Flora and Fauna of Northwest Florida

Biology Department

University of West Florida

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The left picture is a Long leaf pine forest in Blackwater State Forest. These rolling hills of clay and sand are part of the remaining Long-leaf Pine savannas in the Southeastern US. In the Blackwater State Forest, these lands are actively managed with pre-scribed burning to maintain them in their natural state. The understory appears to be dominated by Wiregrass (Aristida stricta) and Gallberry (Ilex glabra), but actually may contain hundreds of plants species. Some pinelands, like the "flatwoods" on Fairpoint Peninsula (right), have a similar species composition, but can have slash pine (Pinus elliotii) replacing Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) where they grade into Wet Prairies

The Longleaf Pine/Wiregrass Community once covered over 70 million acres in the south, but there remains only 2.5 to 3 million acres. Only 3,000 of those acres represent old growth forest. These habitats are xerophytic and fire dependent. Unlike the hardwood forest, very little organic humus accumulates. Often the bare mineral soil is exposed. A mature longleaf pine forest has an open canopy that allows sunlight to flood the forest floor. Consequently, although the species richness of the canopy is low (only 1!), more than 200 species of herbaceous plants and grasses can be found on the forest floor. Spring-summer lightning season fires or prescribed burning are required to maintain this habitat type. Fire suppression and fragmentation has led to a great deal of this habitat becoming hardwood forest. Much of what is left is actively managed with prescribed burning.

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris ) is a long-lived tree, reaching 350-500 years. The seeds require bare mineral soil for germination, and none survive in a seed bank. Initial growth has been described as a "Grass" stage, which can persist for 3-15 years during which dense needles protect apical bud from fire and insects. During this time the plant develops a deep taproot for water and food storage.


Gallberry, or Inkberry (Ilex glabra), is abundant and can form thickets in the understory.

This allows the plant to shoot up rapidly, without branches, to above ground fire height. These sub canopy trees may remain in a suppressed state for long periods if a suitable growth gap is unavailable.


Mature long leaf pine supported a tremendous timber industry (which has contributed to its demise). The old growth wood was/is highly desirable for its strength, weight and rot-resistance due to resin saturation (called heart-pine).

Red Cockaded Woodpeckers, Picoides borealis , are an example of a species that is dependent on the old growth trees. This woodpecker requires the older trees that have sufficient heartwood in which to carve out a cavity. In paticular they seek out trees with heart rot from a fungal species.  Younger trees with greater amounts of sapwood will flood a cavity with sap making it unusable. Red Cockaded Woodpecker nesting trees are obvious from the copious white crystallized sap on the bark. The birds actively peck into the sapwood around their nest holes so that the sap runs down the tree to inhibit snakes from reaching their nests.  The birds exist in ìclustersî of males with a single breeding pair.  The sibling males are ìhelpersî aiding with egg incubation and feeding of the young until they head off to start their own family cluster.  Females leave in search of males to establish a new family group.  Thus a lack of suitable nest cavity trees will limit population growth and dispersal.

Wiregrass, Aristida stricta, seen in the above photos, is also a lived species. Bunches of this perennial grass can be older than the long leaf pines that tower above it. The bunches expand in diameter with age. In some cases remnant Wiregrass can indicate forest communities that were once long leaf pine habitat. For seed production a 2-4 week window for spring fire is required. Otherwise about 1% seed viability occurs and seed dispersal is poor. Because it is long-lived, it can afford to wait for the right kind of fire to produce viable seeds. Response to spring fire is dramatic, with prolific growth making a sea of waist to chest high grass that turns golden yellow in the fall.

Scrub Oaks are found as part of the groundcover/understory in these forests. They are killed down to the roots after a fire, but grow back into low thickets between fires. Like wiregrass, their seed production (acorns) is stimulated by fire, producing food for wildlife. Single individuals may cover an acre with an extensive root system and many shoots/trees.

Gopher tortoises, Gopherus polyphemus , are considered a keystone species in these habitats, with about 40 species known to be commensals, some obligate, in using tortoise burrows for shelter. One tortoise may have multiple burrows, providing cool moist habitat in an other wise dry environ.




Long Leaf Pine

Pinus palustris

Turkey Oak

Quercus laevis

Runner Oaks

Quercus pumila, Q. minima

Blackjack oak

Q. marilandica

Bluejack oak

Q. incana

Gopher apple

Licania michauxii


Aristida stricta


Ilex vomitoria

Saw palmetto

Serona repens


Ilex glabra


Andropogon spp.

Bracken fern

Pteridium aquilinum

Ground huckleberries

Gaylussacia spp.


Vaccinium spp.


Rubus cuneifolius



Red cockaded woodpecker

Picoides borealis

Red tailed hawk

Buteo Jamaicensis

Great horned owl

Bubo virginianus


Colinus virgnianus

Bachmanís sparrow

Aimophila aestivalis


Gopher frog

Rana areolata

Eastern tiger salamander

Ambyostoma tigrinum

Eastern spade foot toad

Scaphiopus holbrookii

Gopher tortoise

Gopherus polyphemus

Pygmy rattlesnake

Sistrurus militarius barbouri

Diamondback rattlesnake

Crotalus adamanteus

Florida pine snake

Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus

Indigo snake

Drymarchon corais

Redtailed skink

Eumeces egregius

Six-lined racerunner

Cnemidophorus sexlineatus

Southern fence lizard

Sceloporus undulatus



Fox squirrel

Sciurus niger

Pocket gopher

Geomys pinetus

Old field mouse

Peromyscus polionotus

Cotton mouse

P. gossypinus

Short-tailed shrew

Blarina brevicauda


Scalopus aquaticus

Least shrew

Cryptodus parva

Cotton rat

Sigmodon hispidus

Cottontail rabbit

Sylvilagus floridanus

Florida black bear

Ursus americanus floridanus