Fire is critical for the pine rockland and prairie habitat of Everglades National Park, but not always beneficial to the Cape Sable seaside sparrows or our work, so we were worried when we saw we saw “Prescribed Burn” and “Smoke Ahead” signs on two occasions when we drove into the park to conduct our field studies.
Pinelands are located on higher ground than the prairies the Cape Sable seaside sparrows’ (CSSS) habitat. They are dominated by South Florida (SF) slash pine (taller ones in the photo below), saw palmetto, and sable palm. The pineland habitat is part of an ecological succession, meaning it can change into another habitat, in this case hardwood hammock. Grasses and hardwood trees could start taking up too much space and shade out light for the saw palmettos and sable palms if fires did not occur. The SF slash pines have thick bark that does not burn easily. As you can see in the photo, their branches are located high up, and fire does not reach the needles. Fire will burn the hardwood trees, eliminating shade and allowing pine seeds to grow.
There are many animals that call this habitat home, including the Gopher tortoise, which is known to be a keystone species because it plays crucial role in ecosystem functions. You see, Gopher tortoises burrow in the ground, and its burrows are then used by over 350 species including burrowing owls, rabbits, opossums, snakes, frogs, and crickets for protection from fire.