Florida Habitats & Ecosystems
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
Florida has 81 separate and distinct plant and animal communities that exist
within its various ecosystems.
(Source - Florida Natural Areas Inventory
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.
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
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
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.
image for a larger version
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
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.
in the dry season
Right - Same area in the wet season
Cypress Swamp, Cypress Strand &
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
(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.
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 &
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.
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 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.
hickory, Cypress, Holly, Maples, Oaks, Cabbage
palms and Bay trees, usually with a dense understory of vines, ferns and herbaceous plants.
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.
Picture - A trail winds through a young Baygall or Bay swamp
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.
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
palmetto, Wiregrass, Fetterbush, Tarflower, Gallberry, Blueberry, Broomsedge, Wax myrtle and St.
Johnswort are a few of the plants common to Pine flatwoods habitats.
Two examples of Pine Flatwoods
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.
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
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.
Pictures - (L)
Sand Pine & Oak scrub, (C) Sand Pine Scrub (L) Sand Pine & Rosemary 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
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
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.
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.
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
"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.
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.
(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
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,
Pigeon plum, Jamaica dogwood, Bahama lysiloma, Mahogany, Thatch palms and
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