Ecology

As fun as weather can be, it isn’t until water hits the ground that it really gets interesting. Cypress domes | Strands and sloughsSwamp mosaic?Flood and fire | Marl Prairies | UplandsBotany | Alligators and more | Life cycle of a pond apple | mangroves

Intro - Nature is Water Friendly

Water and Nature Go Hand in Hand

By Robert V. Sobczak

How many cups of water should you drink per day?

Answer: You should drink to your thirst.

Water drives the pattern of trees in the swamp

Nature is the same way. It needs water in all its forms, and cannot live healthily without it. Look no further than a potted plant as proof. As homeowners, we are stewards to keeping those plants alive, and thriving. Failure to water them causes them to shrivel up and die.

Now think about nature on a grander scale. It’s dependence on the water cycle and water availability in all its forms is profound. How many times after a heavy summer deluge have you heard the frogs chirp. Or watched a deer take sip of water at the edge of nearby lake.

Water also helps the base of the swamp’s food web called periphyton to form

Water and nature go hand in hand. Being in tune with one means being in tune with the other. To be a hydrologist you have to also be a bit of a botanist, a geologist, an ecologist, a meteorologist, a climatologist, a wildlife biologist, a chemist … and the list goes on.

Water is inherently multidisciplinary. It helps us understand natural connections, great and small.

Recent Blog Posts

cypress strands

Major Swamp Flowways
Roberts Lakes and Gator Hook Strand

From the ground …

It can all look like a bunch of cypress trees.

Strands are the cypress-tree equivalent to the sloughs in the Everglades

But higher up, from 500 feet, the mosaic really starts to pop, or become transparent as we sometimes say. And by transparent we mean all the habitats really jump out, and none more than the giant strands where the cypress grow tall and spread out. Not that the mosaic doesn’t pop from ground view, too. Or do I mean water view? Soggy socks is a badge of honor in the swamp.

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About the view: The liquid heart of a cypress strand, as seen during the summer wet season.

ecology

Swamp ladder, or step stool?
From highest to lowest

Big Cypress National Preserve is considered to be part of the greater Everglades ecosystem, but is also recognized as a distinct physiographic province even if the terms used to describe it — such as Western Everglades and swamp — fall short.

From highest (top) to lowest (bottom): mesic pines, marl prairie, outer edge of a cypress dome, interior pond apple center of a cypress dome,

What we do know is that you know it when you’re in it. In contrast to the Water Conservation Areas and Everglades National Park to the east which are dominated by the vast and perennially-flooded plain of peat-underlain ridges and sloughs (and dotted with tree islands), the Big Cypress consists of an interwoven mosaic of shorter hydroperiod wetlands. The Big Cypress also includes peat marshes, but is made visually distinct by its cypress forests – called domes and strands – which beneath their vertical apogee give way to orchid-hiding swamp forests and which at their fringes recede into a combination of open vistas of herbaceous marl prairies, fire-swept pinelands and scattered upland islands of hard-wood hammocks.

Its pattern of vegetation is commonly referred to as a mosaic and is a reflection of liliputian valleys and hills of the preserve’s flat and expansive wetland terrain. The difference between the preserve’s low-lying swamp and pineland high ground is only 3 feet.

I like to call it the swamp ladder. But maybe stepstool is more accurate.

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Safety Tip: Be careful on ladders of all sizes!

Crayfish carapace
And why the live ones are underground

Usually when I find them …

They are dead.

Fish, wading birds, otters and alligators eat crayfish

Crayfish enjoy algae, aquatic bugs and small fish

Crayfish holes can extend 3 feet deep (so I’ve read)

But wherever I find them there is usually also ample evidence that they are alive, in the form of tiny tunnels that wormhole out of sight into the marl where often but not always the water table can still be seen. It sort of reminds me of how alligators wallow out water holes, but on a smaller scale.

That brings me back to finding them dead. I’ve never been pinched by a crayfish, but I have been pinched by a blue crab, and yes that hurt. But who could blame the crab: Being a Marylander, I’ve eaten dozens of them in a single sitting, and probably over a thousand my entire life. Or in other words, I deserved to get pinched.

Crayfish are the base of the food chain

Meanwhile in another part of the glades, there’s a patch of peat that is completely bereft of crayfish holes. The reason? The amplitude between summer wet season water depths and the spring dive of the water table below the ground is too great. The culprit is a nearby canal and levee called the L-28 Interceptor. The good news is that there’s a plan to fill the canal in and take the levee out. The result? While the future is always uncertain and there are no guarantees, my hope is more crayfish holes, even if when I find them they are always dead.

A carapace in the hand is worth two underground. (Not sure if the final catch line works … but you know what I mean.)

Flood and fire friendly
A swamp love affair

The swamp is more than …

Just a watershed or just fire adapted:

FloodFire2

Report on the history of flood and fire in the swamp

It’s more properly understood as being a “flood and fire adapted” ecosystem. Every square inch of flora and fauna depends on some goldilocks dosage and return interval of flood and fire. Or in other words, so goes flood and fire, so goes the swamp. Well, easier said than done. The truth is that both are blunt tool instruments that have a time lag of ecological responses, some of which we see happening in months or years, and others that take decades to unfold. The thing about the swamp: It’s malleable, too. Destroyers in other landscapes, flood and fire are a swamp’s best friend. This report discusses the history of water and fire management in Big Cypress National Preserve, how it’s changed over time and other factors that weave into the fire-water mix.

More about the report: I tried to make it coffee table friendly. I always say, “there’s nothing more complicated than water in the swamp, with the exception of fire. But somehow by combining the two we simplify the math.”