—except, of course, for humans.
So the Wildlife Foundation of Florida issued a challenge: For thirty days, bag as many pythons as you can. Cash prizes would be awarded to whomever bagged the longest snakes and the highest number of them. The event was a hunter’s dream. However, despite drawing 1500 participants, the month-long event produced a modest catch of 50 snakes. As it turns out, the snakes’ ideal camouflage made the Python Challenge quite challenging indeed.
3. SUDDEN SINKHOLES
In addition to hosting potentially frightening wildlife, Florida is also home to other startling hazards. The state’s land is largely composed of layers of sand supported by a foundation of either porous limestone or dolomite. This combination forms a complex network of caves and springs that provide beautiful natural attractions but that can also create sudden sinkholes. Though it’s difficult to quantify exactly how common sinkholes are, between 2006 and 2010, Florida insurance companies received an average of 17 claims a day reporting sinkhole damage throughout the state.
4. THE SPANISH ERA
Many of you may remember studying Spanish conquistadors and explorers in American history classes, but you may or may not have been told how long the Spanish remained in Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon landed in Florida in 1513, christening the land for its lush flowers and kicking off the first Spanish period. Though the French also established settlements along the Gulf Coast, they weren’t able to take hold in Florida and fared more successfully in areas farther west. Spanish control in Florida lasted until 1763, when Spain ceded the territory to Great Britain.
Spain regained Florida at the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783 and kept a provisional government in place until 1819, meaning that Florida belonged to Spain for a grand total of 280 years—longer than the United States has been an independent nation.
5. THE POLITICS
Florida’s reputation as a crucial swing state is well established. The state’s 27 electoral votes have helped sway 12 out of the past 14 elections. While its importance in the national arena is understood, Florida’s party leanings can be difficult to predict (as spoofed in 30 Rock’s “Unwindulax” episode, which appeared in conjunction with the 2012 presidential election and targets the unpredictability of North Florida).
Politics on a state and local level can be equally unpredictable. Consequently, when a group of faux-Satanists rallied on the Capitol steps in Tallahassee in support of current governor Rick Scott’s passage of a new bill allowing public schools to read inspirational messages of various faiths at school events, it took the press a full 24 hours to realize the stunt wasn’t real. After all, stranger things have happened in Florida—right?
6. “FLORIDA MAN”
Strange news stories are so common in Florida that they’ve spawned a Twitter spoof. The Florida Man Twitter account compiles bizarre headlines as if a single person, “the world’s worst superhero,” enacted them. With almost 400 tweets in only four months, it’s easy to see how the page has attracted over 100,000 followers.
7. THE OLDEST (EUROPEAN) CITY IN THE UNITED STATES
St. Augustine was established by the Spanish in 1565, a full 42 years before the English established Jamestown and 55 before Plymouth Rock. This distinction makes St. Augustine the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States.
8. THE LOYAL COLONY
Though Spain controlled Florida for most of its colonial history, Great Britain occupied the area during the years immediately preceding and during the American Revolutionary War. While Florida was a British colony during the war, it remained loyal to the crown (along with several British holdings in Canada and the Caribbean) and was a haven for loyalist supporters fleeing the rebellious thirteen colonies to the north.
9. THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
The same geological composition that lends itself to sinkholes creates abundant freshwater springs throughout the state. In fact, Florida has more springs than any other US state.
According to legend, Juan Ponce de Leon’s initial voyage to Florida came as a result of his search for the fabled Fountain of Youth. Today, plenty of Floridian springs claim to have hosted Ponce de Leon and tempt tourists by offering their restorative waters to sample—though any spring that truly reduces the effects of aging remains a well-kept secret.
10. THE CORAL CASTLE
In case the Fountain of Youth isn’t your thing, Florida offers other unusual attractions, like Homestead’s Coral Castle. Purportedly built by a single man, Ed Leedskalnin of Riga, Latvia, over 28 years, the castle features 1100 tons of coral rock sculptures—a feat that has been compared to the construction of Egypt’s ancient pyramids.
11. THE MULLET TOSS
Each April, thousands of beachgoers flock to the Florabama bar for the annual Mullet Toss. Participants toss a mullet (the fish, not the hairstyle) across the state line from Alabama to Florida, with prizes going to the longest throws. Only Alabama would institute a competition over chucking dead fish—but only Florida would agree to receive that toss.