Florida's Freshwater Swamps
There are large, natural areas in Florida known as wetlands, which includes marshes and swamps too. At one point, these wetlands actually sprawled across half of Florida but development by people have cut it down to only about ten percent now. Swamps are still present across Florida, but they do vary in climate. One way in which we classify these areas is by certain environmental factors. These are incidence of fire, hydroperiod, sources of water, and finally, the depth of organic materials that collect on the floor. Florida’s freshwater swamps have created very diverse ecosystems that are home to all kinds of plants and creatures.
The most important feature of swamps is known as hydroperiod. It is a measure of how long an area has a body of still water, or very saturated soil. In general, when there is a long hydroperiod, it means that there is not much oxygen and minerals in the soil. As a direct result, it becomes harder for plants and animals to survive. In this type of environment, they need to adapt in special ways to take in as much oxygen as possible. For example, plants might develop thicker leaves, or roots that lie above the earth.
Another environmental factor that is common in wetlands are swamp fires. Although we normally think of fires negatively, in some ecosystems they are actually necessary. Swamp fires occur once in a while, perhaps once every ten to a hundred years. They burn gradually and help to destroy excess litter on the ground, keeping the plant populations in check. Sources of water are found in many different forms including groundwater at shallow levels, rainwater, rivers or streams, and water that seeps very deep into the earth. The amount of nutrients in the ecosystem depends greatly on its source of water. One great example is south Florida’s cypress savannas. There a tree, called the pond cypress, grows very small because the area is low in nutrients and water sources.
We categorize the swamps in Florida into two sorts. One is the river swamps, while the other is known as stillwater swamps. They derive their names from their hydroperiods, water sources, and the water flow rate. About a third of all swamps in Florida are actually river swamps, which mostly lie in the north of the state. In these areas, there are whitewater rivers that have plenty of particulate matter (tiny pieces from vegetation, forest fires, and so on), while the blackwater rivers hold organic materials that are dissolved in the water, making it appear black. The river swamps typically do not have a long hydroperiod. Large oaks grow widely here, producing feeding opportunities for local wildlife. For all of these reasons, river swamps generally have the best diversity in Florida.
On the other hand, stillwater swamps are quite different. They barely have any water flow and depend on rainwater, as well as groundwater that tends to be quite acidic. This is typical for most stillwater swamps except for the hydric hammocks that receive groundwater from deep in the soil from limestone formations. Since stillwater swamps tend to be oversaturated for about half the year, it is difficult for plants to grow there. Often, it is limited to only a single species of plant that has adapted successfully to that environment.
Florida’s swamps boast around a hundred different types of woody plants. The most common are cypress since they survive well in flooded areas. Cabbage palm is another type of plant that has adapted to this unique environment. Incredibly, it is fire resistant! River swamps are home to plants like black gum, while other swamp areas have sweet bay, and red maple. Low-lying vegetation in these swamp regions tends to be sparse due to the hydroperiod. Some shrubs, such as swamp dogwood, have evolved to thrive on the typically acidic soil. Other vegetation includes vines and ferns that use surrounding trees as supports.
There are an astonishing variety of animals, birds and insects that live in swamps. Based on the ecosystem’s features, the diversity can greatly vary. Another important factor is the condition of the neighboring areas, since most of these inhabitants only spend some of their time in the swamp. The rich plant life in the river swamps attracts plenty of insects, which in turn attract birds and animals. Additionally, the rivers in these areas mean that there are large numbers of fish in the waters. Apart from fish, there is an abundance of aquatic life that includes mollusks and freshwater crustaceans. In the northern swamps, there are plenty of frogs since they enjoy the alternating dry and wet periods. Meanwhile, it is quite the opposite in the stillwater swamps, since the environment there does not easily support frogs and reptiles. In stillwater swamps, there is little to no food sources, or sheltered areas to use for nesting. In the water, there are fewer fish, although the deeper areas have denser populations, which do attract birds. Bigger creatures such as the Florida panther and also black bears find it more and more difficult to live since their habitats have been mostly destroyed. Today they have mostly been pushed into the swamps. Conservationists and the government have been working to help protect them by creating safety paths for these animals to cross over to protected land areas.