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Plants and Animals of the Everglades

The Everglades is home to a vast array of plants and animals that have adapted to a wet, subtropical environment. Some creatures such as the Florida panther, Wood Stork and West Indian manatee have become symbols of a struggling ecosystem. Other parts of this vast mosaic - most notably the sawgrass marshes, and cypress and mangrove forests - are recognized around the world as images of the region.

While some of its flora and fauna are widely recognized, theEverglades also is comprised of many hundreds, if notthousands, of lesser-known plants, animals and fishthat are part of a living, dynamic ecosystem.The River of Grass includes wetlands plants, trees and marsh vegetation; invertebrates, fresh and saltwater fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds. Some 67 species are on the federal threatened or endangered lists. Many more are rare, species of special concern, or included on state lists. A brief overview of selected Everglades' plant and animal species follows:

Plants

Marsh Species

ringed anemone in coralline algaeThe Everglades is comprised of more than 100 marsh species that live in water all or much of the year. Its most well-known wetland plant is sawgrass, a normally hearty grass-like species that has formed thousands of acres of marshes. Floating aquatic plants that dominate the waterscape include bladderwort, white water lily, spatterdock and maidencane. Living among these is one of the tiniest members of the Everglades plant community, periphyton algae. The base of food webs, algae floats in mats on or just below the water's surface, and is found throughout the Everglades.

Tree Island and Hammock Species

In addition to aquatic ones, other plants in the Everglades live in wetland tree islands and upland hardwood hammocks that dot the landscape.

Tree islands are small forests of trees and shrubs that have adapted to a wet environment. They provide an important home to the many mammals that live in the Everglades and are a site for wading and migratory bird rookeries. Tree islands generally are named after the trees that dominate them, with the most common the bay, willow and cypress.

cypress kneeCypress is probably the most recognized tree in the Everglades, and includes the dwarf and bald species. Cypresses require water to develop, and then can live on either dry land or in water as mature trees. They have unusual root systems producing "knees" that grow out of the earth which scientists think are used for breathing. Cypress trees shed their leaves in the fall - somewhat unusual in a subtropical environment. Another interesting tree found in the islands is the pond apple, which produces large, bitter, yellow-green fruit. Pond apples are a food source for some animals.

Trees also exist in the Everglades in hammocks, which are localized, mature hardwood forests. Unlike the tree islands that are dominated by wetland species, hammocks can have trees that traditionally live in drier conditions such as oak and pine. Royal palm, cabbage palm, live oak, gumbo limbo and West Indian mahogany are some trees that live in these tropical hardwood hammocks.

Orchids, Bromeliads and Ferns

Within the tree islands and hammocks, visitors can find breathtaking orchids, Bromeliads and ferns. The warm, humid environment is ideal for air plants, with some of the world's most unusual and beautiful orchids found in the Everglades. Many species of tropical ferns also thrive in this environment, often found under shade trees and covering the forest floor.

Mangroves

A keystone plant community of the Everglades, the mangrove is a coastal plant that is known for its vast root system. Mangroves provide an interface between more saline coastal waters and the freshwater marshes; help reduce soil erosion and buffer the land from wind and waves; and build the soil through their growth and decomposition. Mangroves do not tolerate cold weather and are protected by law.

Animals

Birds

whooping craneBirds are a special symbol of the Everglades, captured beautifully in the paintings of John James Audubon. It is reported that in the 1800s there were so many migratory and wading birds that their numbers darkened the skies. Unfortunately, the wading and migratory bird population has been greatly reduced, first by hunters and more recently by the loss of habitat. Despite this, today some 350 bird species have been identified in Everglades National Park alone. Some are year-round residents; other just visit for
great blue heronthe winter; and still others stop by on their journey to more southern destinations.

The most notable of the wading birds includes the Wood Stork; White and Glossy Ibises; Roseate Spoonbill; Great Blue, Great White and Tricolored Herons; and Snowy and Great Egrets. The endangered Snail Kite is an unusual bird in that it survives exclusively on the apple snail. The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow also is in the news today, as scientists and government regulators strive to preserve its quickly dwindling habitat.

Land Mammals

florida pantherMany animals live in the Everglades including the raccoon, skunk, opossum, bobcat, and white-tail deer. But the poster-child of the Everglades and the symbol of this wild, vast ecosystem is the Florida panther. It is the most endangered species in the Everglades, with only about 100 remaining in the wild. Panthers feed on deer and other mammals, live in uplands Everglades areas, and require large ranges. Great lengths are under way to save the panther including radio-tracking collared individuals and introducing other panther strains to increase the gene pool.

Other Animals

American AlligatorAnother keystone species of the ecosystem and an indicator of its health is the American alligator. This ancient reptile builds "alligator holes" that provide an important food and water source for many other animals in times of drought. Two other well-known animals in the ecosystem include the friendly West Indian manatee and bottlenose dolphin, both of which live in saltwater bays and coastal areas.

In 1999, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service approved a Multi-Species Recovery Plan for the Threatened and Endangered Species of South Florida. This plan outlines a detailed program to protect the endangered and threatened plants and animals of the South Florida ecosystem that includes the Everglades. It provides a detailed list of rare, threatened, endangered and special concern species. To learn more, log on to: http://www.fws.gov/verobeach/

More information on the wildlife of the Everglades can be found in The Everglades Handbook: Understanding the Ecosystem, Third Edition by Thomas E. Lodge published by CRC Press in 2010.

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