- from Wetlands
It’s a swamp! It’s a marsh! It’s the Everglades!
This unique wetlands system stretches across most of the southern end of Florida. It includes freshwater marshes and tree islands. Cypress forests and shady tropical forests called hardwood hammocks. Also here are pinelands, mangroves, and coastal prairies. You can find tidal creeks and bays as well. And shallow coastal marine waters. Not to mention sloughs, or shallow channels with flowing water.
Central to this watery world is a waterway that’s 50 miles wide and 100 miles long. Known as the “river of grass,” this channel is only about six inches deep. The Everglades begins at the south end of Lake Okeechobee. From there, it stretches south and southwest toward Florida Bay.
The Everglades provides food and water for many kinds of animals. It also offers them shelter and space. In addition, the Everglades supplies fresh water to more than 9 million people in South Florida.
Tourists from the world over visit the Everglades every year, contributing millions of dollars to the surrounding communities.
American alligators and American crocodiles both live in the Everglades. It’s easy to tell them apart – if their mouths are closed!
Alligators have a U-shaped snout, while crocodiles have a V-shaped snout.
Crocodiles have a distinctive fourth tooth on the lower jaw that sticks out when their mouth is closed.
▲ A little more than a century ago, feathers on women’s hats were all the rage. And snowy egrets (above), great egrets, spoonbills, and blue herons were hunted to near extinction for their plumes. Through protective laws – and a change in fashion – the birds have made a comeback, but their Everglades home continues to face threats. Agriculture and development have altered and reduced water flow in the region. These changes have destroyed and dehydrated the animals’ habitats.
▲ Stand tall and hold your arms straight out to the side. Are you as big as a great egret? This bird stands nearly four feet tall and has a wingspan of about five feet. Notice the color of its feet and beak. These features distinguish it from the snowy egret.
▲ The beak of this roseate spoonbill may make you think of a long-handled soup spoon. It’s just right for fishing in the shallow waters of the Everglades. The spoonbill’s pink color comes from pigments in the small shellfish it eats.
▲ Blue herons “come in” two sizes – great and little. The great blue heron (above) has a wingspan of about six feet! That’s 50 percent greater than its height of four feet. The little blue heron hatches with white feathers that turn blue as it grows into adulthood. Both herons use their beaks as spears to catch food.
◀ Historically, the Seminole, a Native American tribe, lived in northern Florida and Georgia. European settlers of the nineteenth century forced them to leave these areas. To help the settlers, the U.S. government fought a series of wars with the Seminole. After the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), about 300 Seminole retreated to the Everglades and learned to thrive in the harsh environment. We can thank the Seminole for the area’s modern-day nickname. They called the shallow waters pahayokee, or “grassy waters.”
Traditionally, the Seminole depended on a healthy Everglades ecosystem. They used cypress logs to build homes with thatched roofs made from palmetto leaves. The homes were called chickees. From bass to alligators, tribe members used spears to fish the rivers and swamps. On land, they grew squash and pumpkins. The Seminole still live in the area today, as do the Miccosukee (formerly members of the Seminole tribe). Both tribes operate successful tourism businesses. ▶
▲ Originally, the Everglades flowed freely from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, and from there to Florida Bay (above left). But drainage of the Everglades has changed that (above right). The process started in the 1880s, when water was drained to create farmland. Then, in the 1920s, water from Lake Okeechobee was rerouted with the idea of protecting the area from floods and moving water away from land meant for agriculture. Drainage increased as more and more people moved to the region. Wetlands were drained or filled to make way for canals, roads, buildings, and even more farmland.
Runoff from fertilized fields pollutes the water that flows into the Everglades, threatening the plants and animals that live there. In recent years, several state efforts have improved conditions in the Everglades, including the Kissimmee River Restoration Project and the Seminole Big Cypress Water Conservation Plan. In 2000, Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP. Its goal is to “restore, preserve, and protect the south Florida ecosystem . . . while providing water supply and flood protection.” The map on the right shows the extent of the restored flow plan. CERP is the largest project of its kind in the U.S. ▶
▲ Most of the “river of grass” is saw grass marsh. Saw grass is actually a sedge, not a grass. It can grow to over nine feet tall, and unlike grasses, its blades are thick and stiff and have sharp teeth along the edges. They can tear through cloth – and flesh. But what can harm people can help the ecosystem. American alligators, with their thick skin, can live – and hide – in the saw grass. Migrating birds eat the seeds it produces. Other types of birds nest there, using the blades of the saw grass for protection.
◀ In 1947, Marjory Stoneman Douglas brought the Everglades to the world’s attention with her book The Everglades: River of Grass. She was one of the twentieth century’s leading conservationists. Douglas wanted people to realize that the Everglades was worth protecting. “There are no other Everglades in the world,” she said. “They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth; remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them.”
Gallery of ’Gladers
▲ The Florida panther is the only panther known to live in the eastern U.S. It is Florida’s state animal.
▲ Around eight feet long, the eastern indigo snake is non-venomous. It eats birds, toads, turtles – and even small alligators!
▲ The Florida apple snail can grow to up to three inches. It is the largest aquatic snail native to North America.
▲ The snail kite is a bird of prey with a very particular appetite. It feeds almost exclusively on Florida apple snails.
▲ The ghost orchid is one of the Everglades’ most endangered and rarest plants. It gets its name from the nighttime movement of the flower, which resembles a ghost.
▲ The Florida manatee is also known as a sea cow. It spends up to eight hours a day grazing on seagrasses.
▲ Even though the Florida box turtle has a sharp beak and claws, it eats mostly fruits, vegetables, and small insects.