Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce

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Topographic profile of representative Indian River Lagoon habitats: (1) mangrove/salt marsh; (2) submerged habitats within the Indian River Lagoon; (3) mangrove fringe; (4) oak forest/maritime hammock; (5) oak scrub; (6) saw palmetto scrub; (7) sea oats foredune; (8) beach.

Barrier Island/Intertidal Habitats:




Maritime Hammocks


Mosquito Impoundments

Salt Marshes

Tidal Flats

Submerged Habitats:

Oyster Reefs

Seagrass Beds

Other Useful Habitat Links:

Threats to Habitats

What is an ecosystem?

Ecosystems are defined as communities of plants, animals and microorganisms found within a particular area, interacting with each other and with the environment. Hence, the term "ecosystem" encompasses both the biotic and abiotic (living and non-living) components of a particular environment. Ecosystems are complex and dynamic entities that use energy, produce wastes and recycle nutrients. All ecosystems, whether marine or terrestrial, are interconnected. What occurs in one ecosystem affects the dynamics of another. Collectively, all ecosystems make up the biosphere, or zone of life, which occurs in the thin outer layer of the Earth's surface.

In most ecosystems, energy from the sun is the initial power source that promotes growth in plants and algae. Plants are autotrophic, meaning they are self-feeding. The process of photosynthesis allows plants to take in light energy from the sun and convert it into the chemical energy stored in sugars and other carbohydrates produced by plants. Because production by plants forms the base of all food webs in an ecosystem, and provides food for other organisms, it is also called primary production. Thus, plants are the producers in ecosystems. Consumers cannot produce their own food, so must rely on ingesting other organisms in order to obtain their energy. Consumers that eat only plants are called herbivores; carnivores eat only animals; and omnivores consume a combination of both plants and animals. Decomposers, such as bacteria and fungi, assist in recycling nutrients by breaking down the complex organic molecules in dead plant and animal tissues into simpler substances that can be made available for reuse.

Each time one organism consumes another, some of the energy from the ingested organism is then taken up by the consumer. This transfer of food energy from one organism to another is commonly referred to as the food chain. Rarely, however, is this energy transfer a simple, direct process. Rather, it can be highly dynamic and complex, since most organisms eat more than one type of food and are therefore involved in more than one food chain. The term food web more accurately describes the complexity of food energy transfers between organisms and the process of nutrient recycling within ecosystems.

What is a habitat?

A habitat is defined in general terms as the specific place in an environment where an organism lives. Terrestrial and marine environments each have distinct characteristics that determine whether they can support specific organisms. A close look at any area along the Florida coast reveals a number of different habitats. In deep offshore waters, a unique Oculina reef found nowhere else in the world runs from Ft. Pierce to Daytona. Nearshore reefs composed of coquina rock and sabellarid wormrock are quite common in some coastal areas. Along the barrier island system in east central Florida, sand dunes along the shoreline abound, which can be further subdivided into foredunes, dune crests, swales and secondary dunes. Inland of the dune system lie the scrub zones and maritime hammocks that have been built upon stable backdunes. Beyond hammocks, the land begins to fall toward the Indian River Lagoon where the mangrove fringe is located. Mangrove areas border both the east and west margins of the lagoon along most of its length. Within the lagoon itself are various submerged aquatic habitats such as seagrass beds and oyster reefs, as well as the many spoil islands which arose as the result of dredging in the lagoon. Past the mangrove fringe are the fresh water swamps, hardwood hammocks and upland forests that characterize interior Florida.

The Indian River Lagoon stretches approximately 156 miles along the east central Florida coast. Biodiversity in the Indian River Lagoon is so vast due to both its diversity of habitats and its unique geographical position. East central Florida is fortuitously located in the transition area between the temperate Carolinean Province to the north, and the subtropical Caribbean Province to the south. Temperate species of plants and animals exist in the Indian River Lagoon at the southernmost extent of their ranges, while subtropical and tropical species exist at their northernmost extents. Generally, the area around Cape Canaveral in northern Brevard County is where vegetation patterns begin to shift from primarily warm-temperate shrubs and trees, to more subtropical and tropical varieties.

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