February 21, 2008

Many Marine Habitats

By Betty Lipe, 4-H Educational Instructor

Source: Aquatic and Marine Ecosystems a Leaders’ Activity Guide by the
Florida 4-H Youth Development Program.

Florida is a unique state. We are surrounded on three sides by water, so as members of the community we need to be especially aware some special areas.

What are wetlands? Wetlands are areas of land that are covered with water for any length of time, from a week to the entire twelve months. Some examples of wetlands are swamps, marshes, and wet prairies. Most wetlands contain freshwater, but some like salt marshes contain saltwater. There are many threatened and endangered species of plants and animals that are dependent on wetlands, such as the wood stork, Southern bald eagle, Florida black bear, and the Florida sandhill crane.

Why are wetlands important? They are the sponge in our habitat. They catch the rainwater and allow it to percolate into the Florida aquifer. They furnish habitat for the young of many species to grow and develop, and they also provide recreational areas.

Here in Tampa Bay, we are also concerned with the coastal ecosystems. We have three of Florida’s four major types of coastal ecosystems right in Pinellas County. Beach/Dune/Barrier Island Ecosystem, Estuary, and mangrove swamps. Just to our north, begin the Salt Marsh ecosystem, which continues up through the Big Bend area of Florida.

The Beach/Dune/Barrier Island ecosystem is the most dynamic of the habitats. This area changes constantly with the action of wind, tides and currents. Nature has shaped and reshaped the coastline of Florida throughout history. Recently human habitation has, in many areas, altered the cycles of sand movement, dune development, and created beach erosion to the point where beach renourishment has to be done. Luckily the West coast of Florida because of the smaller Gulf of Mexico and the shallow slope out to the continental shelf make our coast a low energy wave area. The East coast is noted for high energy waves.

Tampa Bay is one of the largest estuaries on the west coast of Florida. Estuaries are water areas where saltwater and freshwater meet. The West coast of Florida alone has approximately 2.5 million acres of estuarine habitat that includes open water, salt marshes, and mangrove swamps. Two important factors related to the biological characteristics of estuary ecosystems are the diversity of habitats and the high productivity of the associated food webs. Habitats within the estuary include sandy bottoms, sea grass beds, oyster bars, and mud flats. These habitats provide living areas for over two thirds of the commercially important fish and shellfish. High nutrient levels in estuarine waters provide a rich “soup” that nourishes plants and animals.

Florida mangrovesTampa Bay is the northernmost range of the mangrove swamp ecosystem. This is due to sensitivity to freezing temperatures. Mangroves can reach a height of 80 feet, hence the name mangrove forest. Mangroves help to buffer the storm waves and winds and provide protection to inland areas. Mangroves also protect the estuaries they border by filtering the runoff that flows into the estuaries from upland regions. By trapping sediment, mangroves actually build land while the roots and vegetation help prevent shoreline erosion. The mangrove prop roots create a maze-like “nursery” beneath the water where young crabs, shrimp and small fish such as snook and mullet can swim, but the large fishes that prey on them cannot. The prop roots also provide a place for oysters, barnacles and anemones to attach while birds like the top of the trees as roosting sites. Today mangroves on public and private lands are a protected species because of the good they do for the ecosystem.

4-H members through the Marine Ecology Event and the 4-H Afterschool program “Walk on the Wet Side” have a chance to learn and study about each of these important ecosystems. 4-H members also have the opportunity to participate in a state wide competition to test what they have learned through study, field trips, and meetings.

Pinellas County Marine Teams at the 2007 State Marine Ecology Event held in Kissimmee, Florida

Pinellas County Marine Teams

2007 State Marine Ecology Event held in Kissimmee, Florida.

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