The Everglades are a natural region of subtropical wetlands, located in the Southern Florida, which comprises the southern half of a large watershed. The system begins in Orlando at the Kissimmee River, which discharges into the vast but shallow Lake Okeechobee. Water which overflows and leaves the lake in the wet season, forms a slow-moving river 60 miles (97 km) wide and over 100 miles (160 km) long, this river flows southward across a limestone shelf to the Florida Bay, at the southern end of the state of Florida.
The first written record of the Everglades was on Spanish maps made by cartographers who had never before seen the land. They named the unknown area between the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida Laguna del Espíritu Santo ("Lake of the Holy Spirit"). The Everglades is a 50-mile-wide, slow-moving river full of sawgrass, consequently nicknamed the River of Grass. This river of grass begins at Lake Okeechobee, a Native American word meaning "Big Waters"
Lake Okeechobee is a one of a kind lake. The lake covers 730 square miles and has an average depth of 15 feet. When the waters of Lake Okeechobee overflow, they naturally flow into the River of Grass, slowly moving southward towards the Gulf of Mexico.There are essentially two seasons in the Everglades: wet and dry. Climate conditions vary from one extreme to other. While at times food is readily available and easy to secure, at other times, the animals which inhabit this magical place on Earth are hard pressed to find a decent day's meal.
The park is divided into five unique ecosystems.
The Hammock ecosystem is characterized by closed canopy forests, dominated by a diverse assemblage of evergreen and semi deciduous tree and shrub species, mostly of West Indian origin. Tropical hardwood hammocks are habitat for a few endemic plants and are a critical habitat for many West Indian plant species when the northernmost portions of their ranges extend into South Florida.Tropical hardwood hammocks also provide important habitat for many species of wildlife, including nine federally listed endangered species. Some animals that inhabit the Hammock are the Grey Fox, the Green Snake, the Box Turtle, the Tree Snail, and the Tree Frog.
Federally listed animals that depend upon or utilize tropical hardwood hammocks in South Florida include: Florida panther, Kirtland's warbler, eastern indigo snake, Key deer, Key Largo cotton mouse, Key Largo woodrat, Schaus swallowtail butterfly, and Stock Island tree snail. Hardwood hammocks in the Big Cypress region provides an extremely important habitat for the Florida panther.
The eastern indigo snake is found in tropical hardwood hammocks throughout South Florida, as well as other communities such as sandhill and scrub.
The Mangrove ecosystem is characterized by the establishment of Mangrove trees. Eventually the water from Lake Okeechobee and The Big Cypress makes its way to the ocean. Mangrove trees are well suited for survival in the transitional zone of brackish water where fresh and salt water meet. The Everglades have the most extensive continuous system of mangroves in the world.
The estuarine ecosystem of the Ten Thousand Islands, which is comprised almost completely of mangrove forest, covers almost 200,000 acres (810 km2). In the wet season, fresh water pours out into the Florida Bay, consequently giving way to sawgrass growth along the coastline. In the dry season, and particularly in extended periods of dry drought, the salt water creeps inland into the coastal prairie, an ecosystem that buffers the freshwater marshes by absorbing sea water. Mangrove trees begin to grow in freshwater ecosystems when the salt water reaches and travels far enough inland.
Some of the most common animals that live in this ecosystem are the: American Crocodile, American Alligator, Brown Pelican, Green Sea Turtle, Manatee, Osprey, and the Roseate Spoonbill. Experience the wonder of the Everglades by taking narrated tours of the Everglades The Pineland ecosystem is some of the driest land in the Everglades. The Pineland is located in the highest part of the Everglades with little to no hydroperiod. Some floors, however, may have flooded solution holes or puddles for a few months at a time.The most significant feature of the pineland is the single species of South Florida slash pine. Pineland communities require fire to maintain them, and the trees have several adaptations that simultaneously promote and resist fire. The sandy floor of the pine forest is covered with dry pine needles that are highly flammable. South Florida slash pines are insulated by their bark to protect them from heat. Fire eliminates competing vegetation on the forest floor, and opens pine cones to germinate seeds. A period without significant fire can turn pineland into a hardwood hammock as larger trees overtake the slash pines. The understory shrubs in pine rocklands are the fire-resistant saw palmetto, cabbage palm , and West Indian lilac.The most diverse group of plants in the pine community are the herbs, of which there are two
dozen species. These plants contain tubers and other mechanisms that allow them to sprout quickly after being charred.Some of the more commonly seen animals in the Pinelands are the:Diamondback Rattlesnake, Coral Snake, Barred Owl, Black Bear, Wood Pecker, and the Red Mouse Snake.
The Sawgrass Marshes and Slough ecosystem is the primary feature of the Everglades. The iconic water and sawgrass combination in the shallow river 100 miles (160 km) long and 60 miles (97 km) wide that spans from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay is often referred to as the "true Everglades" or just "the Glades".Sawgrass thrives in the slowly moving water, but may die in unusually deep floods if oxygen is unable to reach its roots, and it is particularly vulnerable immediately after a fire.