Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, The Lower Keys & Key West
The Florida Keys are home to the most extensive living coral barrier reef system in North America, the third largest in the world. The reef track runs from Fowey Rocks offshore Miami to the Dry Tortugas. It parallels the Florida Keys stretching for about 220 miles. All but a small portion on the north end is protected by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS). KNNMS was designated in 1990 and encompasses 2,900 square nautical miles of Florida Keys waters. Of the more than 6,000 species of plants and animals that call our surrounding waters home, most rely on our coral reefs.
Coral reefs are created by a community of coral polyps, small animals that produce calcium carbonate. Colonies of tiny anemone-like polyps are the living coral tissue. Within the tissue of most reef-building corals live symbiotic small organisms called zooxanthellae that are capable of changing sunlight energy into food. Although corals are carnivorous and feed on zooplankton, they receive much of their energy and oxygen as byproducts of zooxanthellae photosynthesis. The zooxanthellae also promote the rate of calcium carbonate production by the coral colony, promoting growth. The majority of the other invertebrate species represented in the sanctuary use coral reefs as their habitat. Below are several corals that help make up the Florida Keys reef system.
Common Sea Fan Coral
Mangroves grow along more than 1,800 miles of shoreline throughout the Florida Keys. The red mangrove, black mangrove and white mangrove are most common in wetland areas. The mangroves stabilize the coastline, reducing erosion from storm surge and tide changes. Many mangroves can be recognized by their seemingly tangled root system dangling above and into the water. This type of growth allows the trees to handle fluctuation in tides. The root system provides food and shelter for fishes, especially the small ones escaping predators.
Mangrove habitats are intricately connected to the coral reef ecosystem. Many reef fish use the mangrove habitat as a nursery. Almost all fish and shellfish caught by anglers spend a part of their life cycle in or near mangroves. Even the Key Deer and great white heron call the mangrove habitat home.
Playing such an important role in the Florida Keys ecosystem, it is against the law to cut down or remove a mangrove tree.
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