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Florida Habitats & Ecosystems

On this Page - Freshwater Marshes, Salt Marsh, Wet Prairie,
Hardwood Swamp, Cypress Swamp, Mangrove Swamp,
Bay Swamp, Hammocks, Dry Prairie, Pine Flatwoods,
Pine Rocklands, Scrub, Sandhill, Coastal Strand, Coastal Scrub

By definition a habitat is simply the place that a plant or animal inhabits, the habitat provides everything that the organism needs to survive and reproduce. Habitat classifications often reflect the dominate plant specie or present, i.e. Sawgrass marsh, Cypress swamp.

Originally covering about 60 percent of Florida's landmass, wetlands have been reduced by drainage and development to less than half of that - this affects not only plants and animals, it also severely diminishes the human populations water supply, as those wetlands (i.e. swamps, marshes, ponds, lakes and river floodplains) hold, filter and slowly release huge amounts of rainwater into the aquifers that are Florida's only water source.

An ecosystem is an interacting and interdependent community made up of both living and non-living parts. Ecosystems include the air, water, soil, and sunlight as well as all the biological (living) organisms present, from the simplest amoeba to the plants and more complex animals that are all a dynamic part of the system. There are no size limitation for ecosystems, the entire earth can be considered as a one ecosystem.

Florida has 81 separate and distinct plant and animal communities that exist within its various ecosystems. (Source - Florida Natural Areas Inventory FNAI.org)

Wetland Habitats

Wetlands are defined as areas that are inundated or have saturated soils for long enough periods of time to support plants which have adapted to these conditions and are able to grow and reproduce in flooded conditions and/or saturated soils.

For a complete technical description of the rules for identifying and delineating wetlands as set forth by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, click here. (P.D.F. format)

Wetlands form in low lying areas such as depressions or sloughs where the groundwater level is at or above the surface of the surrounding landscape, or where there is an underlying strata of "hardpan" which slows drainage.The length of time that these wetland habitat remain flooded is referred to as the hydroperiod.

Hydroperiods vary in length and may be as brief as a couple of weeks or as long as a year or more. Some wetlands never dry out completely while others dry out only every few years, or during periods of extreme drought.

Healthy wetlands support an amazing array of birds, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles & fish, as well as a wide range of plant life.

Florida's aquatic freshwater and marine life, including many commercial and sport fishes depend on these marshes and swamps for feeding grounds, nurseries for their young and/or breeding areas. Florida's wetlands also provide outstanding recreational opportunities for boating, fishing, photography and bird watching.

Click any image for a larger version

Freshwater Marsh

Freshwater Marshes store huge amounts of fresh water from the rainy season rainfall and runoff, slowly filtering it through the vegetation allowing suspended particles to settle out while the plants absorb excess nutrients.

Types of freshwater marshes include Wet Prairies, Depression and Basin marshes, Floodplain marshes & Bogs.

Common plants include emergent & floating leafed species such as Cattail, Sawgrass, Pickerelweed, Rushes, Sedges, American Lotus, American White Water lily.

The pictures above show from left to right the stark contrast of a depression marsh from wet season to the dry season. Left is the wet season and a flooded marsh, center photo is the same area dry, the picture at the right shows Herons, Egrets and Ibis taking advantage of the receding water to feed on small fish and aquatic invertebrates as they become concentrated in progressively smaller areas.

Wet Prairie

A "Wet Prairie" is a seasonally flooded, shallow freshwater marsh found in depressions, sloughs, finger glades & on the floodplains or margins of lakes, streams and rivers.

Some of the plants common to Wet Prairies include St. John's Wort, Sedges, Muhly grass, Sawgrass, Groundsel bush, Wax Myrtle, Sundew, Meadowbeauty, Marshpinks, & Coreopsis spp.

Wet prairie during the dry season Wet Prarie during the wet season

Left - Wet Prairie in the dry season
Right - Same area in the wet season

Cypress Swamp, Cypress Strand & Cypress Dome

Found on the floodplains of freshwater rivers, lakes and seasonally flooded woodland depressions/sloughs. Dominated by Bald Cypress or Pond Cypress sometimes with a mix of other hardwood trees. The length of time that Cypress stays flooded determines what understory plants are present. There may be aquatic, emergent and herbaceous plant species present. A Cypress Dome is named for it's shape with the older, taller trees in the center and smaller, younger trees on the perimeter. Strands usually follow a slough resulting in the strand shape, which is longer than it is wide. The margins of Cypress strands & domes usually support a higher number of plant species than the interior & often transition into a Wet Prairie or Wet Flatwoods habitat.

Pictures - (L) Cypress Dome on a Wet prairie, (C) Interior of a Cypress dome during the dry season, (R) Cypress Swamp on the floodplain of a freshwater river.

Mangrove Forests & Swamps

Found worldwide from approximately 25 to 28 degrees north and south latitudes, Mangroves forests are comprised of 70 or so species which have adapted to life on the protected shorelines of marine estuaries and bays.

Red, Black, and White Mangroves are the three species of Mangrove that grow in Florida. Plants associated with Mangroves include Buttonwood, Saltwort, Glasswort, Christmas berry, Sea-blite & Saltmarsh cordgrass.

In Florida, mangroves grow south of the frost line with the highest concentrations of trees found further south. The Ten-thousand Islands on the S.W. Florida coast is made up of hundreds of Mangrove islets and is a popular destination for fishermen and birdwatchers alike.

Mangroves are a critical habitat and feeding ground for over 120 animal species. The Peregrine Falcon, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Pelican and several varieties of Herons use mangroves for hunting, nesting or roosting.

Blue claw, Fiddler and Mangrove crabs, shrimps, corals, sponges, oysters, seahorses and a host of other marine invertebrates also call the mangroves home.

Photo of the border of a Mangrove swamp. Image - Red Mangrove trees Red Mangrove roots

Pictures - (L) Red Mangroves line the Loxahatchee river in South Florida,
(C) Mangroves at low tide, showing stilt roots. (R) This picture shows the dense tangle of Red Mangrove stilt roots that provide shelter for numerous marine animals, help to dissipate wave energy and stabilize shorelines in Florida.

Hardwood Swamps

Hardwood swamps consist of various hardwood trees or a mixture of hardwoods and Cypress. This type of habitat occurs on floodplains or upland areas that are lower than the surrounding area.

Water hickory, Cypress, Holly, Maples, Oaks, Cabbage palms and Bay trees, usually with a dense understory of vines, ferns and herbaceous plants.

Photo of the interior of a hardwood swamp. Image - Hardwood swamp on a river floodplain

Pictures - (L) Interior of a hydric hardwood swamp with lush understory growth (R) During the dry season a small blackwater stream trickles through a mix of Cabbage palms, Oaks and Maples.

Baygall, Bay Swamp

Perpetually wet areas that receive slow seepage or drainage from higher elevations, soil is that of a heavy acidic muck and peat with a thick layer of leaf litter. Dominated by Bay trees, hence the name. Loblolly Bay, Swamp Bay, Red bay, Sweet Bay. Understory plants include Dahoon holly, Wax myrtle, Fetterbush, Royal fern, and Cinnamon fern.

Bay swamp or Bay gall habitat

Picture - A trail winds through a young Baygall or Bay swamp

Salt Marsh

Found in the sheltered tidal zones of rivers, creeks and bays. In the southern part of Florida salt marshes are broken up or replaced by Mangrove swamps & forests.

The degree of water salinity determines the dominate plant. Smooth cordgrass in the normal tidal zone and black needlerush in areas that receive less frequent inundation of brackish water, such as during occasional extreme high tides and storms. Salt marsh habitat offer juvenile fish a protected nursery, away from larger fish who would prey on them. They filter pollutants and trap sediments from storm waters that would choke offshore reefs and the vegetation also helps prevent erosion.

Upland Habitats

Pine Flatwoods

Pine Flatwoods are the most widespread eco-systems in Florida, occupying as much as 50% of Florida's land area. As the name states, the topography of a Flatwoods is relatively uniform, the soil is generally sandy, poorly drained & acidic with little organic content with a underlying layer of hardpan. This layer of hardpan also inhibits drainage in the wet season causing Flatwoods to be flooded for part of the year, experiencing alternating periods of flood and drought. The canopy is open, allowing plenty of sunlight to reach the understory plants.

The understory of a healthy Pine Flatwoods is regulated by regular fire, areas that burn more often have an understory dominated by grasses and diverse herbaceous plants, while those that experience less frequent fires have more leaf litter/debris with an understory dominated by shrubs. If fire is absent for long periods Pines will eventually be succeeded by Oaks and the subsequent development of of a closed canopy forest or Hammock which inhibits understory growth.

Saw palmetto, Wiregrass, Fetterbush, Tarflower, Gallberry, Blueberry, Broomsedge, Wax myrtle and St. Johnswort are a few of the plants common to Pine flatwoods habitats.

Image - Photo of a Palmetto Prairie habitat. Image -  Photo of Wet Pine Flatwoods

Two examples of Pine Flatwoods

Dry Prairie

Large areas of native grass or shrublands on dry, flat terrain which are subject to frequent fires, with trees occupying less than 15 percent of the area. Although classified as a Dry Prairie, the sandy, acidic soils often have a hardpan substrate which impedes drainage resulting in flooding during the rainy season. Grasses, sedges, herbs, and shrubs. Saw palmetto, Fetterbush, Tarflower, Gallberry, Wiregrass, Carpet grass.

Dry Prarie habitat Photo of a Dry Prairie.

Pictures - (L) A lone Whitetail deer grazes on a Palmetto Prairie. (R) Grasses dominate this Dry Prairie scene.

Florida Scrub Habitats

When sea levels were much higher than that of present day, sand ridges formed from deposited sediment washed to the sea from eroding mountains to the north. As the sea level receded these deposits became islands.

Plants colonized these islands, later as sea levels dropped further the Florida peninsula emerged the islands became the current day Florida Scrub.

Since development has overtaken or fragmented much of the original scrub habitat, many of the plants & animals endemic to it are considered endangered, threatened or rare.

The two largest areas of remaining scrub are found on The Atlantic Coastal Ridge, which runs parallel and in close proximity to the east coast of Florida from northern St. Lucie county south to Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, ranges in height from 10 feet to well over 50 feet above sea level & the Lake Wales Ridge which extends from Lake and Orange counties in the north, south through Highlands county and ranges in height from 70 feet to over 300 feet above sea level at its highest point.

Some of the plants associated with Florida scrub include Chapmans oak, Sand Pine, Myrtle Oak, Scrub Oak, Scrub Holly, Florida Rosemary, Lichens & Mints.

Image - Sand Pine and Oak scrub Image - Sand Pine scrub Image - Sand pine and Florida Rosemary scrub

Pictures - (L) Sand Pine & Oak scrub, (C) Sand Pine Scrub (L) Sand Pine & Rosemary Scrub

Oak Scrub

Found on deep, white sands where fire or clear cutting has removed the pine overstory. Common plants include Myrtle Oak, Chapman's Oak, Dwarf Live Oak, Scrub Holly, Hog Plum, Scrub Hickory, Florida Rosemary, Gopher Apple and Saw Palmetto. Areas of open white sand are common in this type of habitat.

Image - Photo of an Oak scrub habitat Image - Photograph of an Oak scrub habitat

Pictures - (L) This Oak scrub was once Sand Pine scrub, the overstory of Sand Pine has been removed by a catastrophic fire. (R) Lichen are common on the dry, sandy soil of the Oak scrub.


Areas of rolling terrain on deep, well-drained, white to yellow, sterile sands. A xeric plant community that depends on fire to maintain it's ecology. Longleaf pine, Turkey oak and Bluejack oak, Wiregrass, Partridge pea, Beggars tick, Milk pea, Queen's delight, herbaceous plants and grasses.

Coastal Strand & Beach Dunes

Sandy, well drained soils along the coastline. From the open sands of the upper beach and the dune lines - inland to where more highly developed plant communities are found.

Beach morning glory, Railroad vine, Sea Oats, Saw Palmetto, Spanish Bayonet, Prickly Pear cactus, Sea grape, Cocoplum, Grey Nicker

Image - Photograph of Coastal Strand plants Image - Photo of Coastal Dune plants

Pictures - Dune & Coastal Strand plants withstand a harsh environment. Sea Grape, Sea Oats, Coastal Sea Rocket, Railroad Vine, Bitter Panicgrass are some of the more common ones. They help stabilize the shifting sands and reduce erosion from wind and waves.

Coastal Scrub

In Florida, Coastal scrub habitat occurs in scattered locations on Barrier islands, dunes and sand ridges on both the east and west coasts. This type of habitat is positioned between the dune line on the ocean side and maritime forest or mangroves on the landward side, it is characterized by the absence of a tree canopy with areas of open sand, dominate plants are low growing shrubs and herbs.

Plant life of Coastal scrub includes Saw & Bluestem palmetto, Seagrape, Prickly-pear cactus, Cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco), Shrub Verbena, Beach sunflower, Coontie, Nickerbean, Yucca.

Coastal scrub habitat located on Florida's east coast.

Hardwood Hammocks

Hardwood Hammocks are located from the coastal strand inland to wetlands, prairies and flatwoods and vary from Mesic (moist) to Xeric (dry) habitats.

Broadleaf evergreen and semi-deciduous species include Red maple, Mahogany, Gumbo limbo, Cocoplum, Florida elm, Holly, Marlberry, Mulberry and Southern Magnolia.

Hardwood hammocks provide habitat for a variety of epiphytic plants or "air plants", including native orchids and Spanish moss. Attached to the bark of a host tree and acquiring nutrients from rain water, the air and pockets of moisture in the bark of the host tree. Common on Oaks, Sabal palms and Cypress trees, these plants are not parasitic and usually do not harm the host tree.

Palm Hammock

In South Florida - on the Coastal strand, Flatwoods, Bottomland forests, Prairies, margins of marshes and other wetlands. As the name implies the dominate species is the Sabal palm. Understory plants include vines, grasses, ferns and various herbaceous plants, which are determined primarily by the type of soil and available moisture.

Image - An inland Oak  hammock. Image - photgraph of a Maritime Oak Hammock. Image - Photo of the interior of Cabbage palm hammock.

Pictures - (L-R) Inland Oak hammock, Coastal Oak hammock, Sabal palm hammock

Tropical Hardwood Hammocks

South Florida in areas along coastal uplands, in the Florida Keys and tree islands within the Everglades where frost is a rare occurrence.

This habitat is home for over 100 varieties of trees and shrubs and marks the northern most range of many tropical plants, including many rare and endangered species.

Soils types include shell, sand and limestone. Today, due to development of coastal areas this habitat is found only as scattered remnants in nature preserves.

Strangler fig, Gumbo-Limbo, Live-Oak, Mastic, Bustic, Lancewood, Ironwood, Poisonwood, Pigeon plum, Jamaica dogwood, Bahama lysiloma, Mahogany, Thatch palms and Manchineel.

Pine Rocklands

Found on the southern most tip of Florida and home to the endangered Dade county pine, Pinus elliottii  var. densa . This habitat is based on a limestone substrate covered with a thin layer of sand. Found only on the Miami Ridge, Florida Keys, Big Cypress Swamp, the Bahamas and Cuba.

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