Species diversity is a measure of community complexity
Located at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula encompassing 1.5 million acres, the Everglades is a national treasure. Everglades National Park was established in 1934 and dedicated in 1947 to protect and preserve the biological diversity (biodiversity) that existed in the vast wetland environment. Everglades National Park is the only national wetlands park in the United States. Many of the plants and animals found there exist nowhere else on Earth, and the richness of diversity makes this a truly unique environment.
Biodiversity is the occurrence of different species of organisms, with the whole range of their variants, adapted to different climates and environments, along with their interactions and processes. The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines biodiversity as: “the number, variety and genetic variation of different organisms found within a specified geographic region.”
The Everglades form a complex wetland mosaic. There are nine distinct habitats found there: Hardwood, Hammock, Pinelands, Freshwater slough, Freshwater Marl Prairie, Cypress, Marine and Estuarine. Everglades National Park is at the heart of a group of protected areas in southern Florida’s ecosphere, including: Big Cypress National Preserve, Biscayne Bay National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, several national wildlife refuges and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
For many people living in towns and cities wildlife is often something seen on television or at best a squirrel at the backyard bird feeder. Over a million visitors from around the world visit Everglades National Park each year to capture the essence of wilderness and view wildlife in their natural habitat. There are 1,033 plant taxa, 344 bird species, 44 mammal species, 372 fish, 78 reptiles, and 16 amphibian species identified. The total number of insect varieties is unknown.
Each species has a place in the food chain and is valuable as a relevant part of the ecosystem. Some species in the Everglades biosphere are not seen with the naked eye. These are the decomposers at the bottom of the food chain. These detrital dwellers of the food chain feed on dead organic matter. In the marl soils of the sawgrass prairie, microbes, fungi and bacteria chemically break down any plant or animal detritus. These microbes and fungi are consumed by single cell protozoans. In turn the protozoans are eaten by worms and insects. Insects are a primary food source for fish, lizards, small mammals and birds.
An example of the food chain in the water environment might begin with mosquito larvae which are eaten by sunfish which are then eaten by a largemouth bass and the bass is eaten by a river otter. Another aspect of the food chain begins with plants. Plants are consumed by herbivores such as rabbits and the herbivores are eaten by carnivores, such as bobcats. Every species has a place in the food chain.
The plants and animals that inhabit the Everglades wetland environment have had to adapt to fluctuations in the water cycle to survive. The water cycle (hydrological cycle) is essentially a closed loop that moves water from the sea and through the process of evaporation, water vapor is absorbed in the atmosphere where clouds form and are blown by winds over land and as the water vapor condenses it falls to the land and then travels back to the sea. Southern Florida receives 50″ to 60″ of rain per year but this occurs mostly in the summer months, June to October. The winter months are typically dry, often with periods of drought. As water level changes from drought to flood, two critical adaptive behaviors are essential to the survival of Everglades watershed creatures: the capacity to live through floods and droughts and the ability to spread rapidly, recolonize and reproduce when rains return. Water is the lifeblood that sustains this ecosystem. The largest breeding ground in the United States for wading birds is found in the Everglades. It is also a significant (and consequential) refuge for migratory bird populations that increase the biodiversity when there.
In the subtropical climate of the Everglades, plants thrive in the warm temperatures. The many and varied plant species within the Everglades have an intimate relationship with the insects, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals in the ecosystem. Plants also play an important role for the atmosphere and the carbon cycle. In the presence of sunlight, plants absorb carbon dioxide and water vapor from the air in the process of photosynthesis. In a chemical process plants then produce the oxygen that animals and humans breath. The carbon that is absorbed remains stored in the plant fibers until the plant dies and is then released back into the atmosphere during another chemical process of decomposition by microbes, bacteria and fungi. The 1.5 million acres of the Everglades is a significant resource for clearing and storing carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere. The plants of the sawgrass prairie, pinelands, cypress strands and mangrove estuaries are a benefit to all species including humankind.
As I sat quietly for several hours in the Big Cypress Swamp area of the Everglades I slowly began to realize the incredible biodiversity found there. It is such a unique environment. The activities of its innumerable plants, animals and microbes, physically and chemically unites the atmosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere into one environmental system.
As Marjory Stoneman Douglas said ” to be a friend of the Everglades is not necessary to wander around out there.”
I thank those of you that support preserving the wild places.
Malama Ka Aina,