Everglades Hammocks and Snails

During Pleistocene climate phases of high sea levels, the Everglades region of south Florida was flat sea bottom dotted with limestone outcrops and coral, and Lake Okeechobee was a saltwater bay. Today, the Everglades is a sea of sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) dotted with hardwood hammocks that grow on top of the formerly inundated limestone outcrops and coral. Fresh water from Lake Okeechobee, funneled by a coastal ridge, flows south through the Everglades landscape. Sawgrass (technically a sedge not a grass) is a fire-adapted species, and during dry spells it burns, but hardwood hammocks are usually protected from the fires. Trees growing on the limestone-enriched elevated soils drop leaves, and the acidity from the decomposing leaf litter dissolves the limestone surrounding the hammock, creating moats filled with water that serve as fire breaks. Most hardwood hammocks also have an eroded solution hole in their middle, and they are elliptically shaped with 1 end pointed in the direction of the southward water flow.

Typical Everglades landscape–sawgrass wet prairie dotted with hardwood hammocks.

The composition of trees on Everglades hardwood hammocks includes a mix of tropical and temperate species. Tropical species are more common on southern Everglades hammocks, while temperate species predominate on the northern Everglades hammocks. The list of tree species found on these hammocks includes gumbo-limbo, mahogany, cocoplum, wax myrtle, live oak, red maple, hackberry, mulberry, Everglades palm, royal palm, and strangler fig.

Gumbo limbo tree. This is a tropical species common in hardwood hammocks of the southern Everglades. Everglades hardwood hammocks contain a mix of temperate and tropical species of plants.
Royal palms cannot survive frequent frost. Therefore, they are more common in the southern Everglades.

A diverse snail fauna thrives on Everglades hammocks because the limestone outcrops provide a rich source of calcium. Snails need calcium to develop their shells. The relatively frost-free climate also helps them breed year-round. Each hammock hosts a variation of tree snail (Liguus fasciatus) with a different color pattern. Over 58 variations are known. Tree snails feed upon fungus, lichen, and algae. 4 species of large apple snails live on these hammocks. 3 non-native apple snail species from South America are outcompeting the native species (Pomacea paludosa). Apple snails graze on green plant material and are a pest on south Florida vegetable farms. However, the rapidly expanding population of non-native apple snails benefit snail-eating bird species such as limpkins and the Everglades snail kite. The latter species is endangered, but the increase in snail populations has led to a rebound in Everglades kite numbers.

Native Florida apple snail. 3 species of non-native apple snails also thrive on Everglades hammocks.
Over 58 color variations of tree snails have been found on Everglades hammocks. Each hammock hosts a snail with a different color variation.
Limpkins primarily eat snails.
Endangered snail kites are increasing in population, thanks to rapidly spreading populations of non-native apple snails.

I’ve seen apple snails for sale in Asian food markets. I was not impressed with my lone snail-eating experience after I bought a can of imported escargot. They were relatively inexpensive, but they had no flavor at all. Escargots are traditionally served with butter and garlic sauce. I think eating snails is an excuse to dunk French bread in the butter and garlic sauce.

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