Ecosystems

Nature's Landscape Ecosystems

Motorists traveling around town see different types of homes and landscaping. Some homes are sleek and modern, while others are built to look like country farmhouses. Lawns range from carpets of grass to gardens. All indicate the personal preferences of people. Nature, too, has preferences, landscaping various parts of Volusia County in different ways. But nature, unlike humans, can't bring potted plants indoors and it lacks irrigation systems to keep plants growing regardless of rainfall and terrain.

Nature's landscaping is selected by environmental conditions: climate, elevation, available water and soil type and pruned by a variety of natural gardeners. As a consequence, each of nature's "homes" or "yards" has a unique array of shrubs, flowers, trees, and animals that survive without man's assistance.

The oceanfront has different landscaping and biota (life) than the shore of the Mosquito Lagoon. Long-bladed sea oats send out long roots that grasp the shifting sand of the beachfront, where few other plants survive the salt and desert-like environment. Ghost crabs scurry to their holes in the sand that is washed by the waves at high tide. In the hypersaline Mosquito Lagoon, aquatic grasses grow in the sunlight that filters through the clear water. Occasionally a juvenile cannonball jellyfish swims by lazily. Along the shore, small trees called mangroves grow in the water on pitchfork like roots that support them in the muddy bottom. These roots hold the earth and shelter small crabs and fish.

Volusia County is a relatively flat land that barely keeps its head above water. Most of the county is only 25 feet above sea level. Only in extreme western Volusia County does the landscape rise to 110 feet above sea level. Volusia County would be a desert if Florida were not a peninsula. Florida falls within a belt of deserts that encircles the earth.

Instead, the state is a warm, green place where the oceans buffer weather fronts moving across the continental United States. In our county, the cooler temperate climate affects the environment both above and below water. Because of its location, warmth and moisture, Florida has one of the greatest biological diversities in the nation. Volusia County is near the northern limit of ocean coral reefs and tropical hammocks.

As you tour Volusia County you will find various ecological communities. Keep in mind that they are all interrelated and that each is home to a specific community of flora (plants) and fauna (animals).

A typical journey could begin at the ocean and end at freshwater marshes surrounding the St. John's River. The following are some of our county's major ecosystems and a short story of their formation. Let's take a journey. 

Coastal Ecosystems

Florida's coastline is the longest in the continental United States and Volusia County has some of the most beautiful beaches to be found in the state.  The beach is a very dynamic place; wind and waves are continually reshaping it.  Sea Oats, protected by the law, wave in the breeze and help to stabilize the dunes from erosion.  

 

Railroad vines with their beautiful morning-glory flower snake their way through the sand.  Close behind, thickets of saw palmetto, prickly-pear cactus and sea daisies also trap sand and create a protective hedge from strong winds and salt spray.  Our barrier island vegetation helps to buffer the destructive effects of storms and hurricanes.

Hardwoods

Sunlight shimmers off the fronds of ferns in the temperate hardwoods, and the dew sparkles from newly spun webs. Long brilliant fingers of light filter through the tree tops and reach down to spotlight majestic wildflowers, a giant live oak tree keeps a silent watch over Florida's oldest terrestrial ecosystem.
 

Hammocks have a diverse overstory composed mainly of broad leafed evergreen trees. Some of the predominant trees are the live oak (Quercus virginianus), laurel oak (Quercus laurifolia), water oak (Quercut niger), magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) pignut hickory (Carya glabra), sweet gum and the cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). 
 

The understory contains saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), French mulberry (Callicarpa arneri cana), sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) wild grape (Vitis spp. ), green briar (Smilax spp. ), yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and the Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus spp.). 

Lake/River Ecosystems

The morning sun causes thick vapor to rise from the broad, slow-flowing St. John's River, eliciting a feeling of mysticism. Lily pads and water hyacinths sway placidly in the morning breeze, while a largemouth bass lurks below, patiently awaiting his morning meal. On the shore, alligators bask in the sun, keeping a steady vigil over their domain. A bald eagle takes flight from atop an ancient cypress tree, keen eyes sensitive to the slightest movement.

As a canoe rounds a curve in the river, a great blue heron flies off the tree-lined bank and sails down the waterway. The only sound is the wind rustling fronds of palm trees. The scenery along Florida's longest river has no equal and visitors are awed at its beauty and tranquility.

The St. John's is the western boundary of Volusia County. It flows north, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville after a journey of 491 miles.

The wakes of boats have eroded the banks and many of the trees that stood vigil over her shoreline have fallen, but the river still has much natural beauty. A few alligators rest on the river's shores. Turtles sun on logs overhanging the water and trees grace the river's edge. The banks vary in height, rising to dry sandy ridges and dropping to dark, wet, lush forests that are periodically flooded.

The lower St. John's River is really an extensive estuary that receives drainage from a chain of lakes in the upper basin. The plants and animals of the northern portion are a mixture of freshwater and saltwater 

organisms.  Blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus) and mullet (Mugil spp.) can be found in the main channel and also in the adjacent springs.

The St. John's is a meandering and slow-flowing river that supports large populations of plankton. If you have a plankton net, (you can make one out of a nylon stocking), you can collect microscopic plankton in the northwestern corner of Volusia County at Lake George.

The dominant zooplankton (microscopic animals) will be cladocerans, (Daphnia spp.), copepods (Cyclops spp.) and rotifers (Pedalia spp. and Platyias spp.). The dominant phytoplankton (microscopic plants) will be diatoms (Asterionella spp. and Coscinodiscus spp.) and green algae (Closterium spp, Desmidium spp. and Oscillatoria spp.).

The macro fauna and flora found in the rivers of Volusia County are too numerous to list in this resource guide. However, some deserve mention.

Volusia County's rivers support very diverse populations of mollusks that are declining in numbers because of water pollution and habitat alterations. Some of the most common molluscans are the apple snail (Pomacea paludosa), the sphere-shell (Sphaerium spp.), and the clam (Unio spp.).

A number of insects have their immature stages in an aquatic environment. By inspecting the aquatic vegetation along our rivers you should be able to find larvae of dragonflies and damselflies (Order Odonata), and mayflies (Order Ephemeroptera). Mature insects that can be seen are the whirl-a-gig beetle (Gyrinus spp.), diving water beetle (Dytiscus spp.), hot-bug (Pelocoris spp.) and the water bug (Belostoma spp.).

Several crustaceans can be identified as you examine the shoreline vegetation. The most common will be the freshwater shrimp (Palaemonetes spp.), scud {Hyalella spp.) and the crayfish (Procambarus spp.).

The St. John's River is home to a reported 170 different species of fish. Some of the most abundant are the golden topminnow (Fundulus chrysotus), mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis), red-finned killifish (Lucania goodei), warmouth (Chaenobruttus coronarius), shellcracker (Leponis microlophus), speckled perch (Pomoxis nigromaculatus), Florida black bass (Micropterus salmoides), bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus), sailfin molly (Mollienenesia latipinna), channel catfish (Istalurus punctatus), alligator gar (Lepisostius spatula), chain pickerel (Esox niger) and the bowfin (Amia calva).

Reptiles and amphibians abound. Chances for sighting an alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) are good, but don't venture too close. Many frogs can be found such as the pig frog (Rana grylio), bull frog (Rana catesbeiana), and green treefrog (Hyla cinerea). Water snakes that can be seen are the cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) and the Florida banded water snake (Natrix fascinata). Turtles include the musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), mud turtle (Kinosternon bauri), Florida cooter (Chrysemys floridana) and the snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
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A mammal, the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus), can be observed in the rivers of Volusia County. In the winter, manatees enter our rivers because of their relatively warm waters. They come to the surface periodically to breathe and are frequently hit by motor boat propellers. These large aquatic mammals are undergoing intensive study because of the precarious nature of their existence and their potential in controlling aquatic weeds.

The emergent and submergent aquatic vegetation along our rivers serves as habitat for numerous organisms. The most abundant plants are pickerel weed (Pontederia lanceolata), pennywort (Hydrocotyle spp.) coontail moss (Ceratophylum demersum), water fern (Salvinia rotundifolia), and duckweed (Lemna minor). Plants that have been introduced into our rivers includes water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata).

Volusia County has three freshwater rivers: the Tomoka, Spruce Creek, and the St. John's. Each is navigable and hosts a wide variety of fauna and flora.

Going north on Interstate 95 from Daytona take Highway 40 east to Ormond Beach and follow the signs to Tomoka State Park to view the Tomoka River.

Spruce Creek, contained entirely within Volusia County, is located approximately six miles south of Daytona Beach near the town of Port Orange. Interstate 95 crosses over Spruce Creek.

Just west of DeLand on Highway 44 are signs directing you to Hontoon Island State Park. The park is a great place to view the St. John's River. The rangers are on duty seven days a week and the ferry ride to the island allows a beautiful view of the river. 

Mangroves

A snowy egret stands motionless near a small tree whose tangled roots form a thicket above the mud. The bird is taking aim at a young crab, and the crab senses danger. The crab darts for safety under the roots just as the egret strikes. Countless times a day this dance is repeated. The birds eat. Crabs survive. 

Along the swampy shores of the Indian River grow dense clusters of mangroves. They thrive in the salty water and soils that kill other plants.

These trees help hold the soil and provide places for birds to nest and rest. Northward along Florida's east coast, the "walking trees" (Red Mangroves) are seen less and less frequently.  Because of East Florida's more temperate climate, the red mangrove gives away to the more cold tolerant black mangrove. Occasional hard freezes in Volusia County graphically illustrate the northern boundary of these tropical trees.

Among the mangroves may be seen the osprey, snowy egret (Egretta thula), roseate spoonbill and the brown pelican. Small fish and crabs seek shelter in the roots of the red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) that grow in the water. On slightly higher ground the larger black mangrove (Avicennia germinans) and white mangrove (Laguncularia racemosa) grow.

The red mangrove leaves are the principal source of food in the estuary. When the leaves fall and begin to decompose into finer particles, they become covered with fungi, bacteria and protozoa (one-celled animals). Because of this covering, during the decaying process the dead leaf particles increase in protein and caloric value. Omnivores (animals that eat plant and animal tissue) ingest these leaf particles covered with microorganisms. It appears that the microorganism convert plant tissue into fungal and bacterial protein which omnivores, such as fish and invertebrates, are able to utilize.

Some of the omnivores that use this detrital (dead and decaying matter) food source are amphipods, copepods, shrimp, penaeid shrimp, crabs, and many species of fish.

Marsh & Swamp Ecosystems

In the sawgrass, a crayfish wrestles for its life as the long, orange bill of a white ibis closes around it. In the marshes, ibis sometimes gather by the hundreds and from a distance they look like a teeming mass of white against the green plant backdrop. Billowing grey clouds gather into summertime rain storms pierced by shafts of sun. Ibis passing through the light look like brilliant shimmering specks. When the clouds clear, the sun beams down on the watery domain of airboats, fishermen, and alligators.

Marshes are wetlands dominated by herbaceous plants rooted in, and usually protruding from, shallow water that stands above the ground surface most of the year. Volusia County's marshes are most common in the St. John's River floodplain where they have fluctuating water levels and recurring fires. Fire plays an important role in the ecology of marshes by limiting the invasion of woody vegetation.  Freshwater marshes make up about a third of Florida's wetland ecosystems. A large part of western Volusia County is landscaped by freshwater marshes. 

Most people get only a glimpse of this beautiful ecosystem while motoring west on Highway 44 toward the mighty St. John's.  What goes unseen is a broad band of lush grassy marshes, islands, lakes and creeks that support a wide variety of plants and animals. This is our county's equivalent of the Everglades. Our freshwater marsh system is in a flat basin associated with the St. John's River floodplain.

Only a small percentage of Volusia County's freshwater marshes remain. The principal cause of ecological degradation has been water loss as a result of man's influence. Loss of marshes has continued in recent years, mostly due to agricultural conversion. The marshes are of paramount importance for their recreational value, flood control, production of fish and wildlife, water quality maintenance and wastewater renovation.

A good place to observe this ecosystem is in DeLeon Springs at the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. To enjoy this beautiful preserve go north from DeLand on Highway 17 to DeLeon Springs. Turn west on Retta Street and then south on Grand Avenue. From Grand Avenue you will turn west on Mud Lake road and follow it until it ends at the refuge. The gate is closed but you may walk in to explore.

Some of the dominant plants in the marshes are pondweed (Potamogeton spp.), cattail (Typha spp.), white-topped sedge (Dichromena colorata), water lily (Nymphaia spp.), arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia), coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum), insectivorous bladderworts ( Utricularia spp. ), maidencane (Panicum hemitomon), spikerush (Eleocharis spp.), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), cordgrass (Spartina bakeri)) and sawgrass (Cladium jamaicensis).

Like plants, animals that live in our marshes have to deal with fluctuating water levels and periodic fires. For example, the alligator is closely observant of water level fluctuations and positions its nest sites relative to water depths. The water rat moves as water levels change and burrows when the water level is underground.

Waterbirds of the freshwater marshes at Lake Woodruff include the white ibis (Eudocimus albus), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcineollus), green-backed heron (Butorides striatus), great blue heron (Ardea herodias), little blue heron (Florida caerulea), snowy egret, belted kingfisher, limpkin (Aramus guarauna), red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus major), blue-winged teal (Anas discors), hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus), American widgeon (Anas americana) and the coot (Fulica americana).

Mammals are not as prevalent in freshwater marshes as in our other ecosystems in Volusia County. However, the lucky observer may catch sight of the Florida water rat (Neofiber alleni) or the white-tailed deer. Recent studies have shown that the Florida panther (Felis concolor) uses marshlands extensively in other parts of Florida.

A wide variety of fish use the marshes. Small, minnow-size fish that can be found are the live-bearing mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis)and the least killifish (Heterandria Formosa). Abundant are small sunfishes, such as the redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus) and the bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus). Other fish species such as the Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhincus), bullhead catfish (Ictalurus natalis), chain pickerel, bowfin or mud fish (Amia calva)and the largemouth bass: can be observed.

It Is legal to fish the impoundments on both sides of the earthen walkways located at Lake Woodruff, so don't forget your fishing gear.

Reptiles and amphibians have adapted well to the freshwater marshes. Walk slowly and keep a sharp eye and you may see the leopard frog (Rana spp.), pig frog (Rana grylio), cottonmouth, banded water snake (Nerodia spp.), black racer (Coluber constrictor), mud turtle, the stinkpot musk turtle or the American alligator.

Invertebrates are also important components of the marsh food chains. Hidden among the aquatic vegetation you can find numerous amphipods including grass shrimp and scuds. Dragonflies and damselflies are abundant at different times of the year and their larvae can be found intermixed with the aquatic plants. Large invertebrates are the crayfish (Procambarus spp.) and the apple snail.

Swamp

In the Wetlands, life that had disappeared with the morning sun begins to stir again as the sun nears the horizon. River frogs sing out and the Barred Owl awakens as the last rays of light fall. Sawing the night air for signs of danger, a white-tail doe and her fawn gingerly step into a grassy clearing.

Forested Wetlands, or Swamps' are poorly understood. The role they play in their relationships with adjacent wetlands, and associated uplands, has not been studied enough and has only added to the complex problem of identifying and understanding their total ecological importance.

Swamps develop in low, wet areas that are scattered throughout other ecosystems, such as the Pine Flatwoods ecosystem in Volusia County. The presence of standing water or saturated soils for part of the year controls the ecological diversity of a swamp. The amount of water and the length of time it stands affects soil aeration and thus, available oxygen that plants need to grow and reproduce. Several species of plants have adapted special morphological features, such as aerenchymous tissue that allows oxygen to be transported to the roots, to help them be tolerant of these adverse conditions. The longer the water stands in the swamp, the fewer the species of plants.

Fires are common in swamps throughout Florida during dry seasons. Fire is important in reducing the buildup of organic matter and preventing subsequent succession from wetlands into hardwood ecosystems. Fire also affects the diversity of plants in a swamp ecosystem. Many plants cannot tolerate fire but other species, like pond pine (Pinus serotina), depend on fire for regeneration.

In Volusia County many environmental variables, such as low topography, high fire frequency, high surficial groundwater tables, variable amounts of rainfall, and seepage from groundwater aquifers have produced many different types of wetlands.

One type of stillwater swamp that can be found in Volusia County is the cypress swamp. This occurs where depressions expose the shallow water table. Underneath lies an impermeable layer of clay. When water is present, dissolved oxygen is low, litter decomposition is slow, and organic acids accumulate and stain the water a reddish brown. This staining decreases the amount of light available to phytoplankton and thus further reduces productivity and oxygen production. Little agitation of surface water occurs because the trees in the cypress swamps shield the wind, eliminating another possible source of oxygenation.

In the cypress swamp, the dominant species of wetland tree is the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). It is a deciduous conifer, losing its needle shaped leaves in the fall. Cypress seeds need saturated soils, not flooded soils, to germinate, making regeneration of this ecosystem dependent on water level fluctuation. When mature, cypress is the most flood-tolerant tree in Florida.

The cypress tree has a root system with contorted outgrowths called "knees" that are exposed near the tree. These knees help support the tree, but their high respiration rate in the presence of low oxygen levels probably indicates that they also help the tree deal with low oxygen levels in the root zones.

Other genera of plants that can be found in the cypress swamps of Volusia County are the pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens) which may actually be a variety of bald cypress, red maple (Acer rubrum), water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica), sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana), Virginia willow (Itea virginica), cassine holly (Ilex cassine), and fetterbush (Lyonia lucida). Epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) in the swamp ecosystem are the air plant (Tillandsia spp) and various species of orchids. Many vines can be found ranging from bamboo vine (Smilax spp.) to poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Insectivorous plants are another notable feature of Volusia County's swamps. Four genera are common: bladderworts (Utricularia spp.), sundews (Drosera spp.), butterworts (Pinguicula spp.) and pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp. ).

Swamps provide food, cover, nesting sites and hibernating places for a variety of animals, even though most animals spend only part of their lives in the swamps. Invertebrate animals such as leeches, worms, crustaceans, mollusks mosquitoes and spiders are the base of the swamps' food chain.

Amphibians and reptiles thrive in the swamps of Volusia County. Some notable species are the river frog (Rana heckscheri), pig frog, southern leopard frog (Rana spp. ),cricket frog (Acris gryllus), squirrel tree frog (Hyla squirella), Peninsula newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), Florida banded water-snake (Natrix spp. ) and the cottonmouth moccasin.

Swamps differ considerably in their importance to birds and mammals, which are more mobile than invertebrates and use a wider variety of habitats.

Birds are more abundant in swamps than in uplands during migration and in the summer. A few of the species found in Volusia County's swamps are the yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica spp.) and the pine warbler (Dendroica pinus). Water birds, such as the limpkin (Aramus guarauna), white ibis (Eudocimus albus), and the glossy ibis (Plegadis falczuellus) use the swamps extensively. Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) and at least four species of woodpeckers nest in Volusia County swamps.

Several mammals, such as the southern gray squirrel and the raccoon are often found in the swamps but are not necessarily confined to them. Large, uncommon mammals, such as the black bear (Ursus americanus) and the Florida panther are now concentrated in swamps because of the destruction of upland habitats.

The spatial arrangement of our remaining wilderness must be carefully studied when making land acquisition policies. Mammals have large territorial needs that often include different ecosystems. Linking large wilderness areas by corridors of natural vegetation will be needed for the survival of many vertebrate animals.

The importance of the swamp ecosystem has become a major issue in Florida. The Conservation and Recreational Lands Trust Fund was established in 1979 to assist with the purchase of environmentally endangered lands, including swamps. The passage of the Warren S. Henderson Wetlands Protection Act in 1984 demonstrated the willingness of the government to limit exploitation and development. Actions taken by the St. John's Water Management District to protect Volusia County's wetlands are evidence of the growing recognition of the value of our swamps and our citizens' interest in saving them.

Marsh or Swamp?

Both are wet. The difference is in the type of vegetation. Marshes are filled with grasses. Swamps have trees.

Pine Flatwoods

To the west, in the Pine Flatwoods, a squirrel scampers to safety in the arms of a long-leaf pine, as the early morning rays of light cast shadows on the forest floor. A red-shouldered hawk soars just above the canopy with watchful eyes hoping to catch a glimpse of its elusive prey.  Heading west from the Halifax River on Highway 44 or 92 you will pass through the heart of Volusia County's Pine Flatwoods ecosystem; the most extensive terrestrial ecosystem in Florida. This system has been influenced the most by humans and is known for its flat topography and its poorly drained, sandy soils. Early Indians burned these areas in their hunting practices. Early Spaniards started clearing this environment for a variety of uses. Agriculture, land clearing, pine harvesting and conversion for urban development have altered the flatwoods in many ways. 

Today, man is still changing the flatwood ecosystems by continued logging practices and conversion to pastures for cattle and crops. Not only are the pines lost, but also the plants and animals that lived with them. Fire, is an important factor in maintenance of the Flatwoods. Almost every plant and animal inhabiting this area is adapted to periodic fires; several species depend on fires for their continued existence. Without fires, the Flatwoods would succeed into hardwood forest whose thick canopy could eliminate the ground cover of herbs and shrubs. Also, the dense layers of unburned pine litter would accumulate and hinder the reproduction of pines which require a mineral soil substrate for proper germination. Scholars describe flatwoods as representing the matrix that ties together and merges with other ecosystems, such as marshes, sandpine scrub, hammocks, cypress wetlands and swamps.

A Pine Flatwoods community is characterized by a pine canopy, an extensive low shrub layer and fairly diverse, but often sparse, plant ground cover.

Major constituents of the canopy are longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) and slash pines (Pinus elliottii). The needles (leaves) of the longleaf pine are in bundles of three while the needles of the slash pine are in bundles of three and sometimes two.  Less common trees in this ecosystem are the red maple (Acer rubrum), live oak (Quercus virginiana) and sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua). In the low shrub understory you will find saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), fetterbush (Lyonia lucida), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), gallberry (Ilex glabra) and St. Johns-wort (Hypericum spp.). The ground cover consists of a variety of grasses with wiregrass (Aristida stricta) being the most frequent species. 

Other herbaceous plants include yellow-eyed grass (Xyris spp. ), rabbit tobacco (Pterocaulon undulatum), gopher apple (Licania michauxii) and blackroot (Pterocaulon pycnostachyum).

The Pine Flatwoods are home to diverse populations of vertebrates—gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), cotton mouse (Peromyscus gossypinus), short-tailed shrew (Blarina carolinensis), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), oak toad (Bufo quercicus), box turtle (Terrapene carolina), eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), pine warbler (Dendroica pinus), the great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). Many threatened animals also call the Pine Flatwoods home. Amphibians and reptiles that have special status because of their decreasing numbers are the striped newt (Notophthalmus perstriatus), mole snake (Lampropeltis calligaster) and the gopher tortoise. Birds and mammals of special status are: the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis), Florida panther (Felis concolor), Florida black bear (Ursus americanus), fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) and the Florida mouse (Podomys floridanus). The two most common exotic vertebrates of flatwoods are the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) and the wild hog (Sus scrofa).

Scrub Ecosystems

As the sun reaches its zenith over the sand pine uplands, a scrub jay devours a highbush blueberry in the shade of a twisted wax myrtle. A gopher tortoise lumbers across the sandy woodland floor towards the safety of his burrow as afternoon thunderstorms begin to develop. The tall sand pines sway in the freshening breeze as the storm breaks, providing life-saving moisture that will recharge the aquifer below.

This type of forest grows on top of ancient sand dunes west of, and including the area surrounding, U. S. 1. Traveling west on Highway 92 you will intersect the Sand Pine Scrub ecosystem, first at the Tomoka Correctional Institute (Rima Ridge), again at DeLand (DeLand Ridge). Heading north from DeLand on Highway 17/11 you will again pass through this community. In Deltona and Orange City, southeast of DeLand, you may venture through the heart of our county's Sand Pine Scrub environment. The term scrub designates communities growing on well-drained sandy areas in Florida. Scrub ecosystems are essentially fire-maintained communities. As the sand pines mature they retain most of their branches, building up a large fuel supply. When a fire occurs, this fuel supply, in combination with fallen pine needles (leaves) ensures a hot, rapid burning fire. These fires allow for the regeneration of the scrub community which might otherwise succeed to a hammock. The minerals in the vegetation are deposited on the sandy forest floor as ashes. The heat from fire also causes the release of pine seeds.

In Volusia County, our Sand Pine Scrub communities grow on old dunes formed during the Pleistocene Age when the sea was further inland. These old dunes are characterized by soils that are dry and infertile. This is a desert-like environment dominated by an overstory of twisted, leaning sand pines (Pinus clausa) that stand above an almost impenetrable mass of evergreen scrub oaks (Quercus myrtifolia), rusty lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), and Chapman's oak (Quercus chapmanii). The ground cover includes gopher apple (Licania michauxii), beak rushes (Rhynchospora megalocarpa), cacti (Opuntia spp.) and lichens (Cladonia spp.). In areas where the scrub is sparse the ground may be devoid of vegetation, exposing a pure white "sugar sand."  Scrub areas have several endemic plant species that occur there and nowhere else. At present, thirteen are listed as endangered or threatened by the State of Florida. Volusia County's scrub community hosts several of these species such as wild olive (Osmanthus spp.) and scrub hickory (Carya floridana).

Some of the vertebrates you might discover here are the Florida mouse (Podomys floridanus), the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens), Florida white-tailed deer, Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Florida scrub lizard (Sceloporus woodi), red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), and the eastern screech-owl (Otus asio).

The gopher tortoise frequently burrows in the sand pine scrub but feeds in nearby areas that have more herbaceous ground cover. Many invertebrates use the sand pine scrub. Look for burrowing beetles (Peltotrupes spp.), wolf spiders (Geolycosa hubbelli) and the scrub grasshopper (Schistocerca ceratiola). 

Georgia Zern
Manatee Protection Program Manager
gzern@volusia.org
ext. 12839
 

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