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2007 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 6(2):343–350
Freshwater Fish Assemblages in Isolated South Florida
Martin B. Main1,*, David W. Ceilley2, and Phil Stansly1
Abstract - We sampled fish communities in 19 isolated cypress pond and herbaceous
marsh wetlands at locations in southwest, south-central, and southeast Florida.
Breder fish traps were more effective at sampling fish communities at these sites than
either seine or dip nets. We collected 23 total species, but species richness varied
from 1–16 among sites. The availability of deepwater refugia and the extent to which
periodic flooding connected these wetland habitats to other aquatic environments
appeared to be principal factors influencing composition of fish assemblages. Models
of fish distribution in response to hydrological changes in the Everglades have
proposed size-structured, fish functional groups of or > 7 cm, but our data suggested
size and ecology of fish functional groups in isolated wetlands may be better
described as small, omnivorous species ( 15 cm) and larger predatory species (> 15
cm). We suggest incorporating fish functional groups in programs to monitor ecological
health of isolated wetlands in south Florida may be more productive than
attempts to identify specific indicator species or relying solely upon measurements of
physical, chemical, or plant-community parameters.
Rapidly increasing coastal populations and large-scale agricultural
operations in south Florida have challenged water resource managers responsible
for maintaining healthy aquatic systems. Attempts to evaluate the
effects of public demand for water on aquatic systems through physical and
chemical attributes without also including biological measures cannot adequately
reflect impacts on ecosystem health (Harris 1995). Most biological
measures used to assess functional change in wetland systems focus on
plant-community structure (e.g., Zampella and Laidig 2003), but ecological
health of wetlands should also be evaluated in terms of the functional
attributes of faunal communities. Fish may be a key criterion to include
when judging ecosystem health, because fish serve as excellent indicators of
environmental conditions and form vital trophic links with higher level
consumers (Harris 1995).
Isolated and semi-isolated wetlands (collectively referred to as isolated) in
south Florida are particularly vulnerable to anthropogenic impacts such as
lowered water tables due to pumping of groundwater for urban and agricultural
uses. Because many wetland habitats in south Florida are only periodically
connected to other wetland systems during high-water events, negative impacts
to fish communities within these environments can have potentially longlasting
implications for higher-level consumers such as wading birds.
1Southwest Florida Research and Education Center, University of Florida, 2686
State Road 29 North, Immokalee, FL 34142-9515. 21366 Oaklawn Court, Ft. Myers,
FL 33919. *Corresponding author - email@example.com.
344 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 6, No. 2
Unfortunately, little published information is available regarding fish communities
of isolated wetlands in south Florida or techniques that work well to
Information on fish communities of freshwater wetlands in south Florida
comes primarily from inventories of the Florida Everglades (Loftus 2000)
and Big Cypress Swamp (Ellis et al. 2003). These inventories reveal that the
native fish fauna of south Florida’s major freshwater wetland ecosystems is
dominated by small species, especially the Poeciliidae, Cyprinodontidae,
and Fundulidae. Based on this information, Gaff et al. (2000) defined small
( 7 cm) and large (> 7 cm) fish functional groups in a model for assessing
spatial patterns of fish densities in freshwater marshes of the greater Everglades
ecosystem. It is not known, however, whether these functional fish
groups are appropriate for use in more isolated wetlands. We report results
of surveys of fish communities in isolated herbaceous marsh and Taxodium
ascendens Brongn. (pond cypress) and T. distichum (L.) Rich. (bald cypress)
wetlands in southwest, south-central, and southeast Florida conducted with
rapid, non-lethal sampling techniques. In addition to providing information
on fish assemblages, we comment on sampling techniques and discuss the
use of size-delimited fish functional groups as indices for monitoring environmental
conditions in isolated wetlands.
We surveyed fish communities at 19 isolated freshwater wetlands in south
Florida during 21–26 November and 11–13 December, 1996. By isolated
wetlands, we refer to small marsh- and cypress-dominated wetland habitats
entirely surrounded by upland or dry landscapes at least seasonally and
potentially for multiple years, depending on regional flooding patterns. Wetlands
sampled in southwest Florida included five cypress ponds located
within the Flint Pen strand, a 6100-ha cypress swamp located in Lee County
within the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed. Sampling sites in
south-central Florida included 3 herbaceous marshes and two cypress ponds
within the Disney Wilderness Preserve located in Osceola and Polk counties.
We also sampled seven sites in southeast Florida that included two cypress
ponds and four marsh habitats in Jonathon Dickinson State Park (Martin
County) and three marsh sites in Savannas Preserve State Park (St. Lucie
County). We recorded water temperature, dissolved oxygen, and conductivity
at each site with a YSI Model 58 portable dissolved oxygen meter and probe,
and used multiple regression to model the effects of these water-quality
parameters on species richness and relative abundance.
We sampled each site with passive and active techniques to evaluate the
utility and selective nature of each technique under a range of habitats and
environmental conditions. The same sampling procedures were followed at all
sites. Passive sampling was conducted with rectangular, clear plastic fish
traps (10 x 10 x 45 cm) constructed after the design of Breder (1960). We
deployed 6 Breder fish traps (two floating, four weighted) in shallow areas
throughout each site. Traps were placed to maximize sampling coverage of
2007 M.B. Main, D.W. Ceilley, and P. Stansly 345
microhabitats (e.g, emergent vegetation, woody debris) and left in place for
two hours. Concurrent active sampling was conducted by three persons with
standard D-frame, 1-mm mesh dip nets for 30 min. Dip nets were worked
through all microhabitats, including vegetation, open water, and around trees
and woody debris, and any fish captured were evaluated to species level. We
also pulled a small-mesh fish seine through each site, the length of which was
continually adjusted as necessary to avoid trees and other obstructions. Dip
nets and seines were used to determine whether these methods would collect
additional species that avoided Breder traps. Fish captured with the seine and
dip nets were recorded to species and included in analyses of species richness,
but not relative abundance.
Fish were identified to species in the field or labeled for later identification
and, with the exception of voucher specimens, released. Species were identified
with taxonomic keys and verified by Dr. Carter Gilbert (Curator of Fishes,
Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL) as
needed. Taxonomic names and authorities follows the Integrated Taxonomic
Information System (ITIS); (http://www.itis.gov). Voucher specimens were
preserved in a 10–20% formalin solution and submitted to the South Florida
Water Management District for archiving.
We calculated percent frequency of occurrence for each species among
sites by region. Restrictions on the number of individuals that could be
sacrificed necessitated a rapid assessment approach for quantifying species
in fish traps. We made quick counts of individuals and assigned abundance
scores for each species as one (n = 1), six (n = 2–9), 17 (n = 10–24), or 25
(n > 25) and summed these values across all sites to calculate rank relative
abundance among species. We compared species richness and relative species
abundance among habitats and regions with two-way ANOVA, and
used Fisher’s least significant difference (LSD) multiple range tests to
evaluate differences. Data were square-root transformed, and plots of residuals
were used to ascertain whether assumptions of equal variance and
normality were met (Sokal and Rohlf 1981). We used size and life-history
traits to assign each species to one of two functional groups: (1) small ( 15
cm) omnivorous species, or (2) large (> 15 cm) predatory species.
We collected 23 species of fish representing 10 families from nine isolated
cypress pond and 10 isolated herbaceous marsh sites in south Florida (Table 1).
Species richness varied among sites from 1–16 (mean = 6.2, SD = 3.8), and at a
90% level of confidence, differed among regions (F2,15 = 3.13, P = 0.07), but not
among habitats (F1,15 = 1.93, P = 0.18). Multiple-range tests revealed wetlands
in southwest Florida had significantly greater species richness (mean = 10.6,
SD = 3.6) than those in south-central Florida (mean = 3.6, SD = 1.3), and that
those in southeast Florida were intermediate and did not differ from either of
the other two regions (mean = 5.2, SD = 2.6).
Relative species abundance also differed among regions (F2,15 = 2.98, P =
0.08), but not among habitats (F1,15 = 0.48, P = 0.50). As with species
346 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 6, No. 2
Table 1. Families, scientific names, common names (in parentheses), and functional group designations (1 = small, omnivorous species 15 cm; 2 = predatory
species > 15 cm) for fish collected from isolated herbaceous marsh and cypress pond wetlands in southwest (SW), south-central (SC) and southeast (SE) Florida.
Percent frequency of occurrence and species richness is provided by region and habitat, and numbers of sampling sites for each are provided in parentheses. Mean
percent frequency of occurrence, cumulative abundance score, and abundance rank (where 1 = most abundant) calculated across all sites combined are provided
for each species. * = non-native species.
SW SC SE
Funct. Cyp. Marsh Cyp. Marsh Cyp. Mean % Abund. Abund.
Family Species group (n = 5) (n = 3) (n = 2) (n = 7) (n = 2) freq. score rank
Atherinopsidae Labidesthes sicculus Cope (brook silverside) 1 20 0 00 05 1 16
Centrarchidae Enneacanthus glorious Holbrook (blue spotted sunfish) 1 80 0 0 57 100 53 65 6
Lepomis marginatus Holbrook (dollar sunfish) 1 20 0 00 05 6 15
Lepomis microlophus Günther (redear sunfish) 2 20 0 00 05 6 15
Lepomis punctatus Valenciennes (spotted sunfish) 2 20 0 00 05 7 14
Lepomis gulosus Cuvier (warmouth) 2 100 0 0 0 0 26 36 11
Cichlidae *Cichlasoma bimaculatum Linnaeus (black acara) 1 80 0 0 14 0 26 41 10
Cyprinodontidae Lucania goodei Jordan (bluefin killifish) 1 80 0 0 0 50 26 15 13
Jordanella floridae Goode (flagfish) 1 100 0 0 0 0 26 60 7
Elassomatidae Elassoma evergladei Jordan (Everglades pygmy sunfish) 1 80 100 100 86 50 84 211 2
Esocidae Esox americanus Gmelin (redfin pickerel) 20 0 50 0 0 5 6 15
Fundulidae Fundulus chrysotus Günther (golden topminnow) 1 60 0 50 14 100 37 91 5
Fundulus lineolatus Agassiz (lined topminnow) 1 0 0 0 14 50 11 7 14
Fundulus confluentus Goode (marsh killifish) 1600000161812
Leptolucania ommata Jordan (pygmy killifish) 1 0 0 0 57 100 32 47 9
Fundulus cingulatus Valenciennes (redfaced topminnow) 1 0 100 100 71 100 63 208 3
Ictaluridae Ameiurus nebulosus Lesuer (brown bullhead) 2 20 0 00 05 1 16
Ameiurus natali Lesueur (yellow bullhead) 20 0 50 0 0 5 6 15
Noturus gyrinus Mitchill (tadpole madtom) 10 0 0 14 0 5 1 16
Lepisosteidae Lepisosteus platyrhincus DeKay (Florida gar) 2 20 0 00 05 1 16
Poeciliidae Gambusia affinis Baird and Girard (eastern mosquitofish) 1 100 100 100 100 100 100 370 1
Heterandria formosa Girard (least killifish) 1 100 0 0 57 50 53 145 4
Poecilia latipinna Lesueur (sailfin molly) 1 100 0 0 0 0 26 52 8
Species richness: total (mean, SD) 16 3 6 10 9 23
(11, 3.6) (3, 0) (5, 2.1) (5, 2.8) (7, 1.4) (6, 3.8)
2007 M.B. Main, D.W. Ceilley, and P. Stansly 347
richness, relative fish abundance was consistently greatest at wetlands in
southwest Florida (mean = 115.9, SD = 51.3). However, in terms of abundance,
wetlands in southeast Florida had lowest fish abundance (mean =
44.3, SD = 24.5), and those in south-central Florida were intermediate (mean
= 74.1, SD = 8.2).
Small, omnivorous fish represented 70% of species collected and included
the 10 most abundant species (Table 1). Based on abundance scores
summed across all sites, smaller omnivorous fishes outnumbered larger
predatory fishes approximately 24:1. Gambusia affinis (eastern
mosquitofish) was the most abundant species and the only species collected
at all 19 sampling sites. The 2nd- and 3rd-most abundant species were
Elassoma evergladei (Everglades pygmy sunfish) and Fundulus rubrifrons
(redfaced topminnow), respectively (Table 1). The best-represented family
was Centrarchidae (sunfishes) with five species, and included three of the
seven large, predatory species recorded. Fundulidae was represented by four
species, Poeciliidae and Ictaluridae were each represented by three species,
Cyprinodontidae by two, and a single species was collected from each of the
Atherinopsidae, Cichlidae, Elassomatidae, Esocidae, and Lepisosteidae.
One non-native species, Cichlasoma bimaculatum (black acara), was collected
at 4 of 5 (80%) locations in southwest Florida and at 1 of 9 (11%)
locations in southeast Florida.
All but three of the species (87%) were captured by Breder fish traps.
Lepisosteus platyrhincus (Florida gar), Ameiurus nebulosus (brown
bullhead), and Labidesthes sicculus (brook silverside) were captured exclusively
by seine at a single location, but seining generally proved impractical
and was abandoned at most locations due to constant entanglement. Dip nets
captured approximately 50% of the species collected by fish traps. Dissolved
oxygen (0.5–9.5 mg/L), water temperature (18.5–25.0 oC), and conductivity
(20–461 S/cm) varied widely among sampling locations, but none of these
parameters exerted a significant predictive effect on either species richness
(F3,18 = 0.72, P = 0.56, R2 = 0.13) or relative abundance (F3,18 = 0.17, P =
0.92, R2 = 0.03).
The fish communities we sampled were dominated by small, omnivorous
forage fishes both in number of species (70%) and abundance, with small
forage fishes outnumbering larger predatory species by about 24:1 (Table 1).
Fish found in Florida wetlands typically survive a broad range of water
chemistry parameters (Hoyer and Canfield 1994), and we detected no discernible
effect on fish communities within the range of parameters measured.
Species richness varied from 1–16 among sites and was statistically
different among regions (Table 1). Regionally, both mean species richness
and relative abundance were greatest in fish communities sampled from
southwest Florida. Wetlands sampled in southwest Florida were exclusively
cypress pond habitats; however, when compared across regions, we detected
no statistical difference in species richness or relative abundance between
348 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 6, No. 2
cypress ponds and marsh sites. The greater mean species richness observed
at southwest Florida locations was likely associated with seasonal flooding
that increased connectivity with other wetlands during the summer rainy
season, which has been reported to influence species richness and the presence
of larger species (Kushlan 1980, 1990). The sites sampled in southwest
Florida were located within or immediately adjacent to the Flint Pen strand,
a seasonally flooded cypress swamp that serves as an important conduit of
seasonal sheet flow (surface flooding) within the 24,281-ha Corkscrew
Regional Ecosytem Watershed (South Florida Water Management District
2006). Cypress ponds in south-central and southeast Florida occurred in
more isolated cypress domes and were not direct components of larger
wetland systems, although they may be connected with other wetlands
during periodic flood events.
Structural cover associated with woody debris and cypress and
deepwater refugia may also be important for some larger predatory species,
particularly among the Centrarchidae and Ictaluridae. Although we
did not quantify water depths, several of the cypress ponds in southwest
and south-central Florida had deep holes (ca. 1.5–2 m) that likely served
as fish refugia during dry periods and provided conditions suitable for
supporting larger predatory species. All seven predatory species were
collected exclusively from cypress ponds in these areas, and deepwater
refugia at these locations were probably critical for sustaining large,
predatory fishes such as Esox americanus (redfin pickerel) and Ameiurus
natalis (yellow bullhead) through multiple dry seasons, particularly in
more isolated wetland habitats (Table 1). Deep areas were not observed in
the herbaceous marsh sites we sampled, which would limit the ability of
these areas to support larger species, especially late in the dry season
when isolated wetlands may become mostly or completely dry. The
extent to which herbaceous marsh sites were seasonally or periodically
connected with other wetlands was not known, and the lack of deepwater
refugia was probably the major factor influencing absence of larger
predatory species at these locations.
Breder fish traps (Breder 1960) captured all but three of the species
collected and were more effective than either dip nets or seine. Breder
fish traps were also easier both to use and to standardize sampling effort
than the other methods. In addition, they are portable, reasonably easy to
make (we built ours), and can be deployed rapidly. Although two species
of large, predatory fish (Florida gar and brown bullhead) and one species
typically associated with open water environments (brook silverside)
were captured solely by seine, seining was generally impractical in these
type of wetlands due to constant entanglement and had to be abandoned
at most sites. Dip nets were easy to use and provided opportunities to
actively sample different areas and microhabitats, but were not as efficient
and collected only about half as many species as Breder fish traps,
probably due to disturbance caused when wading in areas sampled. Dip
nets also have the disadvantage of being difficult to standardize in terms
2007 M.B. Main, D.W. Ceilley, and P. Stansly 349
of sampling effort and efficiency among individuals and locations. Consequently,
Breder fish traps were the most efficient means evaluated for
sampling isolated wetlands and, although these traps are not a good
method for capturing adults of larger predatory species, they did capture
juveniles. Although Breder fish traps are not as effective for sampling
fish populations where seines can be used effectively (Layman and Smith
2001), other researchers have reported positive results using Breder traps
in freshwater wetlands. Ceilley and Cox (1995) reported as many as eight
species of fish collected by Breder trap during a single sampling event.
Sargent and Carlson (1987) evaluated advantages and disadvantages of
various wetland fish-sampling techniques and concluded Breder traps
supplied excellent spatial and temporal resolution at reasonable cost
when used in marsh habitats where relative densities or catch-per-uniteffort
data will suffice and the principal marsh resident fish species can
be used as indicator species.
Fish assemblages in large wetland ecosystems of south Florida are
influenced by multiple factors including protective cover and depth, connectivity
to other bodies of water, and hydrology (Carlson and Duever
1977, Ellis et al. 2003, Kushlan 1976, Loftus and Kushlan 1987). The
presence of deepwater refugia and connectivity with other aquatic environments
also appeared to be key factors influencing species richness and the
presence of larger predatory fish in the isolated wetlands we sampled. We
suggest these fundamental effects on fish community structure provide a
means for evaluating changing hydrological conditions on the ecological
health of isolated wetlands, and that monitoring fish assemblages in terms
of functional fish groups may provide a more meaningful index of ecological
health than attempting to identify select indicator species (Landres et
al. 1988) or relying solely on measurements of physical, chemical, or
plant-community parameters. Models developed as part of Everglades
restoration efforts are utilizing this approach and size-structured,
functional fish groups of 7 and > 7 cm to simulate fish distribution in
response to changes in hydrology (Gaff et al. 2000). Whereas these size
classes may be appropriate for the Everglades, many of the small, ubiquitous
species collected from isolated wetlands exceed lengths of 7 cm (e.g.,
Fundulus spp.), but typically do not exceed lengths of 15 cm. Consequently,
defining functional fish groups as small, omnivorous species ( 15
cm) and larger predatory species (> 15 cm) may better reflect the ecology
of isolated wetlands, and we encourage additional work be done to evaluate
the utility of this approach.
We thank Dr. Carter Gilbert for assistance in confirming species identification
and Jim Gore, Dave Addison, and Dan Ceilley for assistance in field sampling. This
project was supported by a grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management
District (Contract C-7950).
350 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 6, No. 2
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