Upland Habitat Research
Upland Habitat researchers study the ecology and management of Florida’s forest, savanna, and ephemeral wetland ecosystems, which are essential to wildlife and biodiversity conservation. Fire features prominently in nearly everything we do, as many of Florida’s most diverse terrestrial ecosystems are fire-dependent. Our work falls into two broad categories: restoration ecology and fire ecology.
Our research falls into two broad categories: restoration ecology and fire ecology.
Over the past 100 years, Florida’s forests, savannas, and ephemeral wetlands have experienced major changes due to human activities. Ecological restoration is often necessary in order for these terrestrial ecosystems to once again support an abundance of biodiversity.
Reversing fire suppression
Lightning-ignited wildfires have occurred naturally in Florida for millenia, fostering a diversity of plant and animal species that thrive in the open, grassy landscapes maintained by frequent fire. Without fire, these landscapes are invaded by woody shrubs and trees, which shade out and smother the herbaceous understory upon which many animal species depend. In Florida, even ephemeral wetlands depend on periodic fire during dry spells, without which they are overcome by shrub and tree encroachment.
Beginning in the 1930s, the widespread practice of fire suppression caused the degradation of many of Florida’s fire-dependent terrestrial ecosystems, leading to the loss of both plant and animal biodiversity. Now, land managers throughout Florida are reintroducing fire to these ecosystems, but fire reintroduction is tricky and must be done carefully. Our lab helps develop and test techniques for successfully and safely restoring fire to Florida’s ecosystems.
Prior to state acquisition, much of the land under the jurisdiction of the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) was used for cattle ranching, timber, and other forms of agriculture. As a result, abandoned pastures, plantations, and croplands account for over 100,000 acres of FWC land. Improved pastures are one of the most common types of former agricultural land managed by FWC. Dominated by exotic grasses—primarily bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum)—these areas are inferior wildlife habitat and bear little resemblance to native ecosystems.
Most pastures occur on soils that formerly supported longleaf pine savanna vegetation, and FWC has undertaken ecological restoration on many such sites through the Native Groundcover Restoration (NGCR) program. Upland Habitat provides scientific support to the NGCR program, conducting annual vegetation monitoring and experimental research on native seed reintroduction.
One of the most important concepts for managing fire-dependent ecosystems is the fire regime: the frequency, seasonality, severity, and areal extent of all the fires in an area over a period of time. When FWC biologists develop management plans for fire-dependent terrestrial ecosystems, they use the best available scientific information to prescribe a fire regime. We help answer questions that inform this process, such as: How do fires occurring repeatedly during different seasons affect plant and animal communities? How do we balance the needs of plants and animals that respond best to different fire frequencies and seasons? What are the factors that promote biodiversity among the plant functional groups (i.e. trees, shrubs, wildflowers, legumes, warm- and cool-season grasses) important to savanna wildlife? How can we best use prescribed fire to promote plant-pollinator networks that will be resilient to future climate and land use changes? Our research provides biological data on these and other questions, in order to help managers make informed decisions regarding prescribed fire regimes.
Plant List (Native Florida Species Found In Undisturbed Ecosystems)
The Upland Habitat Plant List, complete with images, includes information such as each species' region, ecosystem type, interesting facts (including edibility, history, medicinal uses, etc), and plant family.
Contact Upland Habitat
This article contains contact information for the FWC's Upland Habitat Research and Monitoring.