Everglades National Park


The Everglades is a low, flat plain shaped by the action of water and weather. In the summer wet season it is a wide, grassy river. In the winter season the edge of the slough is a dry grassland. Though Everglades National Park is often characterized as a water marsh, several very distinct habitats exist within its boundaries.

Florida Bay, the largest body of water within Everglades National Park, contains over 800 square miles (2,072 square km) of marine bottom, much of which is covered by seagrass. The seagrass shelters fish and shellfish and sustains the food chain that supports all higher vertebrates in the bay. The hard bottom areas are home to corals and sponges.

Mangrove forests are found in the coastal channels and winding rivers around the tip of South Florida. Red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle), identified by their stilt-like roots, and the black (Avicennia germinans) and white (Laguncularia racemosa) mangroves thrive in tidal waters, where freshwater from the Everglades mixes with saltwater. This estuary system is a valuable nursery for shrimp and fish. During the dry months, wading birds congregate here to feed. Many bird species nest in the mangrove trees.

Coastal Prairie
Located between the tidal mud flats of Florida Bay and dry land, the coastal prairie is an arid region of salt-tolerant vegetation periodically flooded by hurricane waves and buffeted by heavy winds. It is characterized by succulents and other low-growing desert plants that can withstand the harsh conditions.

Freshwater Marl Prairie
Bordering the deeper sloughs are large prairies with marl sediments, a calcareous material that settles on the limestone. The marl allows slow seepage of the water but not drainage. Though the sawgrass is not as tall and the water is not as deep, freshwater marl prairies look a lot like freshwater sloughs.

Freshwater Slough
The slough is the deeper and faster-flowing center of a broad, marshy river. This "fast" flow moves at a leisurely pace of 100 feet (30 meters) per day. Dotted with tree-islands called hammocks or heads, this vast landscape channels life-giving waters from north to south. Everglades National Park contains two distinct sloughs: Shark River Slough, the "river of grass;" and Taylor Slough, a narrow, eastern branch of the "river." There are no surface connections between the two. A series of other sloughs through the Big Cypress Swamp supply freshwater to western Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands.

The cypress tree (Taxodium spp.) is a deciduous conifer that can survive in standing water. These trees often form dense clusters called cypress domes in natural water-filled depressions. The trees in the deep soil at the center grow taller than those on the outside. Stunted cypress trees, called dwarf cypress, grow thinly-distributed in poor soil on drier land.

Hardwood Hammocks
Hammocks are dense stands of hardwood trees that grow on natural rises of only a few inches in the land. They appear as teardrop-shaped islands molded by the flow of water in the middle of the slough. Many tropical species such as mahogany (Swietenia mahogoni), gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba), and cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco) grow alongside the more familiar temperate species of live oak (Quercus virginiana), red maple (Acer rubum), and hackberry (Celtis laevigata). Because of their slight elevation, hammocks rarely flood. Acids from decaying plants dissolve the limestone around each tree island, creating a natural moat that protects the hammock plants from fire. Shaded from the sun by the tall trees, ferns and airplants thrive in the moisture-laden air inside the hammock.

The slash pine (Pinus elliottii var. densa) is the dominant plant in this dry, rugged terrain that sits on top of a limestone ridge. The pines root in any crack or crevice where soil collects in the jagged bedrock. Fire is an essential condition for survival of the pine community, clearing out the faster-growing hardwoods that would block light to the pine seedlings. Pine bark is multi-layered, so only the outer bark is scorched during fires. The pinelands are the most diverse habitat in the Everglades, consisting of slash pine firest, an understory of saw palmettos (Serenoa repens), and over 200 varieties of tropical plants.


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