WFSU camera crew interviews Doug Alderson on Chaires Creek, Bald Point State Park.

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Hello, and welcome to the WFSU Ecology Blog. I’m Rob Diaz de Villegas, WFSU’s ecology producer, and this blog is something of a passion project for me. No one at WFSU ever asked me to do lengthy write-ups to post with my Local Routes segments. And some weeks, that’s a lot of extra work! The thing is, I find natural north Florida deeply fascinating- much more than I can fit in a few dozen six-minute segments every year. And I feel that it’s worth recording as much of that story as I can.

The Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States was once dominated by the longleaf pine ecosystem. This is an ecosystem that thrives on frequent fire, which opens up the understory for grasses, flowers and succulent plants.

The Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States was once dominated by the longleaf pine ecosystem. This is an ecosystem that thrives on frequent fire, which opens up the understory for grasses, flowers and succulent plants.

Part of this fascination has to do with the richness of life in the WFSU viewing area. We’re in the Coastal Plain region of the United States, which is one of its biodiversity hotspots. That’s the thing I have to lead off with, of course. It just means our plant and animal communities are hopping- this area is full of rare and endangered species (Red cockaded woodpeckers! Chapman’s rhododendron!), many of which are found nowhere else.

That scratches the surface of my fascination. We’re also on the Gulf coast, and we have these great rivers that feed a working coastline. People make their living on the critters that inhabit our estuary ecosystems, and we love to eat those critters. Our coasts also make us a critical stop for migratory birds and the monarch butterflies I like to raise with my children.

Three monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed plant.

Monarch caterpillars graze on milkweed in my backyard garden.

We have North America’s largest spring (Wakulla Spring), rivers that vanish underground only to reappear miles downstream, and lakes that empty every few years. All of this is due to geologic processes that have unfolded over millions of years.

Now we’re getting closer to what’s driving my curiosity. We also have things here that are found almost nowhere else. Coastal dune lakes. Steephead ravines. Two of our rivers, the Wacissa and Aucilla, are hotbeds of Paleo-Indian archeology. Yes, we cover archeology, too. Our oldest sites have not only helped to push back the dates of humankind’s first incursions into the Americas, but they give us a glimpse into Florida at the end of the ice ages, when local ecology was going through radical changes.

Morgan Smith, in full scuba gear, descends into Silver Springs' (Florida) head spring, also known as Mammoth Spring.

Texas A&M archeology PhD candidate Morgan Smith dives into the head spring of Florida’s Silver River. This is known as Mammoth Spring, housing the bones of multiple Columbian mammoths.

Yes, archeology, paleontology, and geology are a part of the story, too.

And here’s where we start getting into why I like doing this blog. I have a love of making connections. Our butterflies have connections to specific plants, and many of those plants are dependent on regular fire. We’ve even seen how fire, miles from the coast, can affect the way water flows to it. We’ve looked at artifacts and fossils to see cycles of sea level rise and fall, from when much of our region was covered by a shallow sea where the world’s largest ever shark roamed, to a time when Paleolithic hunters saw mastodons and mammoths vanish, and Florida’s coast retreated 80 miles inland to where it is today (at least, for now).

This is an Apalachicola dusky salamander egg. This animal has Appalachian roots; its ancestor found its way to Florida during the ice ages, when the Appalachians were covered in glaciers and its resident species migrated south. Many of these northern species stayed in Florida’s steephead ravines, unique geological formations with conditions similar to a North Carolina mountain stream.

So, in every video, we have an individual story to tell. What we can’t fit into every video is that every story we tell is part of several other stories we’ve already started telling. Those stories might be connected by a hundred miles of river, by a series of underground waterways, or through thousands of years of changing landscapes. This is what’s most fun for me, these connections.

Every story builds on the last, and fills me with questions that lead me to the next story. We have eight years of stories and are continuing to build our repository of ecological content.  And I always welcome questions, comments, and story ideas.

WFSU Producer Rob Diaz de Villegas at one of Lake Miccosukee’s sinkholes, after it became active and drained a portion of the lake.

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