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Meika Jensen


Meika Jensen. 2012. The Issue of Biodiversity in the Florida Everglades. Wetland Ecologist (Wetecol):

16-04-2012. (online article)

The Everglades have been one of America’s great environmental causes for more than a quarter century, as state and federal officials attempt to reverse the damage caused by generations of drainage, reclamation and flood control projects. Today, the Everglades Restoration Plan warns that 67 species native to the region can be found on federal threatened or endangered species lists, and hundreds or thousands of others rely on the wet subtropical climate.

The presence of this biological hotspot has inspired many students to study this area extensively. Florida Atlantic University and the University of Miami both offer advanced degree programs in this field, and for those that cannot relocate, there are masters degree online programs where students can study conservation and zoology.

Should you decide to take up the study of the Everglades, you may be surprised to learn that the Everglades are not especially diverse in terms of the species it holds. This differs from other ecological hotspots like the Amazon or coral reefs that have thousands of unique species living in them. And while conservation efforts can routinely emphasize the importance of biodiversity in threatened habitats, including the Everglades, the relative lack of diversity might be key to the wetlands’ survival.

A familiar benefit linked to a diverse ecosystem is the potential for new knowledge, since nature may already have developed a solution to medical problems that science has failed to solve, or may not even have identified yet. Some of the most promising medical discoveries have come from wildlife in the world’s most endangered habitats. Many of these habitats contain species that cannot be found anywhere else, due to their dependence on the delicate environments where they live.

This image is linked to regions such as the Amazon basin, which benefit from a warm, humid climate and, until recently, virtually no human interference. The Everglades were never so lucky, with a subtropical environment relatively few nutrients that mostly arrived through rainfall. The wetlands are dominated by the iconic sawgrass and spikerush that gave the “River of Grass its name.

However, giving too much attention to the popular vision of biodiversity can do a disservice to the Everglades’ own environment. The relatively low diversity in the wetlands nonetheless includes a unique mix of species that migrated from the more temperate north and tropical south. While describing the local ecosystem, Friends of the Everglades notes that the wetlands’ location at the boundary between tropical and temperate zones allows for the coexistence of animals, like alligators and crocodiles, bobcats, white tailed deer, loggerhead turtles, oaks and mahoganies, that cannot be found together anywhere else.

Indeed, the Everglades depend on their relative lack of biodiversity. A 1999 study published in Conservation Biology noted that areas that received more nutrients through high-phosphorous runoff, thanks to the long history of human development, were dominated by large populations of cattails that crowd out the sawgrass and threaten aquatic life by preventing light from penetrating the water. Another foreign species, Australian melalucea, is contributing to a shortage of water across much of the region that threatens to drive out more native species. South Florida in general has been shown to be particularly susceptible to invasive species, and more can be found in the Everglades than anywhere else in the state.

The Everglades became an environmental cause rather gradually, as Florida’s politicians and landowners spent much of the early twentieth century draining the area and attempting to develop it. Efforts to reverse the damage caused by several projects to divert water out of the wetlands have dominated the last decade, while new artificial wetlands are meant to serve as storm water treatment areas and reduce the concentration of phosphorous in the region. The restoration efforts received a boost in 2009 from the federal stimulus package, but not before a National Research Council report warned that delays in the project will mean further loss of species until major restoration initiatives are completed.