Natural Wonders of the Panhandle
By: Kyle Grammatica
Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park
Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park covers over 4,000 acres and protects Florida’s wet prairie habitat. The wet prairie habitat found in the park is home to four species of pitcher plants as well as other rare plants and animals. Visitors can enjoy hiking along the bayou and viewing the great variety of wildlife found at the park. The bayou leads out into Perdido Bay and has an important function in the ecosysytem as it provides cover for small fish and other wildlife. Fishing, hiking, birding, and mountain biking are some of the popular activities at the park.
There are six species of pitcher plants found in Florida’s state parks, and four of them call Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park home: white-topped, parrot, purple, and red pitcher plants. Red pitcher plants are very rare and have not been observed in the park recently but are still believed to grow there. Pitcher plants are found in nutrient poor soils that they have adapted to by becoming carnivorous. They make up for the lack of nutrients in the soil by using their pitchers to capture insects and even small lizards. The pitcher plants attract the insects and small lizards with a secretion on the lip of the pitcher and by emitting ultraviolet light. Once caught, the prey is digested by the plant and converted into essential nutrients.
Pitcher plants are some of the many fire-dependent species found in wet prairies and are also affected by any alteration to the hydrological system. To protect pitcher plants and other species, prescribed fires are used in Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park, and hydrological restoration is planned.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is a 6,000-acre wildlife sanctuary in South Tallahassee. The park trails take visitors through pine forests, bald cypress wetlands, and hardwood hammocks. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys, American alligators, and a wide variety of snake and bird species all call Wakulla Springs State Park home. Within the park lies Wakulla Springs, one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, and its elaborate cave system home to fossilized remains of Florida’s extinct animals.
The Wakulla Springs Cave System
Wakulla Springs is located in the Woodville Karst Plain, a unique geological region with miles of underground caves. At over 32 miles long, the Wakulla Springs Cave system is the longest surveyed underwater cave in the United States; it was formed from limestone that has been dissolved over millions of years. The cave system is responsible for the 250 million gallons of water that Wakulla Springs discharges every day. Within the deep sections of the cave, ancient carbonate rock and Suwannee Limestone is found. The Oligocene Suwannee Limestone area of the cave was formed from sediments deposited 28-34 million years ago. During this era, an ancient sea covered the Wakulla Springs area, leaving behind fossilized shells and coral that now rest in the modern cave system.
Above the Oligocene Suwannee Limestone is the Miocene St. Marks Formation. The St. Marks Formation is covered in white to pale orange sandy limestone and can be seen from some of the nature trails at the park. Resting atop the St. Marks Formation is a thin layer of sand and clay that is 2.6 million to 11,700 years old. This area of the Wakulla Springs Cave system is rich with fossils. The fossilized remains of mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, camels, bison, and sabre-tooth tigers have all been found in Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla River. In 2018, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park was officially designated a State Geological Site in recognition of the area’s rich geological history, connection to the local ecosystem, and its significance in past and present culture.
We hope you get the opportunity to explore these and other panhandle parks and preserves soon!