Tampa Bay hosts some of Florida’s most diverse wildlife. From birds, to dolphins and manatees, to crabs and fish, there are many different organisms that call this estuary home. All of these animals work together and intersect through the food web, and a cascade of trophic levels.
On our Shell Key tour, we see an example of how different trophic levels interact and how we as humans change the local food web: cormorants swoop down and follow us in the water while we paddle and stir up fish for them to feed on. These fish are primary consumers since they eat primary producers like plants and algae. Primary producers begin the food web by taking sunlight and photosynthesizing it into energy and plant matter. These fish obtain their energy through eating this plant matter, which is where they get their energy, and the food web continues, placing the cormorants as tertiary consumers since they eat the primary consumers. Even our interaction with these birds introduces us as new participants in Tampa Bay’s food web!
All of the animals that live in the area play important roles in their respective ecosystems. Crabs, barnacles, oysters, and other invertebrates make homes out of the mangrove roots and participate in keeping the water in the bay clean. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, and are important to keep local water healthy. These invertebrates also provide food for fish that grow in the mangroves, too thanks to another food web unique to the mangrove ecosystem.
Did you know that around 300 different species of birds and 200 species of fish are reported to live in Tampa Bay? That means that we host an incredibly high level of biodiversity and makes this area the seventh most diverse Important Bird Area in Florida. Common birds we see include osprey, cormorants, herons, anhinga’s, pelicans, and a wide variety of gulls. Without these birds feeding on fish like mullets, snook, sea trout and others, the delicate balance of life in the bay would be thrown off. By keeping fish populations at a stable level and by preventing the overgrowth of different populations, life in the bay is maintained at a healthy and stable level.
Scientists track the health of Tampa Bay by monitoring indicator species: these are plants and animals that live in a habitat when it exhibits certain environmental conditions. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are 38 species used to indicate the health of Tampa Bay’s estuary system. These include the West Indian Manatee, roseate spoonbill, the least tern, and the famous brown pelican. Each of these species point to the health of the bay; for example, when manatees are present, it indicates that seagrass beds are thriving and the water is a suitably warm temperature.
As citizens of and visitors to this significant landscape, it’s important that we all participate in the conservation and preservation of Tampa Bay. People who live in the area can participate in Florida-friendly landscaping by planting native plant species, and supporting environmentally-conscious local businesses. Visitors to the area can support conscious tourism and use reef-safe sunscreen. Everyone can use reusable water bottles and pick up trash whenever they see it, especially near waterways.
You can help protect local ecosystems alongside us on our monthly clean ups. We’ll be meeting at a local park and cleaning for a few hours in the morning. Sign up here and email Ellie at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or concerns.