Starting at the last glacial maximum , 21, years ago, continental ice sheets retreated and sea levels rose. This submerged portions of the Florida peninsula and caused the water table to rise. Fresh water saturated the limestone that underlies the Everglades, eroding some of it away, and created springs and sinkholes. The abundance of fresh water allowed new vegetation to take root, and formed convective thunderstorms over the land through evaporation.
As rain continued to fall, the slightly acidic rainwater dissolved the limestone. As limestone wore away, the groundwater came into contact with the land surface and created a massive wetland ecosystem. These plateaus rise and fall only a few inches, but on the subtle South Florida topography these small variations affect both the flow of water and the types of vegetation that can take hold. The underlying bedrock or limestone of the Everglades basin affects the hydroperiod , or how long an area within the region stays flooded throughout the year.
More water is held within the porous ooids and limestone than older types of rock that spent more time above sea level. There are only two types of soil in the Everglades, peat and marl. Where there are longer hydroperiods, peat builds up over hundreds or thousands of years due to many generations of decaying plant matter.
Initial attempts at developing agriculture near Lake Okeechobee were successful, but the nutrients in the peat were rapidly removed. In a process called soil subsidence , oxidation of peat causes loss of volume. When the water was drained in the s and bacteria interacted with oxygen, an aerobic reaction occurred. Microorganisms degraded the peat into carbon dioxide and water. Some of the peat was burned by settlers to clear the land. Some homes built in the areas of early farms had to have their foundations moved to stilts as the peat deteriorated; other areas lost approximately 8 feet 2.
Fire is an important element in the natural maintenance of the Everglades. The majority of fires are caused by lightning strikes from thunderstorms during the wet season. Their effects are largely superficial, and serve to foster specific plant growth: sawgrass will burn above water, but the roots are preserved underneath. Fire in the sawgrass marshes serves to keep out larger bushes and trees, and releases nutrients from decaying plant matter more efficiently than decomposition. Layers of charcoal have been detected in the peat in portions of the Everglades that indicate the region endured severe fires for years at a time, although this trend seems to have abated since the last occurrence in BCE.
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Several ecosystems are present in the Everglades, and boundaries between them are subtle or absent. The primary feature of the Everglades is the sawgrass marsh.
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It is particularly vulnerable immediately after a fire. Where there is more room, periphyton grows.
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It also absorbs calcium from water, which adds to the calcitic composition of the marl. Sloughs, or free-flowing channels of water, develop in between sawgrass prairies. Sloughs are about 3 feet 0. Wet prairies are slightly elevated like sawgrass marshes, but with greater plant diversity. Alligators have created a niche in wet prairies.
With their claws and snouts they dig at low spots and create ponds free of vegetation that remain submerged throughout the dry season. Alligator holes are integral to the survival of aquatic invertebrates, turtles, fish, small mammals, and birds during extended drought periods. The alligators then feed upon some of the animals that come to the hole. Small islands of trees growing on land raised between 1 foot 0.
Hammocks are slightly elevated on limestone plateaus risen several inches above the surrounding peat, or they may grow on land that has been unharmed by deep peat fires. Hardwood hammocks exhibit a mixture of subtropical and hardwood trees, such as Southern live oak Quercus virginiana , gumbo limbo Bursera simaruba , royal palm Roystonea , and bustic Dipholis salicifolia that grow in very dense clumps. Water in sloughs flows around the islands, creating moats. Although some ecosystems are maintained and promoted by fire, hammocks may take decades or centuries to recover.
The moats around the hammocks protect the trees. Some of the driest land in the Everglades is pineland also called pine rockland ecosystem, located in the highest part of the Everglades with little to no hydroperiod. Some floors, however, may have flooded solution holes or puddles for a few months at a time.
The most significant feature of the pineland is the single species of South Florida slash pine Pinus elliottii. Pineland communities require fire to maintain them, and the trees have several adaptations that simultaneously promote and resist fire. South Florida slash pines are insulated by their bark to protect them from heat. Fire eliminates competing vegetation on the forest floor, and opens pine cones to germinate seeds.
The most diverse group of plants in the pine community are the herbs, of which there are two dozen species. These plants contain tubers and other mechanisms that allow them to sprout quickly after being charred. Prior to urban development of the South Florida region, pine rocklands covered approximately , acres Within Everglades National Park, 19, acres Prescribed fires occur in Everglades National Park in pine rocklands every three to seven years. Cypress swamps can be found throughout the Everglades, but the largest covers most of Collier County.
The Big Cypress Swamp is located to the west of the sawgrass prairies and sloughs, and it is commonly called "The Big Cypress. The limestone underneath the Big Cypress contains quartz , which creates sandy soil that hosts a variety of vegetation different from what is found in other areas of the Everglades. Although The Big Cypress is the largest growth of cypress swamps in South Florida, cypress swamps can be found near the Atlantic Coastal Ridge and between Lake Okeechobee and the Eastern flatwoods, as well as in sawgrass marshes.
Cypresses are deciduous conifers that are uniquely adapted to thrive in flooded conditions, with buttressed trunks and root projections that protrude out of the water, called "knees". As the peat thins out, cypresses grow smaller and thinner, giving the small forest the appearance of a dome from the outside.
If cypresses are removed, the hardwoods take over, and the ecosystem is recategorized as a mixed swamp forest. Mangrove trees are well adapted to the transitional zone of brackish water where fresh and salt water meet. In the dry season, and particularly in extended periods of drought, the salt water creeps inland into the coastal prairie, an ecosystem that buffers the freshwater marshes by absorbing sea water. Mangrove trees begin to grow in fresh water ecosystems when the salt water goes far enough inland. There are three species of trees that are considered mangroves: red Rhizophora mangle , black Avicennia germinans , and white Laguncularia racemosa , although all are from different families.
Red mangroves have the farthest-reaching roots, trapping sediments that help build coastlines after and between storms. All three types of trees absorb the energy of waves and storm surges. Everglades mangroves also serve as nurseries for crustaceans and fish, and rookeries for birds. The region supports Tortugas pink shrimp Farfantepenaeus duorarum and stone crab Menippe mercenaria industries;  between 80 and 90 percent of commercially harvested crustacean species in Florida's salt waters are born or spend time near the Everglades. Much of the coast and the inner estuaries are built of mangroves; there is no border between the coastal marshes and the bay.
Thus the marine ecosystems in Florida Bay are considered to be a part of the Everglades watershed and one of the ecosystems connected to and affected by the Everglades as a whole. Sea turtles and manatees eat the grass, while invertebrate animals, such as worms, clams and other mollusks eat the algae formations and microscopic plankton. Sea grasses also serve to stabilize the sea beds and protect shorelines from erosion by absorbing energy from waves.
Paleo-Indians came to Florida probably following large game that included giant sloths , saber-toothed cats , and spectacled bears. They found an arid landscape that supported plants and animals adapted for desert conditions. They conformed to the environmental changes, and created many tools with the various resources available.
Florida Indians developed into three distinct but similar cultures that were named for the bodies of water near where they were located: Okeechobee , Caloosahatchee , and Glades. From the Glades peoples, two major nations emerged in the area: the Calusa and the Tequesta. The Calusa was the largest and most powerful nation in South Florida.
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It controlled fifty villages located on Florida's west coast, around Lake Okeechobee, and on the Florida Keys.