Florida’s wildlife needs healthy and abundant reefs, seagrass beds, wet-lands and upland habitats. Together we can expand, clean up and improve our slice of paradise and the places vital to the long-term viability of wildlife…and humans too.
When scientists speak about habitat, they are talking about the components that make up the places where different species live. For example the plants, soil and structures that creates forests, grasslands, wetlands, beaches, coral reefs or water bodies.
A healthy habitat is diverse and teeming with life. A good example of this is forests. They are not all created equal. A forest full of nothing but one species of pine tree is called a monoculture, and monocultures in any type of habitat are of little value to the long term survival of wildlife in general.
A terrestrial forest most beneficial to wildlife contains many species of trees and plants. These groups of plants are called plant communities, and they support a variety of bugs, reptiles, birds, mammals, amphibians and other creatures we can’t even see.
Coral reefs are like the rainforests of the sea. Their health too depends upon a complex system of plants and animals. Whether on land or in water, these systems are called ecosystems. They are all interconnected and depend upon each other in one way or another. If something is taken away, something else will suffer.
It’s actually a pretty delicate balance. For example, the sandhill plant community features widely-spaced pine trees providing open canopy for grasses and low-growing understory plants. This type of habitat requires fire to sustain its unique characteristics and critters, such as the threatened gopher tortoise. The pine trees evolved to withstand the heat of these fires that naturally occurred every few years and kept the vegetation low before it got dense and tall. Since the vegetation was kept low by frequent fire, there was not usually enough fuel to cause big, out of control wildfires.
The sandhill critters, which depend on grasses and low growing plants, have evolved to survive these fires as well. While the fires sweep through, many of them take shelter in gopher tortoise burrows. After the fire passes the critters emerge and in a few weeks the burned plants begin to regrow tender and nutritious shoots.
Today, land managers use prescribed fire to manage and maintain the sandhill habitat, and to prevent out-of-control wild fires which can threaten other habitat types – including human homes and businesses.
And what about the habitats that fish and other marine and aquatic species require? Obviously they all need water, but they need a whole lot more than that in order to survive and thrive. For one thing they need clean water. Fertilizer that runs off of our lawns during rainfall washes into waterways and is creating conditions lethal to seagrasses and other critters in marine and freshwater ecosystems.
We must all do our part to prevent these kinds of conditions from threatening our fish and wildlife, and to ensure healthy and diverse upland plant communities, coral reefs, seagrasses and wetlands. In the end, it is all interconnected and we must protect it.
Florida’s wildlife habitats are fascinating, unique and unfortunately constantly threatened. To learn more about them and what the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and its partners are doing to manage and protect them visit the FWC’s Habitats website http://www.myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/habitat/.
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