The North American Coastal Plain, stretching from the Florida Keys north to Massachusetts, was recently declared a global diversity hotspot — one of the richest and most threatened reservoirs of plant and animal life on Earth. Evelyn Gaiser, executive director of the School of Environment, Arts and Society, offers perspective on the designation. This is the second in a series on Global Biodiversity Hotspot No. 36.
The recent declaration by Conservation International of the North Atlantic Coastal Plain (NACP) as Global Biodiversity Hotspot No. 36 represents an important step forward for the conservation of ecosystems of South Florida.
Although it appears at the bottom tip of the large NACP region, the Everglades watershed has much to contribute and even more to gain by this new designation. The Everglades has long been recognized as an icon to the international community, bearing status as a U.S. national park, UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve and RAMSAR Convention Wetland of International Importance. These designations reflect global recognition of the socially significant environmental value of the Everglades. This new designation specifically calls attention to its remarkable, but highly threatened, biodiversity.
To attain status as a Biodiversity Hotspot, an area must support more than 1,500 endemic vascular plants, yet have experienced greater than 70 percent habitat loss. The Everglades has long been recognized for its wealth of biodiversity, and for its unfortunate history of habitat destruction and transformation due to agriculture and development.
Why, then, is it such a late-comer to this global collection of hotspots? Perhaps its true diversity has gone unrecognized due to a historical paucity of biodiversity research compared to the other listed regions. Perhaps its true diversity is surprising because it is geologically a relatively young ecosystem, with water flooding the flat peninsula as sea levels rose and stabilized 4,000 years ago following the last glaciation.
Regardless of the reason, the Everglades is a worthy contributor to this status for the NACP. More than 65 endemic plant taxa occupy the pine rocklands, tropical hardwood hammocks, bayheads, willowheads, cypress forests, sawgrass marshes, wet prairies, ponds, creeks and sloughs of the Everglades. These ecosystems are confined to 5,000 km2, a seemingly large area until one considers an original expanse of 12,000 km2 of wetland that has been converted to human use.
This new conservation status for the Everglades has meaning beyond our own region, as the Everglades has emblematized the wetlands of the world by the diversity it harbors, and through its provisioning of clean freshwater, air and food for wildlife and for people. It serves as a sentinel for global change because of its sensitivity to the activities of humans. This sentinel has been sounding alarms for decades, as thousands of miles of canals and levees have diverted millions of gallons of water that is now dumped to the sea. Freshwater diversion, nutrient pollution, invasive species and sea level rise have caused unmitigated changes in the Everglades, leading to a long list of plants and animals vulnerable to extinction.
Protection and restoration of the Everglades is dependent on our ability to predict and influence its future as it responds to these changes. It also depends on the level to which citizens understand and value it, and engage in fostering a viable future for its inhabitants and functions.
This is why FIU is deeply committed to Everglades research. Our Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research (FCE LTER) Program is dedicated to collaborative studies that unravel the connection between biodiversity, ecosystem function and human recognition of environmental values. Our researchers work closely with scientists, NGOs and agency managers to develop solutions for a sustainable South Florida.
Scientists, environmentalists, managers and educators are working together to make sure that the Everglades is understood and valued by citizens both near and far so that we can all engage in fostering a viable future for all of the inhabitants, both human and not, of this international treasure.
Evelyn E. Gaiser, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
Executive Director, School of Environment, Arts and Society
Lead Principal Investigator, Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program