Seasonal fluctuations in water levels and periodic fires both work hand-in-hand with the underlying geology, soil depth, and climate to make the Fakahatchee Strand biodiversity greater than Everglades National Park.
Swamps and Marshes
In Europe, a swamp means permanently waterlogged ground that is usually overgrown and sometimes partly forested. In North America the word swamp means is an area of very wetland with wild plants growing in it. In South Florida, there are over 15 different categories of wetlands. Marshes, on the other hand, are characterized by shallow standing water for most of the year with low emergent vegetation and only an occasional tree. Both are associated with their dominant vegetation, like Cypress or Pop Ash swamp or Cattail marsh or Flag marsh.
The hydroperiod which means the amount of water that covers a plant community and the length of time determines what plant species are present through the year. Since logging only stopped a little over 50 years ago, most of the Cypress trees in the swamp are quite young. The 700-year-old giants are long gone. Species like the red maple and pop ash, which were once the understory, now dominate large sections of the swamp. Cypress trees still have not returned to supremacy.
Sloughs and Strands
As the world’s largest subtropical strand swamp, a unique feature to southwest Florida, it provides a habitat for many threatened or endangered species. It is also the only strand swamp mixed Royal Palm and Cypress canopy.
Strand means a shallow, water-filled channel in which trees are growing. The Fakahatchee Strand with its large canopy moderates the climate and retains the humidity during the dry season and making it just a little bit cooler in the summer. In turn, during the winter, making it a little bit warmer and a frost-free zone.
Along the Big Cypress Bend Boardwalk, you can see a tiny slice of the virgin cypress forest that was miraculously spared by logging. On the boardwalk, you can see 500-year-old Bald Cypress that are three feet or more in diameter.
While most focus on the Strand, there are also eight savannah-like prairies within the Preserve. They are Lee-Cypress, No Name, Dan House, West, Northwest, East, and Copeland. Being the least flooded of any Florida marsh type, they are only covered by water two to four months a year. The water dept with typically no more than eight inches. With the surface being covered by an alkaline soil, they are surprisingly firm underfoot. The soil is referred to as marl; a mix of limestone, clay, and sand. Highly impermeable marl seals off the underlying limestone bedrock causing water to pond during the wet season.
Fires also play an important part in the landscape, with prescribed burns. The fires keep the woody plants and trees from invading the grassland. New growth begins to appear almost overnight after a burn. Being sweeter and more nutritious than the old growth, white-tailed deer, marsh rabbits and those that prey on them return.