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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

Florida Habitats

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. Pine flatwoods, 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)

Ecosystems

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.

Wetlands

(Florida has lost over 40% of its wetlands to devepment and agriculture since it became a state) Areas that are inundated or have saturated soils for long enough periods of time to support plants which are able to grow and reproduce in flooded conditions and/or saturated soils. A healthy wetland ecosystem supports an amazing array of birds, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles & fish, as well as plant life, providing life sustaining food and shelter for all.

Uplands

Although most of the Florida peninsula is undeniably flat compared to other states, there is enough variation in elevation, geology and soils to form different ecosystems.
Upland habitats include the hardwood forests in both the panhandle and peninsula, pine forests, scrub, dry prairie, rangeland and the rocklands of the extreme southern tip of Florida.


Uplands

Pine flatwoods

Slash pine, Longleaf pine, Loblolly pine, Pond pine - Flatwoods are the most widespread ecosystems in Florida, occupying as much as 50% of Florida's land area. The topography of a flatwoods is low & relatively uniform, the soil is sandy, acidic, has very little organic content with an underlying layer of marl or hardpan that not only inhibits drainage, it also prevents deep moisture from coming to the surface soil layer resulting in alternating seasonal periods of flood and drought. The dominate pine canopy is open, allowing plenty of sunlight to reach under-story shrubs, herbs and grasses.

Scrubby flatwoods are an ectone that occures between flatwoods and scrub ecosystems. This transistion area between to ecosystems does not experience the same seasonal flooding cycle because of better draining, deeper soils and slightly higher elevations.

Pine flatwoods palmetto and pine flatwoods Longleaf pine flatwoods

Saw palmetto, Wire grass, Fetterbush, Tarflower, Gallberry, Blueberry, Broom sedge, Wax myrtle and St. Johns-wort are a few of the many herbs and shrubs common to various kinds of Pine flatwoods habitats.

When fire is suppressed in pine forests for long periods of time the likelihood of a catastrophic fire when the canopy and mature trees are killed is greatly increased. Habitat preservation is the reason for "prescribed burns" because without fire some ecosystems could not exist.

Dry Prairie

Large areas of native grass or shrub lands 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 hard-pan substrate which impedes drainage, resulting in periodic short term flooding during the rainy season.

A typical Dry prairie ecosystemDry prairie

Small depressions marshes, creeks and the occasional ephemeral ponds within the prairie also create an "eco-tone" type of habitat resulting in a mix of plants from two different ecosystems with a wide variety of plants, sometimes including plants from neither type of adjoining 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. Scattered pines, Sabal palms, Palmetto, Wax myrtle, Fetterbush, Tarflower, Gallberry.

Sand pine scrub

Sand Pine and Oak scrub Sand pine and  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

Oak scrub ecosystem Lichens in sandy 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 frequent in this type of habitat.

Sandhill

Sandhill ecosystem Sandhill 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. Sand pine, Long-leaf pine, Turkey oak and Bluejack oak, Wire grass, Partridge pea, Beggars tick, Milk pea, Queen's delight, herbaceous plants and grasses.

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

Dune vegetation  Coastal Dunes

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. Maritime Oak Hammock.

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 Hammock

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

Broadleaved evergreen and semi-deciduous species include Red maple, Mahogany, Gumbo limbo, Coco-plum, 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.

Oak, Palm Hammock

Coastal strand, flatwoods, Bottom land forests, Prairies, margins of marshes and other wetlands.
Oak hammock Palm hammock
Under-story plants include vines, grasses, ferns and various herbaceous plants, which are determined primarily by the type of soil and available moisture.

Tropical Hardwood Hammock

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

This ecosystem 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 Miami Ridge extending to the southwest in to the Florida Keys, also occurs on the southwest side of the state in the Big Cypress swamp area. This habitat is based on a limestone substrate covered with a thin layer of sand and organic detrius outcropings of limestone

Characteristic plant species are South Florida slash pine, Christmas berry, Maidenhair pineland fern, Florida silver palm & Florida white-top sedge. Pine rocklands are home to many rare and endemic plants, including 18 that are endemic to this habitat. South Florida slash pine canopy that is open and allows ample light to the ground to support over 100 species of palms and hardwoods as well as a large varity of herbaceous plants and ferns. These are mostly scattered in patches, dependent on the amout of soil present.


Wetlands

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 "hard-pan" 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 the states landmass wetlands have been reduced by drainage and subsequent 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 stretched 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. This was a main source of life sustaining water that supplied the Everglades ecosystem.

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 & Salt marsh cordgrass.

Mangrove swamp Channel through the mangroves

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 all use the 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.


Wet Prairie

Florida's "Wet Prairie" is a seasonally flooded, shallow freshwater marsh found in woodland depressions, sloughs, finger glades & on the floodplains or margins of lakes, streams and rivers. Even in the dry season when little or no water may be visable on the surface, the soil is saturated. In South Florida wet prairie occurs ajacent to and mixed with wet flatwoods, scattered "tree islands" may also be present.

A dry prairie ecosystemdry prairie Wet prairie

Some of the plants common to Wet Prairies include St. John's Wort, Sedges, Muhly grass, Saw-grass, Groundsel bush, Wax Myrtle, Sun-dew, Meadow-beauty, Marsh-pinks & Coreopsis species

Depression Marsh

Marsh during the wet season Marsh during the dry season

Pictured above - Flooded in the wet season (L), during drought the shallow marsh bottom is exposed to the sun and air (R), helping to oxidize plant matter or any other detritus that has accumulated during the wet season, natures way of cleaning house...

Below - A small Depression marsh and ephemeral pond within a wet flatwoods.
In South Florida the wet flatwoods are dotted with these short lived ponds and pools of water, even the so called dry flatwoods can become flooded during the rainy season.

Depression marsh in wet flatwoods Depression marsh

Swamps

Cypress Strand, Cypress Dome

Cypress dome Cypress understory plants and cypress knees

Dominated by Bald cypress, sometimes with a mix of other hardwood trees. The length of time that Cypress stays flooded determines what under-story 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 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 domes and strands generally support a much higher number of plant species than the interior, often transitioning into a wet prairie or wet flatwoods type ecosystem.

Hardwood Swamps

A canopy 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.

Margin of a hardwood swamp Hardwood swamp understory plants Floodplain swamp

Associated trees and plants include Ash, Water hickory, Cypress, Holly, Maples, Oaks, Sable palms and Bay trees, often with a dense under-story of vines, ferns and various herbaceous plants.