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The Florida Everglades, located in south Florida, is one of the biggest wetlands in the United States, at an amazing 4000 square miles. Going back hundreds of years ago, these wetlands were a huge part of the 5,184,000 watershed. This gigantic watershed covered almost a third of the state of Florida. The Florida Everglades now consists of shallow fresh water that rolls through the lowlands and through the blades of sawgrass. When the water moves through the Everglades, it creates an allusion of green waves, awarding the everglades the nickname, “River of Grass”. The Florida Everglades stretch from Lake Okeechobee all the way to Florida Bay. It is characterized by water, sawgrass, hammocks, palms, pine, and mangrove forests. The Everglades get its main source of water from the combination of Big Cypress Swamp and Lake Okeechobee. The Everglades really only has two seasons, wet and dry; the dry season accounts for more than 80% of the Everglades yearly rainfall, which is around 54 inches (or 137 centimeters). The amount of rainfall in the Everglades changes drastically from year to y ear. Historically, some of the more wet years peaked at over 100 inches (or 254 centimeters) or rainfall, when some of the dryer years only received around 30 inches (or 76 centimeters) (Caulfield, 1997). The Everglades are mainly a fresh-water ecosystem, but it does contain 485,000 (or 196,280 hectares) of the salty Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico. The Everglades is home to over 350 species of birds, over 10 species of mammals and over 10 species of reptiles; everything ranging from the brown pelican to the white ibis to the Florida panther and the American alligator. It also houses over 40 species of plants and other animals such as fish, amphibians, and mollusks. (DEP, 2006)
The Spanish discovered Florida in the early 16th century, but south Florida remained unknown to almost all Europeans until the beginning of the 19th century. The Florida Everglades were left blank on maps because of the “harsh subtropical climate, mosquitoes, and impenetrable soggy marshes made it both unappealing and discoursing for settlers to explore” (NPS, 2010). However, the native people had no problem settling into the Everglades. These native people who made the Everglades their home were the Calusa Indians. By the arrival of the 1700s, almost all of the Calusa population had deceases from disease brought over by incoming settlers. When the early colonial settlers arrived, the Florida Everglades were nothing but a swamp with no value to them. In the beginning of the 1800s, many of the settlers were beginning to think the best thing to do would be just to drain the Everglades. Around the 1880s, the draining began when the developers began the digging of drainage canals. The digging took place without a full understanding of the ecosystem and how it worked. The drainage canals turned out to be inadequate for the drainage of the Everglades and they began to cause silting problems. Fortunately, the Everglades are very resilient and the ecosystem was strong enough to sustain itself. At the ending of the nineteenth century, the southern Florida coast was still primarily wilderness. Only three small communities existed at that time, they were Flamingo, Chokoloskee, and Cape Sable. Before the Florida Everglades was established as a National Park in 1947, many people made their living off the land. The agriculture was thriving in the Everglades and the people that surrounded it depended on its water supply. These people are often known as “Gladesmen”, those who have thorough experience with the land, and they used for hunting, camping, and survival. The culture of the Gladesmen developed around the unique relationship with the land, which they fully depended on. People eventually realized that the Everglades provided extremely important wetland ecosystems for all species and that they also realized the importance that the Everglades provide for many unique species of microorganisms, plants, and animals. The government made an attempt to protect these ecosystems and keep those who were living off the land happy when they decided to divide the land. The “historic” Everglades were originally 3,000,000 acres; the 1,000,000 acres in the northern part were designated the Everglades Agricultural Area (E.A.A.). Most of those 1,000,000 acres is now used today to raise sugarcane. The 1,500,000 acres in the southern part were dedicated as the Everglades National Park in 1947. This park houses many types of wetlands that offer habitats to a huge variety of animals and plants. After the division of the northern and southern parts, there was still 500,000 acres in the middle to eventually be designated as a water conservation area. The water conservation area included dams, canals, and dikes that were all used to control the flooding in large Florida cities. (Merritts, 1998. Schlesinger, 1991. Purves, 1995. Smith, 1990. )
The Florida Everglades are a very important factor in the survival of many species. They provide a wide range ecosystem that allows all the species of animals to sustain their life. The primary ecosystems of the Everglades are the hardwood hammocks, the pinelands, the freshwater marl prairie, the cypress, the freshwater slough, the mangroves, the coastal prairie, and the marine / estuarine. Throughout all of these ecosystems are over 350 species of birds, alligators, crocodiles, over 26 species of snakes, the bottlenose dolphin, the West Indian manatee, and the Everglades’ most endangered animal, the Florida panther, of which about 80 now survive. (NWF, 2010) The first ecosystem that most people come across is the hardwood hammocks. These are areas of dense stands of hardwood trees, such as mahogany, gumbo-limbo, live oak and red maple. The branches of these trees form low canopies which provide excellent shelter for the animals that inhabit these areas, such as the green tree frog, the white-tailed deer, and the extremely endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The pinelands are very similar to the hardwood hammocks, because the same process that created the hardwood hammocks created the pinelands. Slash pine is the primary tree in this dry and rugged area. There are over 200 known varieties of plants that grow in the pinelands, which make them the most diverse habitat in the Everglades. There is also a wide variety of animals that live in the pinelands; the most common are red-shouldered hawks, possums, cotton mice, and pygmy rattlers. Freshwater marl prairie is flooded for around 4-7 months of the year and provides as an important ground for feeding the local birds, especially during the dry periods of the year. The common species of birds that inhabit this area of the Everglades are egrets, the endangered snail kite, ibises, and the endangered wood stork. (Bioserv, year NA)
Cypress is another common ecosystem when exploring the Everglades. Cypress trees are primarily what is found in this area, and as they grow, they grow tightly together and form a somewhat “dome” type of area. Under these domes is where low-growing plants are, such as the buttonbush and wax myrtle. Animals that actually live in these trees are insects such as lizards, small frogs, and mosquitoes. The avian animals in this habitat are the red-shouldered hawk, the great crested fly-catcher and several endangered species such as the wood stork. (Bioserv, year NA) The freshwater sloughs are at the deep, fast flowing center portions of broad, marshy rivers. These sloughs move about 100 feet per day and they carry the freshwater south and west throughout the Everglades. The freshwater sloughs are vital because their slow rate of water flow allows for a significant amount of evaporation when compared to the fast flowing waters. A wide variety of animals inhabit these areas, they include wading birds, alligators, and invertebrates. Mangrove swamps are primarily found over the vast area of Florida’s southern and southwestern coastlines. The mangroves are home to some of the region’s most diverse animals, but, the high salinity of the water makes it impossible for plants to inhabit this area, with the exception of the mangrove fern. The mangroves provide nesting and feeding places for birds and act as a nursery for shrimp and fish. A few of the many residents in the mangroves are sponges, star barnacles, mussels, crabs, herons, brown pelicans, frigate birds, egrets and even mammals, such as the bears, American crocodiles and swamp rats. The coastal prairies are irregularly flooded areas where the evaporation of sea water creates a very salty environment. The coastal prairies form when hurricanes and other storms move soil inland from the mudflats around Florida Bay. Succulents such as the saltwort and the glasswort are the primary source of food for the caterpillars of the eastern pygmy blue, the smallest butterfly found in Florida. There are also several types of turtles that live in the coastal prairies. The marine / estuarine is the last primary ecosystem of the Everglades. The Florida Bay provides hundreds of square miles of marine bottom which make up this ecosystem. Sea grass shelters fish and shellfish that serve as a food source for the larger animals in this ecosystem. The marine / estuarine is home to sea turtles, manatees, stingrays, and abundant fish populations such as sharks, barracudas, and sea trout. (Bioserv, year NA)
As shown in the above evidence. The Florida Everglades, or “River of Grass”, are a very historical and important part of southern Florida. Their history is rich with Native Americans, the first settlers, and today, when they are now a National Park. They play a vital role in the survival of many species of animals and plants, everything from birds to reptiles to plants to mammals. They are home to many types of ecosystems that allow these species to exist in the perfect climate for their lifestyle. Overall, the Florida Everglades play a massive role in the development of southern Florida and the sustainment of any species of animal that live in one of the many ecosystems it provides.
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