Florida is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Our state has miles of coasts that border both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. When you get tired of playing in the surf, the Florida Everglades in the south and the state’s network of spring- and rain-fed rivers offer plenty of recreational and nature-watching opportunities. When most people think of Florida, mild winters and hot, humid summers come to mind.
Many don’t realize that we have a hidden ecosystem in Florida that’s called a dry prairie. In addition to missing unique opportunities to explore this area, many people aren’t aware of the steps that they can take to help protect disappearing landscapes like the Florida dry prairie for future generations. By describing the landscape and its ecological significance, we hope to inspire you to discover these little-known ecozones.
What are Dry Prairies?
Florida dry prairies are expansive areas of grasslands that are similar to the prairies in the Midwest. While these dry prairies aren’t particularly parched, they are more arid than most regions of Florida. The waterways and springs that traverse much of the state are not present in the dry prairies that are mainly located north of Lake Okeechobee. As a result, fires spread quickly over the land every one to four years. The fires and lack of abundant water sources keep trees from growing in the dry prairies, which is how the region maintains its characteristic flat appearance.
The “dry prairie” moniker duped early real estate investors. They visited the area during its dry, winter season when the landscape shone to the best advantage. During the summer rains, the land retained water, and the dry prairies turned into unappealing marshes. According to historical accounts, Florida’s dry prairies covered about 1.2 million acres before major European settlement. The unique ecosystem is now confined to the acreage in a few state parks.
Historical Significance of Dry Prairies
Early European settlers valued the expansive grasslands of Central Florida for cattle grazing. When Spanish explorers saw the miles of green grass that covered much of modern-day Florida during the 1500s, they brought horses and cows to the new land. By the 1700s, Florida was a much different place. A new set of Europeans struggled to survive there, and the rich pastureland was devoured by industrialization and progress. The wild cattle that were left over from the Spanish settlers moved into the dry prairie region looking for better food. Native Americans and English settlers captured them and kept them as sources of food, clothing, and trade.
The remoteness of this wilderness region also made it an ideal place for military training exercises. The military used the area extensively before and after WWII for B-17 bomb run practices. An Air Force installation is still there. Over the years, fires from bombs, lightning, and unchecked camp fires helped to keep the prairies fertile and deterred growth of trees. Native Americans, Spanish settlers, English cowboys, and industrious railroad investors helped to shape the region. Of the nearly 3 million acres of original Florida dry prairie, we’ve only preserved about 10 percent of this unique ecosystem.
Importance of Preserving Florida Dry Prairies
Our state’s dry prairies remain important to the economy and well-being of Floridians. They offer a home for plants and animals that make positive contributions to the local ecology. If you like to eat(!), you should pay careful attention to Florida’s dry prairies. These regions attract pollinators. In recent years, the number of Florida’s bees and butterflies have decreased due to diseases and rises in suburban development. By protecting these areas, we hope to increase the number of pollinators in Central Florida that support the area’s agriculture industry.
For some animal species, preservation of Florida’s dry prairies is their only hope of survival. Have you ever seen a Carolina Parakeet? It’s likely that you’ve only seen a picture of this bird that used to nest in Florida’s dry prairies. This native bird was last seen in the wild over 90 years ago and is now extinct. The Florida Grasshopper Sparrow is an endangered species that doesn’t migrate far from Central Florida’s dry prairies. When at least 90 percent of their habitat was converted into non-native grass, pastureland, the bird’s population took a nosedive. The Whooping Crane and Crested Caracaras are two other species of threatened wildlife that appreciate our efforts to save Florida’s dry prairies.
Best Ways to Explore This Exciting Ecosystem
To experience Florida’s dry prairies, you’ll need to be in Florida northwest of Lake Okeechobee. While a leisurely drive in your car allows you to get a glimpse of the topography, a hike through one of our state parks is the best way to explore this nature zone. Myakka River State Park, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, and Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area are three places that offer trails and tours of the state’s dry prairies.
The Kissimmee preserve is a go-to destination for family’s with budding ecologists and future environmentalists in tow. The park has 100 miles of service roads that are shared among hikers, cyclists, and park vehicles. During a day trip there, you might even see a few people taking to the trails on horseback. For a fully immersive experience, make reservations to camp there. The park has 35 camp sites that accommodate camping in tents, cars, and recreational vehicles. Modern amenities such as bathrooms, showers, and laundry facilities make extended stay in the park comfortable for everyone. Plants and animals aren’t the only features of this ecosystem. After sunset, you’ll want to look up for an astronomical display that isn’t visible in most parts of the state. Because the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is in a remote location, city lights and smog don’t hinder night-sky viewing.
Flora and Fauna That Live in This Ecosystem
While your chances of spotting Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, Whooping Cranes, and Crested Caracaras are slim, there are other native species of flora and fauna that are waiting to meet you at one of our state parks. Our park rangers and staff members have done an exceptional job of restoring the natural habitat of native wildlife within the parks. They have removed threats to nesting birds such as feral hogs and have established artificial nests that work for some bird species such as the rare Burrowing Owl. The Cotton Rat, Shrew, and Harvest Mouse are some mammals that you’ll see living in Florida’s dry prairies. If rodents aren’t your favorite animals to share a spot within your next Instagram selfie, the area’s Spotted Skunks might pose for pictures.
Grasses, plants, and shrubs provide sources of food and shelter for the native wildlife of Florida’s dry prairies. Within the last 50 years, private businesses planted sod grasses within the dry prairies that supported cattle grazing. These grasses crowded out native plants and the wildlife that depended on those plants. At state parks, we care for native plants such as saw palmetto, staggerbush, and carpet grasses for your viewing pleasure and to save the homes of threatened endemic wildlife.
Our rangers and state park staff do the best that they can to keep Florida’s dry prairies unchanged by modern lifestyles. They can’t save these areas alone, however. You can help by volunteering as an individual or with a group to do tasks such as removing invasive plant species and participating in park improvement projects. Volunteering is a great way to help preserve the prairies while enjoying the beauty of this distinctive region.