When I was visiting Everglades National Park, I could not skip Big Cypress National Preserve, located relatively around the corner. After my guided tour and experience in Everglades, I was quite confident that Big Cypress cannot be just a swamp. I was going there with one idea in my mind, to see majestic cypress trees, which I saw only in books at forest botany classes. Read further to learn more about the ecosystem of Big Cypress National Preserve…
The orgin of Big Cypress
In 1974, U.S. Congress created Big Cypress National Preserve to protect the fresh water’s natural flow from the Big Cypress Swamp into the Everglades and Ten Thousand Islands.
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In the Preserve, fresh water feeds a mosaic of five distinct habitats in its 729 000 acres and is vital to the health of southwest Florida’s estuaries and the Gulf of Mexico. After the Tamiami Trail was finished in 1928, South Florida saw its first real estate boom. Between the creation of Everglades National Park in 1947 and the late 1960s, the Big Cypress Swamp faced many threats.
The construction of a massive jetport was begun in 1968 and the orginal plan was to create the world’s largest jetport with the world’s largest runway. If the project and the development to follow had been completed, it would have devastated the natural flow of fresh water through the Big Cypress Swamp.
Ultimately, a diverse coalition including conservationists, hunters, private landowners, and Seminole and Miccosukee peoples managed to stop the jetport development and to secure permanent protection for this unique landscape.
In order to honor customary uses of those who worked together to protect the area, Congress created a new type of parkland – a national preserve. The national preserve in the U.S. is a type of National Park Service that has characteristics normally associated with U.S. National Parks but where certain natural resource-extractive activities such as fishing, hunting, mining, and oil/gas exploration and extraction are permitted. Without exceptions, today such activities take place in Big Cypress.
When I entered Big Cypress, first I saw red-shouldered hawk, which invited me to explore further his forests.
In Big Cypress and Florida in general, the red-shouldered hawk is perhaps the most commonly seen and heard raptor species (outside of abundant black and turkey vultures). However, human activity, including logging, poisoning from insecticides and industrial pollutants, continue to loom as threats to the species. Like in Europe, in U.S. many species, including red-shouldered hawks and other raptors suffered from exposure to DDT, a pesticide, which was causing eggs to have thin, breakable shells, reducing their ability to reproduce. Presently, the DDT is outlawed.
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Nevertheless, in spite of many dangers (e.g. power lines, automobiles, DDT in the past), habitat loss remains the biggest threat to red-shouldered hawks and many species in Big Cypress National Preserve.
Five main habitats in Big Cypress
Unlike the vast sea of grass that makes up the Everglades, Big Cypress has five primary habitats: hardwood hammocks, pinelands, prairies, cypress swamps and estuaries. Seen from above they form a mosaic. Each of these habitats have distinctive soils, plants, and animals, based on its elevation and how long surface water stays on it. Water links these habitats as it flows toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Taxodium distichum (commonly known as also bald-cypress, southern-cypress, tidewater red-cypress, Gulf-cypress or swamp cypress) is a conifer in the family Cupressaceae that grows on saturated and seasonally inundated soils in the lowlands of the Southeastern and Gulf Coastal Plains of the United States. Without any doubts, swamp cypress is a symbol of Big Cypress National Preserve.
Unlike most other species in the family Cupressaceae, Taxodium distichum is deciduous, losing its leaves in the winter months, hence the name ‘bald’.
What makes it majestic?
Taxodium distichum is a large slow-growing and long-lived tree typically reaching heights of 30–35 m (100–120 ft) and a trunk diameter of 1–2 m (3–6 ft). The bark is gray-brown to red-brown, thin and fibrous with a stringy texture.
The tallest known individual specimen, near Williamsburg, Virginia, is 44.11 m tall, while the oldest known specimen, located in Bladen County, North Carolina, is over 1620 years old, making this one of the oldest living plants in eastern North America. Therefore, you can see yourselves that swamp cypress is a very interesting tree species.
But swamp cypress has one feature, that makes it very majestic in my opinion – roots. First, bald cypress is one of the few conifer species that sprouts. Second, bald cypress trees growing in swamps have a peculiarity of growth called cypress knees, which are a distinctive structure forming above the roots of a cypress trees of any of various species of the subfamily Taxodioideae.
Interestingly, their function is not 100% known. Once researchers thought that cypress knees are used to provide oxygen to the roots, which grow in the low dissolved oxygen waters typical of a swamp, acting as pneumatophores (mangroves have similar adaptations). However, evidence for this is rather scant, as in fact, according to recent research, roots of swamp-dwelling specimens whose knees are removed do not decrease in oxygen content and the trees continue to thrive. Another more likely function is structural support and stabilization.
Main photo: Entering Big Cypress National Preserve Jurisdiction. Author of the photo: Rafal Chudy