One of the most unique things about Sanibel is that you can experience a variety of ecosystems in a very small area, each with its own plants and animals. Next time you're on Sanibel, try to visit all of the ecosystems on this list.

Cownose rays photographed on Sanibel Island.

Cownose rays photographed on Sanibel Island.

Ocean

Some dive head-first into the waves, while others look out at the horizon in hopes of spotting a pod of playful dolphins. Either way, the ocean is easy to fall in love with. It is full of beautiful, diverse creatures and offers plenty of opportunities for recreation. 

Look For: dolphins, sharks, manatees, fish, schools of migrating cownose rays, live shells, sand dollars 

A Snowy Plover nesting site on Sanibel's East End. 

A Snowy Plover nesting site on Sanibel's East End. 

Beach

Anyone who has visited Sanibel's beaches will agree that they are unique. The number of shells that wash up here make our island one of the best places in the world to find beach treasures. This happens because Sanibel is oriented from east to west, creating a "net" to catch what the waves wash ashore. In addition to many fabulous shells, our local shorebirds are worth watching. The willets and sanderlings will keep you entertained for hours, while swift snowy egrets pluck fish from the shallow waters. 

Look For: seashells, Snowy Plovers, Osprey, sea oats, ghost crabs, sand fleas

An American alligator mother with her hatchlings. 

An American alligator mother with her hatchlings. 

Wetlands

Some areas of Sanibel retain fresh water year-round, and are home to a very specific set of residents. The Sanibel River is the fresh water source in the interior of our islands, and these beautiful wetlands provide habitat for birds, freshwater turtles, and American alligators. 

Look For: American alligators, wading birds, freshwater turtles, snakes, river otters 

A Roseate Spoonbill photographed at Sanibel's J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. 

A Roseate Spoonbill photographed at Sanibel's J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge. 

Mangroves

Mangrove forests, called mangals, are one of the most important ecosystems in warm subtropical and tropical areas. Mangroves are salt-tolerant plants called halophytes, which take root in the waters around Sanibel. The red mangrove tends to grow farthest away from shore, and black and white mangroves are found closer to shore. These trees provide habitat for roughly 90% of all juvenile commercially fished species in our area, and prevent the erosion of our estuaries and barrier islands.

Look For: Roseate Spoonbills, juvenile fish, oysters, mangrove crabs, sea stars

A rat snake hides among the seagrape leaves. 

A rat snake hides among the seagrape leaves. 

Hammock

This ecosystem has the tallest tree canopy and is mostly found in the interior of the island. Hammock habitat offers some of the highest elevation between our wetlands, so the Calusa Indians likely built their settlements there to minimize the risk of flooding. To add even more elevation, they created shell mounds, called middens, which were piles of shells, bones, and other discarded objects. Today, animals take refuge in the hammock for the same reasons.

Look For: woodland songbirds, rat snakes, bobcats, gopher tortoises, armadillos, palmetto palms, gumbo limbo trees

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