One of South Florida’s most unique environments is the Everglades, a 1.5-million-acre wetland that contains eight different habitats and ecosystems.
This special ecosystem is home to over 800 species of wildlife, as well as a wide range of foliage that ranges from underwater coral forests to pine meadows to murky swamps and more. Migratory birds travel thousands of miles to rest and roost in the canopies above the marshes and bogs, and the forest floor is even home to some of the country’s most endangered animal species.
Not all of the Everglades National Park is covered by swamps, but a large portion of it is, and these swamps serve as unique environments where flora and fauna coexist in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.
Here’s why these swamps are so important to the environment, and why they make the Everglades National Park such a special place!
Why are swamps so important?
What are swamps?
Swamps occur all over the world in many different sizes and many different forms, but whether we look at a freshwater swamp in Botswana, a saltwater swamp in Florida or a brackish swamp in Bangladesh, we’ll see a lot of similar characteristics that define these unique geological areas.
Swamps occur along waterways that travel down low-grade terrain. The slow-moving rivers, creeks or streams saturate the soil and create shallow ponds that flood the wetland with standing water. The result is far from a lake, though— swamps are full of woody vegetation that grows right out of the water, creating an almost seamless transition between water and land.
And there’s the key to it all. Swamps are home to both water-based and land-based organisms, giving these wetlands a unique ecology that not just benefits the animals that live in them, but that benefits the very land itself!
Let’s take a look at some of the more specific ways swamps are so beneficial to our environment, especially here in South Florida!
Swamps have high biodiversity
Because swamps often act as the transition area between land and water, organisms from both biomes can call these wetlands home.
At the very bottom of the food chain is the nutrient-dense soil and water that is responsible for creating food for organisms all the way through the food web. Debris and organic matter stuck in the slow-moving waters provide food for the insects and plants that grow there, resulting in a boom of vegetation both under and above the water.
The abundance of food and shelter encourages organisms to rest, breed and raise their young in the biodiverse swamplands. Fish raise their young in the brackish waters of mangrove swamps, protected from predators by trees, roots and reeds, while migratory birds rest and recuperate in the dense canopies above. Shellfish thrive in the nutrient-rich waters where they are protected from larger predators, and amphibians can cross back and forth between water and land to their hearts’ content. Insects that hum over the murky, standing water are prime food sources for birds and fish, while the dense brush provides a hiding place for predators to stalk their prey through the trees.
These supercenters of biodiversity are great indicators for the health of the surrounding environment, as each level of the food chain depends so much on the one below it. If one piece of the cycle is showing signs of strain, such as water quality, bird populations, shellfish presence or predator activity, then the rest of the cycle is at risk, too.
Swamps prevent flood damage
Wetlands of all kinds are essential to preventing flood damage, especially swamps with their vast root and vegetation systems.
Swamps act like sponges, absorbing water into their rich soils and slowly releasing it over time. This not just helps catch flood waters in particularly wet seasons, but it also slows the momentum of the water so that floods cause less damage.
Swamps can clean their own water!
On the surface, swamps look like quiet pools of water, but under the surface there are a host of chemical, physical and biological processes hard at work.
Swamps are full of organic matter and debris that have fallen into the water, creating layers upon layers of soft, rich soil. As water passes through this soil, many nutrients, minerals and pollutants are filtered out and retained in the soil, leaving the water clearer and cleaner than before. This is why many swamp and wetland waters have a distinct reddish-brown color, as it’s the tannins and nutrients trapped in the soil that give the water its dark color.
The delicate balance of chemicals in swamp water allow for nutrients to be absorbed into the vegetation, and the web of roots, plants and other plant life act as nets for any physical debris contaminating the water. These decay over time and become a part of the very filtration system that caught them in the first place!
Swamps capture greenhouse gasses.
Organic matter contains carbon, and when organic matter dies, that carbon is stored inside it.
Swamps are known as carbon sinks, because they are full of dead, carbon-rich organic matter that gets trapped into the soil, rather than released back into the atmosphere. The plants that grow in the water and marshy areas temporarily store the carbon dioxide created as a result of photosynthesis, and that carbon dioxide gets cycled back into the soil when the plant dies.
This cyclical process ensures that the nutrient-rich soil continues to filter water and nourish the swamp’s diverse assortment of life, all the while inadvertently trapping greenhouse gasses back into the soil.
So, next time you visit a swamp, whether it be here around our luxury South Florida apartments or somewhere else entirely, take a second to look around and glimpse all the pieces working together to create an environment that sustains so much life!
Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/mystraysoul