Habitats of the Treasure Coast
WHAT IS A HABITAT?
The environments in which plants and animals live, evolve from physical forces as well as from the impacts of plants and animals themselves.
A variety of habitats occur in the Treasure Coast Region making the area extremely diverse with over 2,200 plant and animal species. The ecosystem is very complex, and we must understand that when we affect one part of the system, we may be affecting all parts. Some, not all, habitats are mentioned in this section including communities found in both estuarine and freshwater wetlands as well as upland environments.
SEAGRASSES AND MANGROVES
The Indian River Lagoon, a shallow body of brackish water that extends 156 miles along Florida’s east coast, contains important habitats that support a variety of life. Both seagrasses and mangroves are the lifeblood of the estuary. Seagrasses are flowering plants that live submerged in marine waters. Manatees, sea turtles and many other creatures rely on seagrasses for food and shelter. Seagrasses act as nursery grounds for fish and invertebrates, maintain water quality, act as contaminant sinks, and form the basis of the marine detrital food web.
The clarity of surrounding water has an effect on seagrass survival since they require light for photosynthesis. A decrease in light reaching the grass blades can reduce the ability of the plants to produce food, thus possibly causing them to die.
Mangroves are tropical trees that have adapted to growing in salt water. Three species of mangrove trees are found along the shore of the Indian River Lagoon: the red, the white and the black mangrove. Mangroves also serve as an important food sources for many species. They also serve as important roosting and nesting habitat for endangered and threatened birds. Eighty percent or more of recreational and commercial fish spend part of their lives in these tidal wetlands.
Just to the east of the Indian River Lagoon lies a thin strip of land that is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. Here, beach and dune habitat is used by many creatures, including humans. Several types of plants which have taken root along the upper shoreline, and the most conspicuous of these are sea oats. Sea oats are grasses that are good at colonizing, and are capable of rapidly putting out new roots when portions of their lower stem become covered with drifting sand.
Other colonizer plants that live with the sea oats on the foredune are railroad-vine (a type of morning glory) and the cucumber-leaved sunflower. Plants that inhabit dunes play a very important role in stabilizing the shifting sands of the dune.
SCRUB UPLAND HABITAT
Both the freshwater and marine wetlands in the Treasure Coast Region are bordered by higher upland habitat. The scrub is one upland habitat in this region. Scrub is Florida's oldest plant community. This habitat is a place where trees are stunted and scrubby and plant life is scattered among patches of infertile sand.
In the daytime, scrub habitat becomes so hot that many animals are driven underground for relief until dark. Yet, scrub habitat contains a variety of plants and animals found no other place in the world. The Florida scrub jay, Gopher tortoise, and Indigo snake are a few of the rare animals that live in the scrub.
Plants, such as Rosemary and lichen, survive in the loose sterile sand. These plants have adapted to surviving in the harsh, unique scrub habitat. Come explore the scrub at the Manatee Observation and Education Center by viewing our interactive display.
TROPICAL HAMMOCK HABITAT
The term "hammock" is derived from an American Indian term that refers to the slightly higher elevation of the land. Just a few inches of increased elevation allows development of hammocks in areas often right next to lower elevation wetlands which are covered by water for much of the year.
Hardwood trees such as oak, and other trees grow to their full massive size due to the higher nutrient and water content of the soil. The largest oaks in the hammock are several hundred years old. Hammocks are often cooler and shadier than other areas due to the dense canopy of tree limbs. Shade-tolerant plants grow abundantly, such as wild coffee, a closely related plant to the species of coffee plants grown by man for coffee beans.
Freshwater wetlands are also found in the Treasure Coast Region. Areas such as the Savannas Preserve contain lakes, marsh and wet prairies. These areas have a low elevation which is flooded by rainfall. The water is shallow, one to three feet deep, and is covered with sparse vegetation such as Saw-grass, St. John's wort, and Marsh Pink. Animal species found in these habitats include alligator, wading birds, bald eagle, roseate spoonbills, and sandhill cranes.