New Florida Atlas Inspires, Educates and Entertains

By Victoria Parsons

If you’re looking for a spectacular coffee table book with gorgeous images of the flora and fauna that make our state so unique, the Atlas of Florida’s Natural Heritage will fit the bill perfectly.

But if you’re looking for a wealth of knowledge in an easy-to-understand document covering Florida’s diverse ecosystems, the Atlas is just as likely to occupy a spot of honor on your bookshelf.

Published late last year by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory at Florida State University, the Atlas starts with the big picture on biodiversity and why it’s important to everyone who lives in Florida, then moves into detailed sections on specific ecosystems and elements of biodiversity.

The Atlas is designed so that most sections are covered in two oversized pages with photography, maps and charts. The text is written in a style that works for both scientists and students – or anyone who wants to know more about our wonderful state. More complex sections explain the science behind conservation with great reports on natural history methodology, how conservation priorities are determined and why strategic habitat conservation areas are important.

The sections on the elements of biodiversity look at topics ranging from topography and its impact on natural communities to detailed reports on charismatic species that depend upon specific ecological elements. It’s hard to pick a favorite section because it’s all so interesting and so readable, but here are some highlights that should pique your interest:

  • Over the past 20 years, Florida has acquired more land for conservation than the federal government has acquired across the United States. A sidebar in this chapter details the economic benefits of conservation including tourism and outdoor recreation ($13 billion in 2006), coastal communities ($11 billion in storm protection benefits) and climate change ($340 million annually in offsets of greenhouse gas emissions) as well as water resources, agriculture and improved quality of life in nearby communities.
  • Florida scrub jays are the state’s only endemic (found only in a particular geographic area) bird species. Populations have declined by 80-90%, a loss primarily attributed to degradation of the scrub habitat it needs to survive. Even conservation lands must be actively managed with prescribed fires to provide open areas with low groundcover because overgrown shrubs and trees make the habitat unsuitable for scrub jays.
  • Gopher tortoises, the only land tortoise living east of the Mississippi River, are still found in all of Florida’s 67 counties although some populations are small and isolated. Their burrows may be up to 15 feet deep and 40 feet long and are wide enough for the tortoise to turn around in. They provide shelter from extreme temperatures and fires for up to 350 other species including skunks, snakes, crickets, frogs and mice.
  • Prescribed fire is the most cost-effective tool used by Florida’s conservation land managers to promote ecosystem health and reduce hazardous fuel buildups, thus protecting homes and nature from damaging wildfires. Florida leads the nation in prescribed fire law, training and application. The section also includes a visual description of the process land managers must follow before they burn.
  • Florida has three aquifer systems. The largest and deepest is the Floridan which extends as far north as South Carolina and west through most of southern Alabama. Called “Florida’s rain barrel” by geologist Gerald Parker, the Floridan is one of the most productive aquifers in the world and is estimated to contain 1,000 cubic miles of water, 100 times the amount impounded in Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam.
  • Nearly half of all hurricanes that have hit the U.S. since 1886 made landfall in Florida. The west coast is least likely to be struck because most storms that enter the Gulf of Mexico follow a northwestern track and come ashore on Florida’s panhandle, or the coasts of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas.
  • About 100 orchid species are native to Florida, representing about half of all native orchids in the U.S. and Canada. Three-quarters of them are listed as threatened or endangered, including the leafless ghost orchid featured in the 2002 movie Adaptation starring Meryl Streep.
  • A single acre of seagrass may harbor 50 million invertebrates including crabs, shrimp, lobsters, sea urchins and starfish. Florida’s seagrass beds, including vast expanses near Big Bend, in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys, are the largest expanse of this important resource in the world.
  • The Lake Wales ridge, stretching about 115 miles from Lake Apopka to Glades County, is a series of ancient sand dunes deposited about 650,000 years ago when much of Florida was under water. Once a narrow chain of islands separated from the mainland, its plants and animals evolved in isolation. As a result, the ridge now contains one of the highest concentrations of rare plants and animals in the country. More than 85% of the original 80,000 acres of upland habitat there has been lost to development.
  • More than 200 introduced plant species are listed as invasive exotics or noxious weeds, including Brazilian pepper, Old World climbing fern and water hyacinth. The state spends
    about $82 million per year controlling them.
    About 400 exotic animals have been documented as living in Florida but not all are considered invasive.
  • The northern section of the Everglades originally extended further north than Tampa Bay, into southern Orange County. Unlike most watersheds that drain through rivers and creeks, the Everglades slope seaward at a gradient of less than three inches per mile. Today, only the southern third of the marsh remains in relatively undisturbed condition, as the Everglades National Park.
  • While most people associate palm trees with Florida, oaks also are integral to Florida’s ecology. A total of 27 species of oaks are found within the state’s boundaries including some that have adapted to extreme conditions. The dwarf live oak, for instance, occurs as a groundcover that seldom grows higher than three feet. At the other extreme, the live oak may have a crown that covers up to one-third of an acre growing from a trunk as large as nine feet in diameter.
  • Native insects are responsible for pollinating approximately $3 billion worth of fruits and vegetables. Some native bees do a much better job pollinating some crops than the non-native honey bee, increasing fruit set by up to 45% and fruit weight up to 200%.

The Atlas sets a goal of inspiring, educating and raising awareness for all Florida citizens, particularly those who are influential in environmental issues but may lack specific information. I think they’ve achieved that lofty objective in an entertaining document that makes learning fun.

Purchase The Atlas of Florida’s Natural Heritage online at or call 850-644-2007. A hardcover publication is $69.99 and a softcover version is $49.99.

Originally published Winter 2012

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