Ecology In The Florida Keys

Key Deer in natural habitat on Big Pine Key.

The Florida Keys is full of exceptional and irreplaceable ecological riches. The United States and the Florida Keys population have long been aware of the importance of conservation and are actively involved in ensuring that the ecology and beauty of these islands are kept protected for years to come.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

The Florida Keys holds the key to a unique national treasure - North America's only living coral barrier reef and the third longest barrier reef in the world. Coral reefs contain more varieties of life than any other marine environment. They are part of a fragile ecosystem that includes mangroves and seagrasses on both the ocean and bay side of the Florida Keys.

Recognizing this important environment, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was created in 1990 by Congress. It originally extended 2,800 square nautical miles on both sides of the Keys but in 2001, the boundary increased to 2,900 square nautical miles with the addition of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. These environments are the marine equivalent of tropical rain forests and are fragile and easily susceptible to damage from human activities, and if properly conserved, possess high value.

The coral reef ecosystem is alive with an abundance of fish, corals, sponges, jellyfish, sea turtles, dolphins, crabs, lobsters, rays, sea birds and other sea life. In fact, it is home to one third of Florida's threatened and endangered species.

Over three million people come to the Keys every year to experience this amazing marine environment. Visitors and residents dive, snorkel, fish, boat, and swim in sanctuary waters year-round. A system of mooring buoys, channel markers, and special marine zones is in place to ensure that the delicate ecosystem of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary remains healthy for generations to come.

Read more information on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

National Key Deer Refuge

In 1957, the National Key Deer Refuge was established with the objective to protect and preserve Key deer and other wildlife resources in the Florida Keys. The Refuge consists of approximately 8,500 acres on Big Pine, No Name Key and several smaller uninhabited islands. It is located 100 miles southwest of Miami and 30 miles northeast of Key West, FL along U.S.#1. Refuge Headquarters is on Big Pine Key in the Big Pine Key Plaza off Key Deer Boulevard.

The Key Deer were placed on the endangered species list as the population reached an estimated low of 27 in 1957 and has made a rebound to an estimate of approximately 800 today. Big Pine Key and No Name Key is estimated to have the most population, estimated at 600, with the remainder being on the other Lower Keys and Backcountry islands.

The Key deer are the smallest of the 28 subspecies of Virginia white-tailed deer. Bucks range from 28-32" at the shoulder and weigh an average of 80 lbs. Does stand 24-28" at the shoulder and weigh an average of 65 lbs.

The refuge has a visitor center in the Big Pine Key Plaza, the Blue Hole site, the Jack Watson Wildlife Trail and the Fred Mannillo (wheelchair accessible) Wildlife Trail. Visitors are also welcome to hike refuge fire roads that are open for access. Additional hiking trails are on Cudjoe Key, Upper Sugarloaf Key, and Lower Sugarloaf Key.

Read more information on the National Key Deer Refuge.

Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge

In 1980 the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established in North Key Largo to protect and preserve critical habitat for the endangered American crocodile. The mangrove wetlands of the refuge provide habitat, solitude, and the only known nesting area on Key Largo for this reptile.

The refuge also protects a unique tropical hardwood hammock, which supports a high diversity of plant species, 80% of which are of West Indian origin. The refuge and the adjacent Key Largo Hammock State Botanical Site contain the largest continuous tract of hardwood forest remaining in the Florida Keys. These forests are home to several endangered and threatened species including the Key Largo woodrat, Key Largo cotton mouse, Schaus swallowtail butterfly, Eastern indigo snake and Stock Island tree snail.

Due to the small size of the refuge and sensitivity of the habitat and wildlife to human disturbance, the refuge is closed to general public use. Next to the refuge headquarters, located on State Road 905, approximately two miles north of US 1 at mile marker 106, the public has access to an interpreted butterfly garden. A self-guided nature trail located at the Key Largo Hammocks State Botanical Site adjacent to the refuge is also available where the public can see similar habitat and wildlife species.

The National Key Deer Refuge administers the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

More information on Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Key West and Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuges

These two refuges encompass numerous islands known locally as the Backcountry and are among the oldest refuges in the nation. These areas were set aside for the primary purpose of maintaining a preserve and breeding ground for native birds.

These two refuges consist of more than 200,000 acres of open water and over 8,000 acres of land on 49 islands. They protect habitat for a wide variety of birds, the endangered Atlantic green and loggerhead turtles and is the only breeding site in the U.S. for the endangered hawksbill turtle.

In 1975, Congress recognized the special qualities of these refuges by designating many of the islands as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System, providing them with additional protection. Of great interest both scenically and scientifically, these refuges exemplify a subtropical region unlike any other part of the United States.

The National Key Deer Refuge administers both the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge and the Key West National Wildlife Refuge.

More information on the Key West National Wildlife Refuge
More information on the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge

These organizations make up a small portion of the dedicated associations that are strongly committed to preserving the natural beauty of the Florida Keys. Many others are also providing education and scientific research that will help keep these islands and their inhabitants intact for the future.