ECOLOGY

Florida’s Everglades sustains an extraordinary variation of habitats and wildlife. Many experts consider it to be the most biologically diverse ecosystem in North America. A combination of subtropical climates, seasonal fires, and permeable geological features provides the Everglades just the right recipe to sustain its unique biological identity. It also features an unusual mix of plants and animals that are rarely found anywhere else.

The Everglades is the only place where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side; it is also home to the world’s only semi-aquatic pit viper. Its complex mosaic of interdependent ecosystems are unparalleled—nine distinct habitats have been identified to date. Deep within the confines of the local swamps resides some of the world’s most rare orchids. The Everglades is home to the only subspecies of American black bear found wandering subtropical climates. It is also the last refuge of the endangered Florida panther.

The greater Everglades ecosystem is the largest of several wetlands in the entirety of North America. Its natural evolution is attributed to water, but unlike other wetlands, atmospheric rain is the biggest contributor to the abundance of water in the Everglades. To the local wildlife, this is the key ingredient to all aspects of life—mating, breeding, feeding, and hunting. From the very tiny to the moderately large, many species of plants and animals depend exclusively on this fragile hydration system of water for reproduction and survival.

Throughout the wet season, many aquatic animal populations boom due to an abundant supply of food and water. During the dry season, these commodities become scarce and life is rather difficult. As water levels drop, both predator and prey are forced to congregate around remnant water holes. This is most critical for aquatic creatures, because they become easy targets for wading birds and alligators.

Despite its ecological abundance, Florida’s Everglades are home to 67 threatened and endangered species of plants and animals.12 The Everglades also serve as a stop-off point for many migratory species, including two hundred species of migratory birds.23 The South Florida climate plays a major role in allowing suitable conditions for some of the world’s most beautiful species of flora to thrive and prosper. The region is an absolute haven of spectacular orchids that find the humid, subtropical climate most fitting. Long have travelers come to these parts to get a glimpse of these rare, highly prized orchids—but not without a price to be paid. The quest can be rather difficult. Anyone in search of these natural treasures must be prepared for long, intense hikes through very difficult terrain.

Simply One of a Kind

Whenever I mention my experiences in the Everglades backcountry, people are generally amazed at some of the stories I tell; this is probably because my description of the Everglades doesn’t fit into their preconceived notions. My stories of dense subtropical hammocks, cypress domes, and semi-arid pineland forests are not exactly reminiscent of what they had in mind. Instead, people mostly seem to envision a place exclusively made up of water and marsh, airboat rides and sawgrass, long-legged birds and ferocious alligators. To some extent that is an accurate depiction, but it does not paint the entire picture.

The region embodying the Everglades is much more intricate than a mere open oasis of water and marsh. Florida’s Everglades truly is one of a kind; it is the place where the continent meets the tropics. Besides its marshy grasslands and rich sawgrass prairies, the Everglades territory engulfs a variety of complex interdependent ecosystems. In total, nine unique habitats have been identified, including sawgrass marshes, costal prairies, freshwater sloughs, pine rockland, tropical hardwood hammocks, mangrove forests, cypress swamps, and more. The River of Grass, as it is widely known, primarily revolves around a hydration system of water and fire. The frequent flooding of the wet season, followed by the drought of the dry season, shapes and molds these landscapes. Even though Florida’s Everglades accommodates a multiplicity of diverse environments, no actual boundaries exist between one habitat and another.1

Geological factors play the biggest role in habitat variation. Elevation levels determine particular classifications. Higher elevated regions encompass drier, less quaggy terrains, such as what you might expect to find in pinelands and tropical hardwood hammocks. Lower levels of elevation make up the damp, marshy ranges. What’s more, the underlying limestone affects the period in which these areas stay flooded throughout the year.14 This is no more evident than in areas where sawgrass grows in high concentrations.

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