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Florida Ecosystems

An ecosystem is a community of plants and animals that live together. South Florida is home to many different ecosystems including coral reefs, dunes, marshes, swamps, hardwood hammocks, mangroves, pinelands and scrubs.

What type of ecosystem will exist in a certain area is determined by how often fire occurs in an area, and changes in elevation (in some cases, only inches), water salinity (a measure of salt content), and soil type.

Coral Reefs

Over 30 different kinds of corals are found in Florida waters. Individual corals are interconnected colonies of soft, fleshy polyps that secrete complex shells made of calcium carbonate. These colonies can form branching corals or massive head corals depending on species. As the colonies compete for space, and as dead colonies are replaced, they grow on top of each other and build what we call a coral reef. Coral reefs provide habitat for thousands of species of plants and animals.

Corals that grow in sunlit areas depend on tiny algae called zooxanthellae that live in their soft tissue. The zooxanthellae help provide oxygen and food for the polyps. Corals that live in deep water, where there is no sunlight, do not have zooxanthellae.

Star and Staghorn Coral found in the Florida Keys. Photo courtesy of Eugene Shinn.

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Click on the picture to open a larger photo.


Dunes are created by wind, but are held in place by grasses that trap sand grains as they are being moved across the beach. Dunes stabilized by grasses protect the coast against winds and pounding waves. The vegetation found within Florida's dunes varies and is dependent upon many factors, including storm waves, windblown sand, salt spray, soil type, and climate.

Florida beaches are important nesting sites for sea turtles and shorebirds. A loss of beach habitat to real estate development, erosion, and rising sea level has caused a decline in the nesting shorebird and sea turtle populations.

Freshwater Marshes

Freshwater marshes are generally wetlands with an open expanse of grasses and other grass-like plants. Freshwater marshes generally contain few, if any, trees and shrubs. Marshes have standing water for much of the year and act as natural filters. As water passes over the marsh, water flow is slowed down, and suspended particles settle out.

Animals found in the marsh can include fish, invertebrates (animals without a backbone), frogs, snakes, alligators, white-tailed deer, the Florida panther, and other mammals. Many waterbirds and wading birds nest and forage (search for food) in marshes as well.

freshwater marsh
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freshwater swamp
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Freshwater Swamps

Freshwater swamps are generally wet, wooded areas where standing water occurs for at least part of the year. Although the freshwater swamp seen in this picture is dominated by cypress trees, other freshwater swamps found in Florida can be dominated by bay trees (i.e. sweetbay, sweet gum) or hardwoods (i.e. oak, elm, red maple). Other plants found in swamps include epiphytes ("air plants") growing on trees, vines, and ferns.

Many animals spend part of their lives in the swamp, moving as water levels rise and fall. Wood storks, herons, many other birds, otters, black bear, and the Florida panther are only a few of the animals that find food, homes, and nesting sites in Florida's swamps.

Hardwood Hammocks

Hardwood hammocks are localized, thick stands of hardwood trees that can grow on natural rises of only a few inches of land. In South Florida, hammocks occur in marshes, pinelands, and mangrove swamps.

Hammocks may contain many different species of trees such as the sabal palm, live oak, red maple, mahogany, gumbo limbo and cocoplum. Many types of epiphytes ("air plants") and ferns can be found here as well.

Wildlife in hammocks can include tree snails, raccoons, opossums, birds, snakes, lizards, tree frogs, and large animals such as the Florida panther, bobcat, and deer.

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Click on the picture to open a larger photo.


Three species of mangroves are found in Florida: the red mangrove, black mangrove, and white mangrove. Typically, red mangroves grow along the water's edge, black mangroves grow on slightly higher elevations than the red mangrove, and white mangroves grow upland from the red and black. Mangroves grow in saltwater and in areas frequently flooded by saltwater.

Mangroves provide protected habitat, breeding grounds, and nursery areas to many land and marine animals. Mangroves also provide shoreline protection from wind, waves, and erosion.


Pinelands, or pine flatwoods, are the most common plant communities in Florida. Pinelands are found on nearly level land, or on porous limestone. Longleaf pine and slash pines are the dominant trees in pinelands. Understory plants commonly include saw palmettos, wildflowers, and ferns.

Plants that grow in the pinelands must be resistant to fire because pinelands are maintained by fire. Fires are beneficial to the pines because young pine seedlings require lots of sunlight to survive, and the fires destroy hardwood competitors. When fires occur, hardwood seedlings and other understory plants are affected, but the thick bark of the pine resists fire damage. Without fires, hardwoods would eventually overshadow the pines, and a hardwood hammock would emerge.

Wildlife commonly found in pinelands includes deer, squirrels, bobcats, skunks, opossums, raccoons, birds, snakes, and tortoises.

Click on the picture to open a larger photo.

Click on the picture to open a larger photo.


Generally, scrubs are communities that are mostly pinewoods with a thick understory of oaks and saw palmetto. Scrubs are found in well-drained, nutrient-poor, sandy soils. Plants that grow here have adapted to dry conditions. Fires play an important role in scrub ecosystems; in the absence of fires, a hardwood forest of oak will develop.

Animals that live in the scrub are adapted to hot, desert-like conditions. Gopher tortoises, scrub jays, lizards, insects, and spiders are commonly found here.

thumbnail image of OFR 2005-1021
Click here for OFR 2005-1021 - Ecosystems of South Florida.

Want to learn more about Florida's ecosystems? Please visit:

  • Florida Habitats and Wildlife (from the South Florida Water Management District website)
      Descriptions and photos of some of Florida's common natural areas.

"Ecosystems of Florida." Ed. Myers, Ronald L. and John J. Ewel. Gainesville, FL: University of Central Florida Press, 1991.

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, Center for Coastal Geology
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Last updated: 19 November, 2013 @ 01:17 PM(TJE)