The Ecosystem of the Florida Everglades
The Florida Everglades is a vast wetland ecosystem made up of marshes and swamps. This ecosystem begins at Lake Okeechobee, a large lake in central Florida, and ends in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay. It is nearly 50 miles across and 110 miles long and contains mile after mile of shallow water flowing through thick mats of grass (Hinrichsen, 1995). Although it does flow like a river, the flow of water is so slow that from a distance it doesn't seem to move at all.
The wildlife contained within the Everglades is very dependent on the cycling of this slow moving water. One example of this dependence is the feeding relationship between the snail kite and the apple snail. The snail kite is an endangered bird and the apple snail is a freshwater mollusk the size of a golf ball (Talley, 2003). The apple snails reproduce during the rainy season. The snails will lay thousands of tiny eggs on the stalks of marsh grasses when the water levels are at their highest. As the water recedes, the snail kites fly over the Everglades looking for them. Once the snail kite finds them, they swoop down and use their specialized beaks to extract the snails from their shells. The water cycle and the lives of apple snails and snail kites are intertwined. Snail kites depend on the successful reproduction of apple snails, which in turn is affected by the amount of rainfall. Recently scientists have been able to closely observe this relationship. When humans drained large areas of the Everglades and converted them into agricultural lands, the population of apple snails decreased sharply. This had a dramatic effect on the snail kite population. In 2003, only 1600 snail kites remained in Florida, the bird's only U.S. habitat (Talley, 2003). The relationship among humans, snail kites, and apple snails illustrates the delicate balance of nature in an ecosystem. When humans alter the terrain they directly affect the food chain.
Alligators are animals that often come to mind when people think of the Everglades. The American alligator, once a highly endangered reptile, plays a critical role in the Everglades ecosystem, especially during the dry season. As winter approaches the water level of the Everglades begins to drop. Alligators, which need an ample supply of water to survive, sense the change of seasons and begin to prepare for the dry months ahead. By using their snouts, tails, and legs, they make comfortable dens for themselves by slashing small plants, and muck out of the marsh. As the alligator thrashes its body from side to side, it creates a small hole filled with water. Plant matter and mud piled up around the edges of the hole create dry ground on which other plants eventually grow. After many years, grass, trees, and other plants surround these "gator holes" like fences. Gator holes are important to other species as well, as the water becomes scarce during the dry season many animals search for food and remaining pockets of water. The gator holes attract crayfish, frogs, turtles, fish, and other aquatic species, all seeking refuge in the deeper waters of the gator holes. Muskrats, otters, deer, and raccoons, as well as a wide variety of birds, such as ibises, egrets, and herons, visit these areas to feed on the small animals that can be found there. Alligators are considered a keystone species in the Everglades ecosystem due to the fact that many other species depend upon them for their survival. Due to constantly changing water levels, ecosystems like the Everglades can be very unpredictable places. As early as the 1800s, people have tried to control the Everglades to prevent flooding (Blake). Large canals were built to send the water into the ocean and away from the Everglades. The land along the canals dried up and became more useful to people....
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