Wild about nature? You've come to the right place.
Artists and sun worshippers aren't the only species drawn to the Emerald Coast. Our breathtaking beaches are popular with wildlife and ecotourists as well. Here on the Emerald Coast, it isn't unusual at all to be joined by a heron as you walk on the beach, to see a pelican out fishing while you’re casting a line in the bay or to come upon bottlenose dolphins at play while you’re out Jet Skiing. Read about our plant life, wildlife and ecotourism opportunities here.
Plant Life on the Emerald Coast
Your kids aren't the only things growing up on the beach! Take a minute to learn about the importance of sea oats and seaweed to our environment.
The grassy sea oats are one of the only plants that can live on sand dunes because the dunes are dry and salty, and the sand is constantly moving. Since dunes are so dry, a 6-inch sea oat plant may have roots up to five feet long. These long roots help to hold the sand and protect the dunes from wind and wave erosion. Dunes will also grow larger as the sea oats catch windblown sand. The attractive flowers of the sea oats become seeds in the fall. These seeds will provide us with more plants to help hold the dunes in place.
Dune buggies and people are the two worst enemies of sea oats. If the sea oats die, the dunes may be blown across the park and the beach may be washed away.
When visiting the beach you will almost always find seaweed. This seaweed was once plants that were living and growing in the shallow water just offshore. When alive, all of these plants were a very important part of the food chain. They served as food for the queen conches, sea turtles, sea urchins and many fish. The usefulness of these plants, however, does not end when they are washed ashore by wind and waves. Here, the dead plant material provides food for other animals and helps the beach and dunes perform their natural functions.
The accumulation of seaweed on the beach also helps prevent the erosion of sand from the beach and provides fertilizer for sand dune plants. The mats of seaweed act to filter out and trap the sand stirred up by the action of waves and wind upon the beach. The seaweed increases the organic content of the soil, allowing pioneer plants like sea oats and beach grasses to begin to grow. In turn, the sea oats and beach grasses help to further stabilize the beach and sand dunes by holding sand and other soil material in place with their roots, and by catching windblown sand with their aboveground parts.
Coastal grasslands are native plant communities that develop when the first dune above the beach is protected from salt spray and sand burial by a new dune ridge. As the beach builds seaward, the pioneer grasses of the beach dune community are replaced by other grasses and forbs of the coastal grassland community. The sugar sands of the panhandle coastal grasslands are dominated by Gulf Bluestem (Schizachyrium maritimum), a grass common to the northeast Gulf Coast from Florida to Mississippi, whereas a variety of forbs and grasses comprise the coastal grasslands of the peninsula (FNAI, 2010).
Wetlands are all over Florida and are characterized by their vegetation. Wetlands contain plants that thrive in the (typically) permanently wet land area. In this wetland area you can see a large number of cattails. Cattails have a flowering spike with a round, almost hotdog-shaped flower. They spread vigorously throughout wetland areas and will actually spread along a pond's edge quicker than corn on a fertilized field.
Maritime hammocks are narrow bands of forest that develop almost exclusively on the stabilized backside of the dunes on barrier islands. The present locations and extents of maritime forests were established about 5,000 years ago as they became stabilized as sea level rise declined from 0.3 m to 0.1 m per century. They are havens for insects, small mammals, reptiles and migratory birds.