Florida Habitats / Ecosystems

A habitat is simply the place that a plant or animal inhabits, the habitat has everything that particular plant or animal needs to survive and reproduce.Habitat names often reflect the dominant plant present. (i.e. Saw grass marsh, Cypress swamp.)

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

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

An ecosystem is an interacting and inter-dependent 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.

Below - Bluestem Palmetto

Florida "Sand pine / Rosemary Scrub"

Photo above - Sand pine/Florida Rosemary scrub habitat

Upland Habitats

Dry higher elevation forests, prairies and ridges. Most of these types of habitat experience fire on a periodic basis and are in fact dependent on it. Slight changes in elevation combined with soil type and drainage determine what type of habitat and plant/animal life will be present. Uplands containing streams, creeks, ponds or depression marshes support a huge variety of life.

A large and old Gopher tortoise is a well known "keystone species"

Pine Flatwoods

Image - Palmetto Prairie. Image -  Wet 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 ac inhibit drainage in the wet season causing alternating periods of flood and drought. The canopy is open, allowing plenty of sunlight to reach the under-story plants.

The under-story of a healthy Pine Flatwoods is regulated by regular fire, areas that burn more often have an under-story dominated by grasses and diverse smaller herbaceous plants, while those that experience less frequent fires have more leaf litter/debris with an under-story dominated by larger shrubs. If fire is absent for long periods Pines will eventually be succeeded by Oaks and the subsequent development of of a closed canopy forestthat inhibits certain under-story growth while encouraging other types of plants, resulting in a different type of habitat.

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

Dry Prairie

Dry Prarie habitat Photo of a 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.

Small depressions marshes, creeks and the occasional ephemeral ponds within the prairie also create eco-tone type of habitat resulting in a mix of plants from two different habitat types with a wide variety of plants, sometimes including plants from neither type of ajoining habitat. Many insects and small invertebrates, mammals and reptiles either reside here or visit these places regularly.

Vegetation consists of grasses, sedges, herbs, and shrubs with no tree canopy present. Ocassional Sabal palm, Palmetto, Wax myrtle, Fetterbush, Tarflower, Gallberry.

Florida Scrub Habitats

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

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.

Oak Scrub

Found on deep, white sands where fire or clear cutting has removed the pine over-story. 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.


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, Wire grass, Partridge pea, Beggars tick, Milk pea, Queen's delight, herbaceous plants and grasses.

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 over-story. of Sand Pine has been removed by a catastrophic fire. (R) Lichen are common on the dry, sandy soil of the Oak scrub.

Coastal Strand / 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

Coastal scrub habitat located on Florida's east coast.

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.

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. Under-story 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 - 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. 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.


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

purple wildflower
Marsh during the wet season

Above is the marsh when flooded
Below is the dry season

Marsh during the dry season

During drought the marsh bottom is exposed to the sun and air, thus oxidizing plant matter and other detritus that has accumulated during the wet period, natures way of cleaning house!

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 hydro-period. Hydro-periods 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.

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

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 the huge amounts of rainwater into the aquifers that are central and southern Florida's sole fresh water source.

Everglades National Park is a 1.5-million-acre wetland in south Florida that historically continued as far north as Lake Okeechobee. Water from the Kissimmee river flowed south into the lake and then continued flowing south of the lake in to the Everglades.

Now, that natural flow has been disrupted and the (now polluted) fresh lake water is dumped by the billions of gallons in the fragile marine eustuary eco-systems to the east and west coasts where it causes massive toxic blue-green algae blooms that in turn cause massive fish, oyster and sea grass bed die offs. Soon this damage will be permanant and unique eco-systems will be lost forever. The government seems unwilling to take the needed action to save our environment, even though the people of South Florida have had huge turn outs at rallies, lived with toxic algae for months and have lost millions of dollars in eco-tourisim, jobs and property values. Go figure.

Wet Prairie

Wet Prairie

Bachelor's button & St.John's Wort blooms in the foreground of the wet-prairie type habitat pictured above.

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 species

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.

Wet prairie habitat

Cypress Swamp, Cypress Strand, Cypress Dome

Cypress trees on the floodplain of the Loxahatchee river's backwaters

Found on the floodplains of freshwater rivers, lakes and seasonally flooded woodland depressions/sloughs. Dominated by Bald Cypress, sometimes with a mix of other hardwood trees. The length of time that Cypress stays flooded determines what understory plants are present. In addition to the mosses,ferns and epiphytes or "air plants" that grow everywhere among the Cypress, 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 type habitat.

Picture of a cypress "dome"

Above - Cypress dome
Below - Photo of cypress knees exposed in a receeded swamp

Cypress "knees" are visable in this receeded swamp photo

Below - A small alligator waits among the cypress for an un-suspecting meal

This small alligator is hiding among the cypress, waiting for his next meal!

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.

Mangrove swampBlack mangrove pneumatophores distinguish it from other mangroves

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.

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

Cinnamon fern

Above is the Cinnamon fern, a common inhabitant of lowlands

Interior of a hardwoodswamp

River Floodplains and floodplain swamps

River floodplain

Generally flat, low lying areas adjacent to the shores of a freshwater river that are periodically flooded to varying degrees.