Florida Ecosystems: Pine Flatwoods

If you're writing eco fiction or cli-fi, getting an ecological setting right is essential. I'm fortunate enough to have a job that allows me to explore the ecosystems in my very own Florida county. During lockdown I've also been attending webinars to learn more about the natural areas all around me.

In the spirit of sharing ecological knowledge, I'm going to write a series of posts about ecosystems from the perspective of using them to create rich settings. I'll start with Florida, but I'll probably move to other parts of the country/world as my imagination stretches.

A major and important ecosystem in Florida is the pine flatwood. This is an upland ecosystem, and according to UF/IFAS, pine flatwoods cover 50% of the state. I know it's weird to think of evergreen trees in Florida (aren't they adapted to cold weather?) but we've got a few pine species, including the slash pine, the longleaf pine, and the sabal pine.

If you look near the bottom of the trunks, you can see the darker areas indicating scorch marks. I took this picture, so please don't steal it. :)
What's cool about these ecosystems is how they depend on fire. Florida's upland ecosystems also contain oaks, which can out-compete pines if an ecosystem goes too long without fire. Natural wildfires clear out the underbrush, including the tiny oak sprouts, leaving room for the pines to flourish. So if you're in a pine flatwood in Florida look for scorch-marks on the tree trunks.

If you're writing a pine flatwood:

FLORA - Pine canopies aren't dense like some forests, so expect dappled shade and even intense sun in some spots. While pines are dominant, you'll see plenty of other species (including oaks) mixed in. Saw Palmetto (which looks like a weird little palm tree) is a frequent inhabitant of these upland areas, and if it gets really thick walking through that part of the forest can be hard.
Pine flatwoods can look like fairytale settings! (Again, this is my picture, no stealing please.)

FAUNA - Audubon has a list of animal species commonly found in pine flatwoods, including the Florida Panther, the black bear, the pileated woodpecker, and the bald eagle (though there are certainly many more.) Hearing animal noises and bird calls is par for the course when wandering this type of ecosystem. Watch out for butterflies, too.

The feel of the air on your skin and the scent of the ecosystem changes based on when you go. If you hit up a flatwood in the middle of July it's going to be sticky and humid. If you go in the middle of winter, you'll see less greenery (we do have deciduous trees down here in Florida) but you'll enjoy much crisper air, kind of like a northern fall (but without the color change, unfortunately.) Scorched trunks don't mean everything smells like burning wood; in fact, expect to smell pine and other greenery.

WET/DRY SEASON - Florida is dominated by wet/dry seasonality much more so than the four seasons of the north. Depending on the time of year, the ground might be totally dry and sandy, or there may be waterlogged portions after heavy rains.

What will happen to pine flatwoods as the climate changes? Because these are upland systems, they are unlikely to be impacted by sea level rise. However, changing temperatures and climate could affect the composition of the species in these ecosystems. If, for example, something disrupted the prevalence of wildfires, woodier species would start to take over and the ecosystem would transition away from pines. Even something as simple as increased incidences of drought would alter the flora present, because many Florida species are adapted to having a wet/dry seasonal cycle.

Including human impacts would make this post far too long, so I'll save that for another day. Thanks for reading!


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