With the field portion of the course behind us, students were asked to reflect on portions of the trip that raised questions for them as young biologists or affected their thinking about the natural ecosystems that they experienced during their travels through the sub-tropical regions of southern Florida. Their thoughts and reflections follow, with a few photos that the students took.
The habitat that fascinated me the most on this trip was by far the tide pools. The diversity of organisms living in these types of high stress environments mainly include invertebrates and species of algae. I was intrigued by the single-celled alga called Valonia. Several questions arose when I thought about these organisms. 1. Why hasn’t evolution kicked in to make them multicellular? 2. What selection pressures have kept them single-celled? 3. How are they so large but only one cell? 4. Are there other selection pressures acting on this species besides environmental ones? What are they?
A state of tourism and citrus is truly a state of unique habitats largely unknown to the masses. The impact of human development on ecosystems has been made clear in south Florida. Small refuges deemed reserves or parks are what is left of native, undisturbed flora and fauna. The Key’s coastal waters house the third largest reef in the world. A system of small, calcium carbonate secreting animals creates a habitat for organisms ranging from bacteria to sharks. Snorkeling a very minute area of the reef was still enough to understand the sheer importance of the habitat for millions of species.
Florida is home to a wide variety of birds – diving birds, wading birds, and birds of prey for example. Obviously, all of these types of birds have one important characteristic in common: flight. This allows the birds to travel from island to island in the Florida Keys in search of food or a place to nest. Other Florida animals – the Key Deer, for example – cannot do such things and are often restricted to one island (possibly a few more). The flight of birds allows them to utilized every aspect of the Florida Keys.
Throughout this trip, we have had the chance to visit many “protected” areas. Consistently, each place was noticeably impacted by humans. The house and wall at Lignumvitae State Park is a specific example. Also, in general, paths were always constructed for people, through the habitats. So even the most natural, preserved ares have obvious human influence.
I think the biggest theme that has really hit me this trip is how much impact a small characteristic of an area can have on the sort of organisms that live there. The most evident example in Florida (is) the presence and nature of water in any given area. The sandy soils of the Florida scrub that have a hard time holding water look completely different form the flooded swamps in the lower lands of the Everglades. Each has plants and animals specifically adapted to the environment present. Florida is especially fascinating in that it has so many different habitats so close together, but because of some small feature (such as elevation of amount of water), each habitat is unique. This point was definitely emphasized during our visit to Corkscrew Wildlife Sanctuary when the boardwalk took us across a field from a pine flatwood to a cypress forest. The change in elevation was only a couple of feet, but the boundary of each habitat was very distinct, each with its different collections of flora and fauna, each creating a unique and magical atmosphere.
What amazed me was the ferns in the cypress swamp. These plants have been around for millions of years, all over the globe, and yet in this one instance they have adapted to growing in standing water.
The thing that most inspired me on this trip was our viewing at Clyde Butcher’s gallery. The pictures he takes are beyond anything I could describe. These pictures have a great potential to help save and preserve many natural and endangered habitats. If people could only appreciate the beauty of these areas, maybe they will be more apt to help preserve them. I think Clyde Butcher’s work can really help bridge the gap between the naive tourists of the land and the people that know exactly what they have on hand. This land is worth saving.
I found the adaptations of the plants in the Florida Scrub to be one of the most interesting things we learned. Most notably, the difference between Florida Slash Pine and Sand Pine adaptations. Slash Pines’ branches start farther up the tree so they are not damaged by fire. Sand Pines’ branches are close to the ground which is necessary so the comes are exposed to fire because Sand Pines’ reproduction is dependent on fire. While these two species of pine occupy the same habitat, they have adapted differently.
Mangroves have many interesting adaptations to survive in brackish to saline waters. Perhaps the most interesting synapomorphy is that the propagules germinate on the tree and then float for a significant amount of time before taking root. Their ability to remain in the water, as well as the immediacy with which they can establish themselves, leads to their abundance in southern Florida, as well as their habitat diversity.
I was most interested in how the water level affected the amount of wildlife, specifically in Corkscrew. The amount of fauna was indeed low, seeing only one or two herons and only one alligator. However, the increased water level in the Everglades didn’t seem to bother any of the fauna. I’m curious as to why in some areas animals are more sensitive to water levels than in other habitats.
I found the the Scrub Jay very interesting. It is adapted to live only in the scrub and now the scrub habitat is endangered. This adaptation is now dangerous to the species and the Scrub Jay is now endemic to the decreasing Scrub habitat which is being destroyed by human growth and development in Florida.
Probably the thing which had the most profound impact on me during this trip was the fragility of some of these ecosystems. Whether due to lack/excess of water or extremes of temperature, the flora and fauna (specifically insects on this trip) can be nearly non-existent. This makes one think strongly on the effects of the human on the habitats around us.
Ashli B. Wilson
There are a variation of habitats and animals in Florida. Humans have destroyed acres upon acres of habitat for these animals. However, some animals have found a way to stay alive through all our destruction. This fact gives me hope that with our help, the animals and their habitats can be saved. We can elevate the highways to let the water flow naturally as it once did before we subdued Mother Nature.
I found it interesting that the Anhinga resembles a wading bird or a predator bird more than a typical water bird, such as a duck. The feathers do not have oils to dry, so they have adapted by drying in the sun, but their feet are webbed. It seems slightly contradictory. The abundance of fish in the water must have influenced their adaptive features. Stabbing their fish with a sharp beak must have made it easier to catch the fish or influence the survival rates of those birds who used this method.
To me, the most interesting part of the trip was seeing cryptic coloration first-hand with the Brown Anole in Corkscrew. On multiple occasions, I would be looking carefully at a tree or shrub from less than a foot away attempting to identify it, only to be startled by an anole peering right back at me! Amazing!