Journey Through Fragile Florida

The pine flatwoods that once dominated Florida are now rarely found outside of pockets of conservation land. Neither are the dry prairies, swamps or scrub that mark the natural character of our state.Christine Swanson, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, takes us on a journey through fragile Florida, documenting landscapes, flora and fauna that are threatened by climate change.

Editor’s Note: Dispatches from a Sinking State is a contributor series from The Marjorie featuring first-person accounts of the environmental changes Florida women are witnessing across the state.

I am a different type of Floridian. A transplant from Brazil at age 6, I grew up on the Lake Wales Ridge where some of the last scrub habitat in the state can be found. This ancient region is home to dozens of unique species like the Florida scrub jay, a vociferous dusky gray and blue bird unique to Florida. In my teens, we moved to Orlando, a metropolis rising around the touristic draw of Walt Disney World. What used to be orange groves and pine savanna was quickly converted into housing development, roadways and theme parks galore.

I was a youngster disconnected from the land. As a family, we’d go to Wekiwa Springs State Park to cool off in the waters bubbling from the Floridan aquifer. I loved it, but I had no real appreciation for the oaks spreading over the spring head, Spanish moss dripping from their branches. I knew nothing of the longleaf pines forming open forests in the farther reaches of the park or the dainty purple and yellow wildflowers that bloomed in the space between the trees each October. To me, Wekiwa Springs was a free pool, just another place to splash with my friends, nothing awe-inspiring. It wasn’t until graduate school, when I took Ecosystems of Florida with prominent conservation biologist Reed Noss, that I finally learned what a unique and beautiful place this state is, and one whose natural places are under intense threat.

In 2017, a portion of the southeastern United States, known as the North American Coastal Plain, was named the 36th biodiversity hotspot in the world, meaning it has at least 1400 plant species not found anywhere else. The caveat is that some 70 percent, if not more, of that vegetation has already been destroyed. Pine flatwoods, for example, which once dominated Florida, are now rarely found outside of pockets of conservation land. Neither are the dry prairies, swamps or scrub that mark the natural character of our state.

Last December, I explored some of the most fragile ecosystems in the North American Coastal Plain. Here are photos from my journey.

Florida Key deer drink water in a yard in Big Pine Key.

Big Pine Key residents are very proud of their deer and have gone to great lengths to ensure their survival. In fact, the presence of Key deer spurred conservation of the majority of the key. Conservation programs here have become so successful that the deer, standing about as tall as a German shepherd, sometimes overgraze nearby natural areas. Unfortunately, climate models predict that most of Big Pine Key will be under water as sea levels rise. If the deer don’t migrate or are not removed from the island, they will face extinction. Even if they make it to the mainland, it’s unlikely they will retain their cute, miniature stature. They are a sub-species of the white-tailed deer found throughout Florida, and if they mate with the larger deer, they may evolve to become larger.

A foggy sunrise at Long Pine Key campground in the Everglades.

The Everglades have the largest swath of pine rocklands in all of Florida. South Florida slash pines are the dominant trees in this ecosystem, unique for the coral-like limestone that sits near the surface. The limestone here is special, different from the limestone that covers most of Florida. It acts kind of like a sponge; plant and tree roots tap into the pooled water. Because the ground is so hard here, the roots don’t grow very deep. The trees are dependent on the groundwater held in the limestone.

Many of the animals in the pine rocklands depend on the solubility of limestone for access to water.

Acid dissolves the soft rock creating solution holes like this one, where water then pools, creating habitat for fish and drinking holes for larger animals. This is one of the larger solutions holes I saw on Big Pine Key, but there are many plenty that are much smaller.

A downed pine on Big Pine Key by Hurricane Irma exposes how shallow its roots are — less than a foot deep, spread wide around the tree.

These trees don’t just contend with the winds from hurricanes. They must be resistant to storm surge, which pushes at the underground freshwater boundary, bringing salt water closer to the surface. For thousands of years, this vegetation has survived the onslaught.

A single mangrove survives in a barren landscape.

The soil in this rock barren is so salty that very little can survive. A few mangrove tree stragglers were the only vegetation able to live with the constant barrage of saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise. Natural rock barrens taper off and eventually fall into the sea. Chris Bergh, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Conservation for South Florida, says in the decades he’s lived in Big Pine Key, this rock barren has expanded almost 20 feet. Storm surge from hurricanes push freshwater out of the ground, leaving room only for the salty brine. The pines die first, then the buttonwoods. Only the mangroves can deal with the hostility.

This patch of marl prairie is surrounded by pine rocklands on Long Pine Key in the Everglades.

The elevation here is slightly lower, the soil a bit different. When it rains, water sits for a few months, long enough that the pines can’t grow here. Grasses flourish. Marl prairies, comprised by a calcium-rich clay, can contain over 100 different species of plants. Florida bluestem and sawgrass dominate the landscape here. In the transition zone from pine to prairie grows few-flowered fingergrass, one of only two known populations in the entire world. In December, the prairie is dry, the grasses a brownish green and the soil powdery. Come summer, their thirst will be quenched by daily thunderstorms.

Florida rosemary scrub with saw palmetto at Archbold Biological Station.

Florida rosemary produces a chemical that inhibits growth in nearby plants. In this fire dependent ecosystem, a burn event causes the rosemary to die back, allowing other plants to grow in open areas. Once the plants start growing, the chemical Florida rosemary puts out isn’t as effective. As the climate changes, fires may become more intense and spread farther throughout the landscape. We don’t yet know how this will affect scrub ecosystems and the plants and animals that live here.

A Florida scrub jay is perched atop a scrubby oak at Archbold Biological Station.

The scrub jay is the only species of bird found only in Florida. It has complex habitat needs and is indirectly dependent on patchy fires for survival. The Florida scrub jay forages for acorns that develop on scrubby oaks. If the oaks go too long without fire and grow too tall, scrub jays will abandon their homes until the oaks get shorter and more manageable.

Another spot where sea-level rise has begun to kill off vegetation in Big Pine Key. For now, the buttonwoods are still living, but as the ground becomes more saline, they will die, and mangroves will move in.

As the climate is changing, and as our population booms and development paves over our state , it becomes more imperative than ever to conserve these wild places, these jewels that can be found nowhere else. Once these species and places are lost from Florida, they will be gone from the Earth forever – a brief footnote in the annals of time.

Trip notes: I first visited the pine rocklands of Big Pine Key where Chris Bergh, The Nature Conservancy’s director of conservation for South Florida, gave me a guided tour. From there, I met up with Jimi Sadle, a botanist with the National Park Service to learn more about marl prairie and pine rocklands found in the Everglades. I finished my tour learning about scrub ecosystems from Eric Menges, senior research biologist at Archbold Biological Station.

Christine Swanson is a Ph.D. student in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida. As a Water Institute Graduate Fellow, Christine is researching the impacts of dams in the Amazon on floodplains and riparian forest. She uses remote sensing techniques and machine learning to quantify these impacts. Christine is also a science writer focusing on environmental and conservation issues.

More resources on Florida ecosystems:

Credits: Photos by Christine Swanson