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Florida Coasts

Most of Florida’s 1,100-mile coastline (exclusive of the Keys) is bordered by sandy beaches, about 50 percent of which exists in its natural condition. These areas are concentrated primarily in the northern half of the state. Florida’s southern coastline is heavily developed to accommodate a booming population and an expansive tourist industry. Mangrove swamps interrupt beach areas in the Everglades and salt marshes replace sandy stretches along Florida’s Big Bend, the Gulf coastal region where the peninsula curves westward to join the panhandle.

In natural coastal plant communities, vegetation zones parallel the coast based on increasing protection from storm waves, sand burial, and salt spray.  Closest to the shore, sea oats (Uniola paniculata) build and stabilize dunes.  The roots and stems of this grass grow upward – as much as two feet per year – to stay ahead of shifting, windblown sands.  Protected from sand burial behind the sea oats dunes is a zone of low woody plants. The stems and branches of these slow-growing shrubs, dwarfed trees and palmettos (Serenoa repens) are pruned to an even height by strong coastal winds and caustic salt spray.  This tangled canopy grades upward away from the coastline to form a maritime forest of live oaks (Quercus virginiana), redbays (Persea borbonia), and cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto).  Tropical plant species, including sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) and gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) increase in number southward along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.  These and other woody plants with more tropical affinities join temperate tree species in maritime forests, replacing them altogether at this community’s southernmost limits.

The dazzlingly white, “sugar” sand beaches of the Florida panhandle have a reduced shell content, allowing for the development of a more acidic substrate.  This factor allows plants that are more typical of inland scrubs, such as Florida rosemary (Ceratiola ericoides) and scrub oaks (Quercus spp.), to form the shrub zone.  Sand pines (Pinus clausa) and slash pines (P. elliottii) dominate the forested portions. 

Some of the best examples of Florida’s natural coastline include Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge and St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in the panhandle; Caladesi Island and Cayo Costa State Parks on the Gulf coast; and Fernandina Beach State Park, Canaveral National Seashore, MacArthur Beach State Park, and Biscayne National Park on the Atlantic coast.

Florida’s coastline provides critical habitat for many types of wildlife. Sandy beaches are favored nesting sites for Federally threatened snowy plovers (Charadrius alexandrinus) and least terns (Sterna antillarum), as well as American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) and other shorebirds.  Dune communities are the primary habitat for six different subspecies of beach mice (Peromyscus polionotus), most of which are endangered or threatened.  Florida’s east coast beaches, from south of Cape Canaveral to Miami, are the most important nesting habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the Western Hemisphere.

Recognizing the natural and scenic beauty of its coastlines and the value of protecting it natural coastal communities, the state of Florida is undertaking several key initiatives to minimize environmental threats. Florida’s land buying program has acquired and protected nearly 40 percent of the 19,500 coastal acres that were in natural condition in 1992, resulting in six new state parks and major additions to four others. The state is also involved in efforts to control or eliminate damaging invasive plant species, such as Australian pines (Casuarina spp.) from coastal areas. 

Links to learn more about coastal communities

FNAI’s online field guide to the rare animals of Florida

Detailed descriptions, photographs, maps, habitat information on rare coastal species, including shorebirds, sea turtles, and beach mice.

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Gulf Islands National Seashore Florida

Nature tab gives the status of the Perdido Key beach mouse whose numbers were heavily impacted by recent hurricanes.

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Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge

Natural resources tab gives up-to-date figures on sea turtle nesting on beaches within the Refuge.

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