The Pine Ridge Nature Trail at Bok Tower Gardens is a longleaf pine/turkey oak habitat. The 3/4-mile walking trail takes you through this unique habitat that once covered millions of acres of the Southeastern United States. The longleaf pine forest is now in danger of disappearing. Fortunately, we have been able to preserve a portion of this habitat for visitors to experience and learn from. The trail begins near Window by the Pond and ends at the Visitor Center and parking lot area.
What Makes This Habitat So Unique?
Located on one of the highest points in peninsular Florida, Bok Tower Gardens is situated on what is called the Lake Wales Ridge, 298 feet above sea level. In ancient times when ocean levels were higher, the Lake Wales Ridge was above water and formed a chain of islands. Many plants and animals unique to the Ridge evolved on these ancient islands – isolated from other parts of the world – which is why many rare plant and animal species can be found here and nowhere else in the world.
A Delicate Ecosystem Dependent on Fire
Pine Ridge is an upland savanna-like ecosystem typified by an overstory of longleaf pine and a dense ground cover of perennial grasses, primarily wiregrass. The plants and animals have adapted to and depend on periodic fires to exist.
In earlier times, lightning-induced fires could burn thousands of acres before being stopped by natural barriers such as lakes, streams or swamps. Today, there are barriers such as roads, cities and agricultural lands that prevent naturally occurring fires from spreading widely. Without fire, the pinelands are invaded by evergreen oaks that eventually shade out and kill the sun-loving sandhill plants.
We have developed a burn program to maintain the habitat. By timing the fire and knowing the variables (humidity, wind, ground moisture and vegetation), we formulate a burn prescription to help predict how the fire will behave. Prescribed fires simulate the natural cycles that prevailed before man.
Habitat Preservation and Management
The Pine Ridge Preserve is home to six listed plant species, including Warea amplexifolia, and to endangered species such as the Indigo Snake and Gopher Tortoise. Habitat management projects include:
- The Fire and Management Plan for Bok Tower Gardens’ Natural Areas (Babb, Carpenter, and Price, 1989)
- A Vegetation Management Plan for the Pine Ridge Preserve (Zander, 1998)
- Annual counts of endangered Warea amplexifolia and Polygala lewtonii
- Annual collection of seed, propagation, and reintroduction of native sandhill plants
- Annual use of prescribed fire
- Control of invasive species
The gopher tortoise is the landlord of the longleaf pine and sandhill community. This land turtle lives in deep burrows in the sandy soil. Scientists have found more than 350 different animal species living with the gopher tortoise or in its burrow, including the rare and endangered indigo snake and Florida mouse, which also call Bok Tower Gardens home. Some of these exist nowhere else in the world and depend on the gopher tortoise for their survival. Because so many animals depend on the gopher tortoise to survive, it is called a keystone species. It is a lumbering, gentle creature whose numbers have been declining due to hunting and habitat destruction. Once used as a food source by Native American and European settlers, the gopher tortoise is now protected by law. Many plants also benefit from the burrowing. The open sand created by excavating provides a nursery for germinating seeds in the otherwise densely growing wiregrass. Several hundred gopher tortoises live at Bok Tower Gardens.
Eastern Indigo Snake
The eastern indigo snake is the largest non-venomous snake in North America. It has been affected by two threats: habitat loss and unsustainable use. Population declines have been so substantial that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed indigo snakes as a “threatened species” in 1978. Indigo snakes have full protection as a threatened species in Florida. Preservation of the Lake Wales Ridge habitat is important to the survival of the indigo snake. By protecting and managing the longleaf pine and sandhill habitat for birds and gopher tortoises, Bok Tower Gardens is creating conditions that will enhance indigo snake survival. Because approximately 95% of the longleaf pine habitat in the Southeast have been destroyed, protection and management of the remaining habitat is critical.
Gopher frogs are secretive, winter-breeding frogs that breed only in characteristic breeding sites throughout their range. The breeding ponds are typically located in upland, longleaf pine forests such as the Lake Wales Ridge. Relatively shallow and temporary, these ponds lack fish and other large predators. Gopher frogs do not remain in these ponds throughout the year, they migrate to these sites to breed from their non-breeding season habitat. During the non-breeding season, the frogs take residence in gopher tortoise burrows, old mammal burrows and holes associated with dead trees.
The primary habitats of the Florida mouse are longleaf pine and sandhill forests such as the Lake Wales Ridge. The Florida mouse is a ground dweller and typically lives in burrows, favoring those of the gopher tortoise. Its diet consists of seeds, acorns, nuts, fungi, other vegetation, insects and other small invertebrates. The Florida mouse is threatened by widespread destruction of its restricted habitat. Overprotection from fire has allowed vegetation in many other areas to become too dense and shady. The species has disappeared from much of the Florida coast and interior and is becoming increasingly rare.
Bok Tower Gardens is proud to be a partner in Polk County’s Trek Ten Trails program. You’ll find three geocaches located on the 3/4-mile Pine Ridge Nature Trail, and three others elsewhere on Bok Tower Gardens property. They include numerous trade treasures and a log book. Here’s our blog post to get you started on your adventures.