The Everglades is a swampy area located in southern Florida.  The Indians called this the “River of Grass” because it is a body of water fifty miles wide and six inches deep that runs from Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico through prairies of sawgrass.  This unique place is home to a diverse population of plants and animals.  For the past one hundred years people have changed this natural system by building canals and levies to bring water to the cities and farms.  The water has been polluted by factories, fertilizers and pesticides. There has been a severe change in water flow to the Everglades.  Because of these changes there is habitat and animal loss due to the lack of food and water.

To protect this ecosystem, part of the Everglades was turned into a national park in 1947.  The Everglades National Park is located at the south tip of Florida.  It is shaped like a bird with its head pointing northeast and its wings and body covering the rest of Florida’s tip. The Everglades National Park covers 2,746 square miles or about one-fifth of the original area of the Everglades swamp.


Because of the dramatic changes in rainfall between the wet summer season and the dry winter season, survival in the Everglades is very difficult for plants and animals. In the summer, there is 100% humidity and 95 degree temperatures most of the time, with severe thunderstorms.  In summer the water covers wide areas, while in winter the edges of the Everglades dry up into smaller ponds.  Slight changes in elevation, water salinity (saltiness), and soil create entirely different landscapes, each with its own plants and animals. 

During the dry winter season, water levels drop and fish move to the deeper pools.  Birds, alligators, and other predators concentrate around the pools to feed.  In spring, thunderstorms begin the rainy season and the pools of water turn into a landscape completely covered by water.  The wildlife disperses throughout the swamp and the food chain is replenished. 

Plants and animals that live in the Everglades have adapted to these severe conditions over many thousands of years.  When humans change the cycle of water flow, many animals have great difficulty adapting fast enough.  For example, alligators build their nests at the high water level.  When more water is released into the Everglades through the man-made channels and gates, the nests are flooded and destroyed.

There are over 900 different types of plants. The northern part of the Everglades is a prairie covered by water with sawgrass growing up to 10 feet high.  Some other plants in the northern area are bald cypress, custard apples, wax myrtles, and willows.

The “Pinelands” is dry, rugged terrain that sits on top of a limestone ridge.  The slash pine trees root in cracks where the soil collects in the bedrock.  These pine trees need fire to survive.  The pinelands have over 200 types of tropical plants. The “hardwood hammocks” are groups of hardwood trees that grow on land a few inches above the water.  Acid from decaying plants dissolves the limestone and creates a moat around the hammock trees, protecting them from fires.


The Everglades is home to more than 600 different species of animals, not including over 60 types of mosquitos.  Some are alligators, crocodiles, deer, fish, panthers, pelicans, and snakes.  Scientist think that if some animals in the Everglades were studied, they could help humans cure diseases.

Some of the endangered animals are the American crocodile, southern bald eagle, logger head turtle, snail kite, wood stork, and the red-cockaded woodpecker.  Due to the loss of their habitat, the number of wading birds has been reduced by 90% in the last 100 years.


Humans have changed the landscape, but you can still see the geological landscape.  During the Great Ice Age the seas rose and fell as the glaciers formed and melted.  When water covered the land, silt, sand, and particles of  calcium settled to the bottom of the sea and gradually cemented themselves into limestone.   Since this happened at many different times, layer after layer of limestone created different elevations of land.  These small differences in height eventually lead to different regions of plant growth.  For instance, pine and hardwood forests grow at higher elevations, while sawgrass prairies cover the lower and wetter areas and mangrove trees grow along the coast.  The elevation differences are very small.  No place in the Everglades is more than 8 feet above sea level.

Thomas Carter
May, 2002

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