Pine Flatwoods Ecosystem

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Pine flatwoods are the most common terrestrial ecosystem in the State of Florida, covering upwards of 50% of the natural land area. These low-lying pine forests were formed by fluctuations in sea level during glacial times. As sea level rose, large expanses of land were flooded and thick layers of sand were deposited on the sea bed. As sea level fell, pioneer species, such as pines, became established on the exposed flat, sandy soil. This fine-grained soil is nutrient-poor, acidic, and water percolates through it very slowly.

Pine flatwoods have very little topographic relief, as their name implies, they are flat. Relatively small changes in elevation have led to the habitat being interrupted randomly by cypress swamps, streams, and meandering rivers. In close proximity to these water bodies, the flatwoods are seasonally wetter, often with water standing above the surface. These are called hydric flatwoods. At greater distances from the aquatic features there is still good soil moisture, especially during the wet season. These are called mesic flatwoods. The lowest soil moisture results in a xeric flatwood, one that is wet only after extreme rain events.

All of these flatwood habitats are fire-dependent and, if left alone, will burn an average of once every three years. These fires maintain the ecology of the flatwood habitat by reducing underbrush, facilitating seed release from some plants (some pinecones won’t open until they’re heated), opening space for seedlings to grown, and they recycle nutrients from ash back into the soil, to be taken up by the next generation of plants. Many flatwood plant species are fire-tolerant, the best examples being the pines, whose thick bark scorches but rarely carries the fire up the trunk, and saw palmetto, which starts growing new fronds almost immediately after losing old ones to fire. Frequent fires consume understory shrubs and accumulated debris, which results in faster, cooler fires that don’t threaten the forest canopy. If fires are prevented, the shrubs and debris can build up to the point where fire can reach high into the trees and kill them.

The flatwood habitat supports a diverse group of animals. Some species are forest-dwellers, others just pass through, and some are listed as rare or endangered. Notable are Black bear, White tailed deer, Fox squirrels, Florida panther, Armadillo, Swallow-tailed kite, Red-tailed hawk, Red-cockaded woodpecker, Gray fox, Tree frogs, and Zebra-wing butterflies. All of these animals have adapted to a life supported by the beneficial effects of rain and fire.

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