Big Cypress National Preserve Prairies and Grasslands

Cypress prairies are usually dominated by graminoid ground cover made up of species common in prairies, such as muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), or saw grass (Cladium jamaicense). Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees are common in these prairies, but seldom attain a large size. This is partly because the limestone caprock that is a common component of substrates in our area, is close to the soil surface, and inhibits the establishment and growth of cypress trees. Small solution holes or fractures that perforate some areas of the caprock beneath prairies allow cypress trees limited growth. This results in limited area for cypress trees to grow, so that they are able to become established, but remain small. These trees may persist for several decades, but do not get large; these trees are termed 'dwarf' or 'hatrack' cypress. These areas are inundated (usually less than 1' water depth) through much of the wet season. Soils are largely fine particles of calcium carbonate (marl), often with sand, and include: Chobee, Winder, and Gator Soils; Ochopee Fine Sandy Loam; Ochopee Fine Sandy Loam, Low; Pennsucco Silt Loam (Liudahl et al. 1998).

Herbaceous Prairie Prairie communities in our area are typically seasonally inundated, short grass communities. Herbaceous broad-leaved plants are common components of these communities, but do not usually dominate them. Graminoids (herbaceous grasses or grass-like plants) such as muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), blue maidencane (Amphicarpum muhlenbergianum), or south Florida bluestem (Schizachyrium rhizomatum) often dominate these prairies. Prairie communities often develop in areas with limestone caprock near the ground surface. In these communities, the thin layer of soil above the caprock does not support trees, so that vegetation is limited to ground cover. These areas are inundated for part of the year, and receive much sunlight, so that algae and cyanobacteria proliferate in the water. These autotrophs, and other associated microbes, form periphyton, a microbial community that is common in prairies. Periphyton is important as an early link in the wetland food web, and as a substrate-generating component of prairie communities. Photosynthetic activity of the periphyton autotrophs changes the pH of the surrounding water (see above: Cypress Domes), so that calcium carbonate is precipitated from the water to form marl, a fine calcium carbonate mud that is typical of prairie substrates.

Prairie communities may occur on many soils, but are often found on frequently flooded fine sands or calcium carbonate marls; limestone is commonly near the soil surface in prairie areas. Soil types that often support prairie communities are: Pennsuco silt loam; Ochopee fine sandy loams; Hallandale and Boca fine sands; Kesson muck, frequently flooded; Estero and Peckish soils, frequently flooded Marshes Marshes are wetland communities that are dominated by herbaceous plants and occasional shrubs. These communities are typically inundated nearly year-round, and have substrates with a thick organic mantle on the surface. Marshes are usually dominated by herbaceous species, but a marsh that is dominated by grasses or sedges may be considered a graminoid marsh. Grasses usually occur in areas with some part of the year without standing water, but related graminoids (grass-like plants) may be common in areas with prolonged hydroperiods. The graminoid that is probably most common in such areas is saw grass (Cladium jamaicense). Saw grass is a sedge (Cyperaceae) that is commonly found in wetlands with various depths to limestone, often with a significant organic peat layer covering the limestone. This organic layer is usually derived from sawgrass. Other similar communities that are dominated by different grass-like plants may also be graminoid marshes, and would be identified by the graminoid that is the dominant ground cover plant. Marshes are commonly dominated by broad-leafed plants, such as pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata), cat-tail (Typha domingensis or T. Latifolia), or duck potato (Sagitaria spp.). These wetlands have comparatively deep water (1.5 - 2.0 m) during the wet season, and persist as aquatic communities year-round or well into the dry season. These deeper areas provide refugia for fish during dry seasons, when few places are under water, and also tend to concentrate populations of fish and other aquatic animals as water levels decrease with dry weather. Many wading birds, such as wood storks (Mycteria americana) and American egrets (Casmerodius albus) depend on these concentrated prey populations, to find sufficient food for nesting and brood rearing.

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