The Everglades is a subtropical wetland ecosystem spanning two million acres across central and south Florida. During the wet season, Lake Okeechobee overflows, releasing water into a very slow moving, shallow river dominated by sawgrass marsh—dubbed the "river of grass." The water flows southward, passing through diverse habitats, including cypress swamps, wet prairie, and mangroves, until it reaches Everglades National Park and eventually Florida Bay.
Originally the Greater Everglades ecosystem had a large diversity of habitats connected by wetlands and water bodies. Since the 1800s, humans have been altering the Everglades landscape. Water diversions and flood control structures restrict the flow of water across the sensitive landscape. Combined with agricultural and urban development, the size of the Everglades has decreased dramatically, affecting the quality of habitats in the area.
The Everglades is surrounded by human development, including the cities of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Its wetlands and wildlife draw large numbers of birders, anglers, boaters, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The Everglades also provides critical, and often undervalued, benefits to people, called ecosystem services. For example, the Everglades ecosystem provides drinking water for one-third of Floridians and irrigation for much of the state's agriculture. The wetlands improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing excess nutrients, replenish aquifers, and reduce flooding.
The Everglades is internationally known for its extraordinary wildlife. More than 360 bird species can be found in Everglades National Park alone. The Everglades is known for its many wading birds, such as white and glossy ibises, roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons, and wood storks. It also hosts huge numbers of smaller migratory birds. Some birds, such as the snail kite, wood stork, and Cape Sable seaside sparrow are threatened or endangered species.
The Everglades' most endangered animal, a mammal, is the Florida panther. Fewer than 100 individuals now survive. Other well-known Everglades mammals are water-dwellers, such as the West Indian manatee, which is also endangered, and the bottlenose dolphin.
Both alligators and crocodiles live in the Everglades and are sometimes mistaken for each other. American alligators like deep, freshwater channels of water (called sloughs) and wet prairie, where they dig out ponds for nesting. The American crocodile lives in the coastal mangroves and Florida Bay. In addition to these reptiles, Everglades National Park alone has 27 different kinds of snakes.
The diversity of Everglades' habitats means there's also a great diversity of plants. In wetland prairies and marshes, plants range from salt-loving sawgrass and bladderwort to cypress and mangrove trees. Pine trees and hardwoods are found on "tree islands", or hardwood hammocks. The Everglades is also home to a high diversity of beautiful orchids, some of which spend their entire life up in the trees, getting their nutrients through aerial roots from the air, rain, and organic matter around them.
The Everglades is being threatened by numerous plants and animals that were introduced both on purpose and by accident. Some introduced species become a small part of the landscape, while others thrive at the expense of native plants and wildlife. When an introduced species puts additional stresses on native wildlife and threatens habitats, it's called an invasive species.
Due to the alteration of water flows and interruption in the natural pattern of wildfires, invasive species are a significant threat in the Everglades. These species from other parts of the world are taking advantage of the unbalanced conditions to establish themselves, whereas native plants and animals are struggling to survive. An invasive species is able to spread throughout new ecosystems because it doesn't have the natural predators from its native land to keep it in check. Once they've become established, these invaders are hard to stop.
About 1.7 million acres of the Everglades have been invaded by non-native plants, such as the Brazilian peppertree, Chinese privet, the broad-leaved paperbark tree or "melaleuca", and Old World climbing fern. Another harmful invasive species is the Burmese python, which likely escaped into the park when hurricanes destroyed the captive breeding facilities used to furnish pet owners. These voracious and secretive snakes have nearly wiped out most small mammals in the park, and Burmese pythons have even been known to prey on alligators. Other animal invaders that prey on, or compete with, native species include Cuban tree frogs, which eat smaller native frogs, and Nile monitors, which eat burrowing owls and crocodile eggs.
Restoring the Everglades ecosystem will help to prevent new invasions and keep established invasive species in check. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was approved in 2000. It is intended to restore, protect, and preserve the Everglades by capturing freshwater that now flows unused to the ocean and the gulf, and redirect it to areas that need it most for environmental restoration.
Restoring the Everglades will also have significant ecological benefits to places like Florida Bay and Charlotte Harbor, which depend upon freshwater from the Everglades to maintain the critical balance between fresh and saltwater necessary for healthy estuaries.
The Everglades Foundation
Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan
Everglades National Park (U.S. National Park Service)
The Everglades C-43 West Basin Reservoir
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