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An ecosystem consists of a community of coexisting species together with the nonliving parts of their habitat.  In a healthy ecosystem these biotic and abiotic components provide a framework through which energy of solar origin is transferred and within which nutrients such as nitogen and phosphorus circulate.  Various kinds of plants, animals, and microorganisms are included in a typical ecosystem such as a particular kind of forest, prairie, swamp, lake, stream, or reef.  Florida's natural ecosystems are especially valuable because of the disproportionately large contribution they make globally to biological diversity or "biodiversity."  The state was colonized over evolutionary time by a diverse mixture of species from continental areas to the north and tropical Caribbean areas to the south.  Semi-isolation by ocean on three sides subsequently contributed to a surprisingly high 8 percent of Florida's vascular plant, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, and mammal species (and important subspecies) that are found nowhere else in the world, according to the Nature 2000 Task Force (Governor's Office, Tallahassee, 1990).  Present-day Florida is considered a global "hot spot" for biodiversity by conservation organizations and by public agencies with strong conservation mandates.

People have been interacting with and modifying Florida's ecosystems for at least 10,000 years. Over most of this time their use of natural resources was sustainable. Their activities did not cause any significant decrease in the ability of the environment to maintain clean air and water, as well as productive, biologically diverse ecosystems. However, the massive human uses of Florida's natural environment in the twentieth century are clearly unsustainable. Deforestation in the north, wetland drainage in the south, agriculture in the center, and creeping urbanization everywhere have caused massive losses of natural ecosystem diversity and productivity. Perhaps the major challenge of the next century is to create an environmentally, as well as economically, sustainable way of living.

The brief summaries that follow describe the major natural ecosystems of Florida and some important ways in which they have been impacted by human activities. The descriptions are based primarily on information obtained from "Ecosystems of Florida" (edited by R.L. Myers and J.J. Ewel, 1990). Other useful descriptions can be found in "Guide to the Natural Communities of Florida" (Florida Natural Areas Inventory and Department of Natural Resources, 1990) and "26 Ecological Communities of Florida" (USDA Soil Conservation Service, 1981). The term natural is relative because it may never be possible to know exactly what the major ecosystems of Florida were like at the time of European settlement, before the level of human impacts increased dramatically. The general nature of these ecosystems is, nevertheless, reasonably discernable in the remnants that exist today.

The maps accompanying the descriptions are also taken from Myers and Ewel. Several of these closely follow Davis's 1967 "General Map of Natural Vegetation of Florida." They reconstruct the original location and extent of the major natural terrestrial and wetland ecosystems of the state, even though important portions of most of these ecosystems have been converted to other uses. The maps are a baseline against which to gauge losses due to human impacts over the past several hundred years, as well as a key to where future ecosystem protection and restoration projects might be most profitably located. The best remaining examples of Florida's natural ecosystems are most likely to occur within the boundaries of their original map locations, usually in areas protected and managed at least partly for conservation of their biodiversity.

The collective properties managed by public agencies and private groups, such as national forests, state parks, and private refuges, form a fragmented but extremely important Nature Reserve System of Florida. Enlarging and/or connecting these fragments into a more integrated and comprehensive protected area system is a critically important goal of the next decade but will not by itself suffice to maintain the existing biodiversity of Florida. In addition, human activities in the vicinity of reserves should contribute to protection of biodiversity in the reserves, and Floridians everywhere must live in closer harmony with their natural heritage.