In the swamps of Everglades National Park, there is much to be learned about the unusual adaptations and delicate balances that support the Everglades's stunning array of life. You might see white egg sacs on a branch that will soon hatch apple snails, the main food of the endangered snail kite, which has a special bill for removing the snails from their shells. Or you might learn about a fish called the gar, which has an air bladder that acts like a primitive lung that allows it to live encased in mud during the dry season.
The source of all this life is water, with its cycle of flow and drought. During the wet season, from mid-April to mid-December, the Everglades becomes a river only inches deep but miles wide. It flows so slowly that its movement is all but invisible. In the dry season, during the winter months, the park's rich pulse of life slows down and awaits the new flow of water.
©2006 National Park Services
Known as the "river of grass," the Everglades are flooded by heavy
summer rains that drain into the brackish waters of Florida Bay.
Every kind of life in the park, from plankton to panthers, depends upon this annual rhythm. Even people function on this natural timetable; park officials schedule most activities during the dry season, since high humidity and clouds of insects, especially mosquitos, make the wet season extremely disagreeable.
Congress created the first national parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, to preserve spectacular and unusual scenery. Established in 1947, Everglades National Park was the first park specifically designated to protect a large and fragile ecosystem that was facing a grave threat from encroaching civilization. Because human activity was interfering with the yearly water cycle, this land was in extreme danger of being destroyed.
Water once flowed out of Lake Okeechobee without interference, but the rapid development of southern Florida began to overwhelm the Everglades about a century ago, when large tracts of wetland were considered potentially rich for agriculture and drained. Since then, canals, levees, and dikes have diverted more and more vital water from the Everglades to supply the needs of agribusiness, as well as commercial and residential developments.
In 1939, as a result of overdraining, the Everglades was engulfed by immense fires. During the 1960s, retaining walls were built on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee, and land has been developed in Big Cypress Swamp. This has disrupted the natural flow of water and poses a serious threat to the park's ecosystem.
Today, irrigated farmland comes right up to the park's gates. In the past few years, the number of herons and other wading birds in the park has dramatically declined, and there are just a few Florida panthers left out of a population that once roamed southern Florida at will.
Park officials want to purchase privately held wetlands east of the park, hoping that this will give Everglades a greater share of the water it so desperately needs. If its area can be extended, the park will be able to continue to protect this extremely fragile and extremely valuable ecosystem.
The endangered Everglades cannot continue to support its myriad of wildlife inhabitants unless a solution to the water-shortage problem can be found. A trip to Everglades National Park convinces many visitors that these Florida wetlands must be saved so that future generations will have the chance to see the same delightful wonders we see today.
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