The Florida Everglades — a Wetlands Ecosystem

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  • Topic: Florida, Everglades, Everglades National Park
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  • Published : April 13, 2005
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The Florida Everglades — A Wetlands Ecosystem

The Everglades, a vast wetlands ecosystem made up of marshes and swamps, begins at Lake Okeechobee, a large lake in the center of Florida, and ends in the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay. It is nearly 50 miles across and 110 miles long (Hinrichsen), and when viewed from the air, appears to be miles and miles of shallow water flowing through thick mats of grass. This perception has earned it the name "River of Grass". Although it does flow like a river, the flow is so incredibly slow that, from a distance, it doesn't seem to move at all.

All of the wildlife in the Everglades is totally dependent on the cycling of water. One example of this dependence is the feeding relationship between the snail kite (an endangered bird species), and the apple snail (a freshwater mollusk the size of a golf ball) (Talley). The apple snails reproduce during the rainy season. When water levels are at their highest, they lay thousands of tiny pink eggs on the stalks of marsh grasses. As the water recedes, the snail kites fly all over the Everglades looking for them. Once they find them, they swoop down and use their specialized beaks to pluck the tender 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 is, in turn, affected by the amount of rainfall. Only recently have scientists been able to observe how close this relationship is. When humans drained large areas of the Everglades and converted them to 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 (Smith). The relationship among humans, snail kites, and apple snails illustrates the delicate balance of nature in an ecosystem. When humans alter the water cycle, 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 (Alligator Holes). As winter approaches, water levels begin to drop. Alligators, which need an ample supply of water to survive, sense the changing of the season and begin to prepare for the dry months ahead. Using their powerful snouts, tails, and legs, they make comfortable dens for themselves by slashing small plants, and muck out of the marsh. As it 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 beautiful birds, such as ibises, egrets, and herons, visit these sanctuaries to feed on the small animals that can be found there. Because alligators and the watery hollows they make play such an important role in the Everglades ecosystem, they are considered to be a keystone species since many other species depend upon them for their survival. This has earned them the nickname "keepers of the glades."

Due to constantly changing water levels, ecosystems like the Everglades can be very unpredictable places. Since 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...
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