Learn About Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress borders the wet freshwater marl prairies of Everglades National Park to the south, and other state and federally protected cypress country in the west, with water from the Big Cypress flowing south and west into the coastal Ten Thousand Islands region of Everglades National Park.


Geography and History of Big Cypress National Preserve

Ecologically, the preserve is slightly more elevated than the western Everglades. Big Cypress was historically occupied by various cultures of Native Americans; the last were the Seminole of the nineteenth century. Their descendants include the federally recognized Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Early European-American settlers hunted herons and egrets, whose feathers were popular with 19th and 20th century hat-makers in New York and Paris. Poachers hunted American alligators and crocodiles to near extinction. When the timber industry began to operate in the area, it built railroads, and cut and hauled out most of the cypress ecosystem’s old growth trees. Portions of the Big Cypress were farmed for winter vegetables.

Big Cypress National Preserve differs from Everglades National Park in that, when it was established by law in 1974, the Miccosukee, Seminole and Traditional people were provided with permanent rights to occupy and use the land in traditional ways; in addition, they have first rights to develop income-producing businesses related to the resources and use of the preserve, such as guided tours.

They and other hunters may use off-road vehicles, and home and business owners have been permitted to keep their properties in the preserve. As in Everglades National Park, petroleum exploration was permitted within Big Cypress in the authorizing legislation, but plans are underway for the government to buy out the remaining petroleum leases in order to shut down non-governmental commercial access to the environment.

In the 1960s, Native Americans, hunters, and conservationists succeeded at fighting an effort to move Miami International Airport’s international flights to a new airport in the Big Cypress area. They followed up with a campaign to have Big Cypress included in the National Parks System. Although construction of the new airport had already begun, it was stopped after one runway was completed. It is now known as the Dade-Collier Training and Transition Airport.

Precolumbian People

Humans have made the Big Cypress Swamp their home for almost 3,000 years. Teeming with life, the unique ecosystem of the Big Cypress Swamp provided a bountiful source of sustenance for the first peoples to call it home. Evidence of seasonal and even permanent settlement, albeit limited, has been found deep within its large expanse. Ongoing research may yet yield even more fascinating clues.

Who were the “Glades People?” Within the wetland region of South Florida these were peoples living on the margins of the Big Cypress Swamp who supplemented their economy with food and other products from the swamp and coastal waters. Among these diverse tribes were the fierce Calusa of Southwest Florida and the Tequesta, a people inhabiting what is now Miami. Although the region was rich in nutritional and material resources, heavy rainfall and seasonal flooding prevented permanent settlement in most places. The earliest inhabitants, about 4,500 years ago, created middens, or piles of refuse, that provide clues to their diet and way of life. Shell tools and weapons, along with simple and sometimes decorated pottery have been found on many of the naturally elevated “islands” in the swamp. There is no evidence, however, of agriculture. What archaeologists termed the “Glades culture” was almost entirely based on hunting and gathering, with extremely limited use of farming. Throughout the Prehistoric period, (500 B.C.E. to A.C.E. 1513) settlements in the Big Cypress were largely transient, with camps being used mostly for hunting, fishing, and food-processing.

How Did the Precolumbian People Survive in the Swamp?

The Big Cypress Swamp was rich in food and material resources for the peoples living in and around it. Game, including white tailed deer, marsh rabbits, and all kinds of fish and reptiles were plentiful. Evidence from prehistoric trash middens suggests that both fish and reptiles made up the largest part of the Glades diet. A vast array of plants served the Glades people as food and medicines. Hog plums, coco plums, prickly pears, and palmetto berries were all consumed by the Glades people. Most sites within Big Cypress seem to have been devoted to processing food, and one can imagine large amounts of fish, shellfish, and other animals being cooked and preserved in what would appear to be large hunting or fishing camps. This kind of activity carries on today in seasonal camps used by today’s hunters, sport anglers, and in modern Miccosukee and Seminole villages.

While much of the culture of the early inhabitants of Big Cypress remains a mystery, archaeology has provided a glimpse of how these people survived in the swamp. Shell was the most common material used for making tools. Perforated shells were used as weapons and tools, made by cutting holes in large shells and securing them to rods. Fish hooks were carved from bone or antler, and arrowheads and other projectile points made of bone or mineral were also used. Shark teeth and stingray spines were used to make cutting tools and weapons, and palmetto fiber was used to weave nets. The fronds could be used as thatch for roofing.

Treasure hunters have stolen many artifacts—erasing our heritage. Many times archaeologists prefer to leave sites as is to preserve artifacts.

What Happened to the Precolumbian People?

In the two centuries after contact with Europeans in the early 1500s, the Glades peoples went into decline. War with the Spanish and other American Indian tribes, slave raids by Europeans, and most devastating disease caused the rapid decrease in native population. By 1763, when the Spanish ceded Florida to Great Britain, many of the remaining South Florida tribes had already settled in Cuba in the hills overlooking Havana, where many are said to have eventually died of disease. While a small amount of aboriginal Indians might have remained in South Florida into the 1800s, they were probably absorbed by the incoming migration of Seminole and Miccosukee tribes from further north.


In the 1960s, plans for the world’s largest Jetport, to be constructed in the heart of the Greater Everglades of south Florida, were unveiled. This project, and the anticipated development that would follow, spurred the incentive to protect the wilds of the vast Big Cypress Swamp.

To prevent development of the Jetport, local conservationists, sportsmen, environmentalists, Seminoles, Miccosukees, and many others set political and personal differences aside. The efforts of countless individuals and government officials prevailed when, On October 11, 1974, Big Cypress National Preserve was established as the nation’s first national preserve.

The concept of a national preserve was born from an exercise in compromise. Everyone saw the importance of protecting the swamp, but many did not want this region merely added to nearby Everglades National Park that was created in the 1940s. Many felt that national parks were managed in a restrictive manner and access to the swamp would be lost. The resulting compromise created a new land management concept – a national preserve. An area that would be protected, but would also allow for specific activities that were described by Congress within the legislation that created the Preserve.

Traditional and Customary Uses

A wide variety of traditional, consumptive and recreational activities were carried out in Big Cypress before the inception of the Preserve. Hunting, oil and gas extraction, operation of off-road vehicles, private land ownership, traditional use by Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes and cattle grazing were allowed for by the US Congress through the Preserve’s enabling legislation. These six traditional activities would not typically be allowed in a conventional national park.

Private Land Ownership

Before becoming a national preserve, many individuals lived and recreated within the swamp. When the Preserve was created in 1974 (1988 within an area known as the Addition Lands), a person in legal possession of land, after meeting certain criteria, became exempt from federal acquisition. The right to land ownership was secured by the Preserve’s enabling legislation. Hundreds of residences and primitive camps pepper the landscape of the Preserve; several can only be reached by off-road vehicle or airboat.

Off-Road Vehicle Use

Gaining access to private lands, locations for hunting or exploring the remoteness of the swamp can require specialized transportation in Big Cypress. Customized four-wheel drive vehicles called swamp buggies and airboats provide passage through the many difficulties found in the remoteness of the Preserve’s 729,000 acres. Permits and vehicle inspections are required to explore the Preserve’s network of off-road vehicle trails; for more information visit the off-road vehicle office at the Oasis Visitor Center. Traditional Use and Occupancy by Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes These two tribes still call Big Cypress and the Everglades home and continue to access resources as their ancestors did. Using timber for the construction of traditional shelters called “chickees,” or harvesting plants and animals for personal use. The Miccosukee and Seminole Tribes have their legacy and traditional way of life secured through the creation of Big Cypress National Preserve.

Oil and Gas Exploration

To date, only two reserves of oil have been found on the landmass of Florida; one of these sits nestled under the Big Cypress, the Sunniland Formation. Oil was first discovered in the Sunniland area in 1943, and has continued to be extracted from beneath lands that are now part of the Preserve. Oil fields in Big Cypress are located in the Raccoon Point and Bear Island areas. Private companies lease the mineral rights. The state and National Park Service monitor and oversee the extraction of oil.

The search for oil in Florida began in 1901. After almost 80 more dry holes had been drilled throughout the state, on September 26, 1943, Humble Oil Company (later to become Exxon) discovered Florida’s first producing oil well in the northwest portion of what is now Big Cypress National Preserve. The wells currently produce about 20 barrels of oil per day.

Cattle Grazing

Despite no active leases for grazing in Big Cypress today, the cattle industry still thrives in south Florida. At one time ranchers called “crackers” worked cattle on the land in Big Cypress. These ranchers used bullwhips and dogs instead of lassos, hence the name “cracker.”

Ranchers also used a smaller “scrub cow” to graze the thick brush found in Big Cypress. When the Preserve was created this traditional use was included in the legislation.


A long-standing recreational activity, hunting continues at Big Cypress today. Common species of interest are whitetail deer (fall season), turkey (spring season), and feral hogs. A valid Florida hunting license is required, other special permits may be required. Fishing and frogging are also allowed year round with a Florida freshwater fishing license.

Flora and Fauna at Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress National Preserve is a diverse landscape, where one can see cypress and mangroves, alligators and panthers all in one day! Just like the diversity of the land, the National Park Service manages for a diversity of activities within the national preserve that national parks typically do not allow.

Dominated by a wet cypress forest, it is host to an array of flora and fauna, including mangroves, orchids, alligators, venomous snakes like the cottonmouth and eastern diamondback rattlesnake, a variety of birds, river otter, bobcat, coyote, black bear and cougar. The preserve is also home to federally listed endangered species including, the eastern indigo snake, and the Florida sandhill crane.

Most notable and regularly seen, the American Alligators can be up to around 12 feet in length. Another notable and endangered animal, the Florida Panther calls the Preserve home. Though both generally relatively timid, wading through the cypress country requires constant alertness. Before going out, visit one of the preserve’s visitor centers for information on the current conditions and local trails. The visitor centers offer an educational video about the surroundings, also viewable on the Big Cypress YouTube channel. Rangers often lead swamp walk hikes in the dry winter months, as well as canoe trips, and boardwalk talks.

Hunting is a long-established recreational activity in the area and is protected in the designation of the area as a Preserve. Hunters were instrumental in protecting this corner of remote, wild Florida. Hunting activities continue today and include seasons for archery, muzzle loading and general gun. Typical game species are white-tailed deer, turkey and hogs. Alligator hunting is not allowed within the national preserve. Hunting within the preserve is managed cooperatively between the National Park Service and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Cypress Swamps

Cypress swamps are communities that are dominated by bald cypress trees. These ecosystems assume differences in response to abiotic and biotic factors. The big cypress swamp, much of which is in Big Cypress National Preserve, is mostly composed of these types of communities.

Other plants growing in the understory of big cypress swamp, are swamp fern, spikerush and marsh fleabane. Among the woody plants found in the understory are buttonbush, cocoplum, willow and wax myrtle.

Growing on the trunks and branches of the cypress trees are epiphytes or air plants. Epiphytic plants attach themselves to other living plants, in this case the cypress trees. Instead of having its roots in the soil they are wrapped around the cypress tree to keep it securely in place. Well know epiphytes in the Big Cypress National Preserve are bromeliads and orchids. Epiphytes use photosynthesis to create its own food and obtain moisture from humidity, like fog and rain.

Cypress trees grow in water and are found growing in solution holes. Solution holes are depressions in the limestone bedrock that have been broken down over time as a result of anaerobic decomposition of leaves, branches and flowers. This process creates a byproduct that is acidic and overtime dissolves the limestone bedrock. The roots of the cypress trees are able to break through the bedrock and take hold to grow.

In a cypress dome, the overstory and the solution hole it is growing in mirror each other. The tallest trees grow in the deepest water and the smaller trees grow along the edge in the shallower water. Cypress domes, look circular in nature from above, though some look like an open hole doughnut. This happens in many cypress domes, the center of the domes have no trees. In this case, the solution hole is too deep in the center for cypress trees to become established and a collection or pond of water is common. This type of open dome is inviting to alligator flag, willow or other plants that can tolerate deeper water. As these deeper solution holes almost always hold water year-round, they are an important refuge for aquatic animals like alligators.

Alligators will make these holes deeper and wider by displacing the peat and other debris. In the dry season, the remaining water for wildlife is found here and we call it an Alligator hole.

Cypress Strands

Cypress strands are swamps that are dominated by cypress trees, similar to cypress domes, but the primary difference is that a strand is an elongated or linear feature like a strand of hair. Strands are generally much larger than domes, with a ground elevation slightly lower than the surrounding communities, and are flow ways of inland swamps. The flow of water is generally in a small creek or slough and moving southwest.

Other trees that are found growing in the strand are adapted for the hydric conditions, such as the red maple. Cypress domes and Strands have a long hydroperiod. The deeper areas stay wet throughout the year especially in the center of the domes and in the sloughs. On the perimeter of the domes and strands, and in sparsely populated areas of cypress, the water levels may drop considerably during the very driest time of the year, but the ground will usually remain damp.

River Otter

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis), also known as the northern river otter or the common otter, is a semiaquatic mammal endemic to the North American continent found in and along its waterways and coasts. An adult North American river otter can weigh between 5.0 and 14 kg (11.0 and 30.9 lb). The river otter is protected and insulated by a thick, water-repellent coat of fur.

The North American river otter, a member of the subfamily Lutrinae in the weasel family (Mustelidae), is equally versatile in the water and on land. It establishes a burrow close to the water’s edge in river, lake, swamp, coastal shoreline, tidal flat, or estuary ecosystems. The den typically has many tunnel openings, one of which generally allows the otter to enter and exit the body of water. Female North American river otters give birth in these underground burrows, producing litters of one to six young.

North American river otters, like most predators, prey upon the most readily accessible species. Fish is a favored food among the otters, but they also consume various amphibians (such as salamanders and frogs), freshwater clams, mussels, snails, small turtles and crayfish. The most common fish consumed are perch, suckers, and catfish. Instances of North American river otters eating small mammals, such as mice and squirrels, and occasionally birds have been reported as well. There have also been some reports of river otters attacking and even drowning dogs.

The range of the North American river otter has been significantly reduced by habitat loss, beginning with the European colonization of North America. In some regions, though, their population is controlled to allow the trapping and harvesting of otters for their pelts. North American river otters are very susceptible to the effects of environmental pollution, which is a likely factor in the continued decline of their numbers. A number of reintroduction projects have been initiated to help stabilize the reduction in the overall population.

American Alligator

One of our most famous residents of the cypress swamp is the American alligator. Because of hunting and poaching in the early 20th century the American alligator was listed as an endangered species. As the numbers began to steadily rise, the American alligator was able to be taken off the list.

Today, the American alligators is listed as threatened because it looks similar to the American crocodile that is listed as endangered. This listing is to help bring back the number of American crocodiles.

The American alligator sometimes referred to colloquially as a gator or common alligator, is a large crocodilian reptile endemic to the southeastern United States. It is one of two living species in the genus Alligator within the family Alligatoridae; it is larger than the other extant alligator species, the Chinese alligator. Adult male American alligators measure 3.4 to 4.6 m (11.2 to 15.1 ft) in length, and can weigh up to 453 kg (999 lb). Females are smaller, measuring 2.6 to 3 m (8.5 to 9.8 ft) in length. The American alligator inhabits freshwater wetlands, such as marshes and cypress swamps. It is distinguished from the sympatric American crocodile by its broader snout, with overlapping jaws and darker coloration, and is less tolerant of saltwater but more tolerant of cooler climates than the American crocodile, which is found only in tropical climates.

American alligators are apex predators and consume fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Hatchlings feed mostly on invertebrates. They play an important role as ecosystem engineers in wetland ecosystems through the creation of alligator holes, which provide both wet and dry habitats for other organisms. Throughout the year, in particular during the breeding season, American alligators bellow to declare territory and locate suitable mates. Male American alligators use infrasound to attract females. Eggs are laid in a nest of vegetation, sticks, leaves, and mud in a sheltered spot in or near the water. Young are born with yellow bands around their bodies and are protected by their mother for up to one year.

The American alligator is listed as Least Concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Historically, hunting had decimated their population, and the American alligator was listed as an endangered species by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Subsequent conservation efforts have allowed their numbers to increase and the species was removed from the list in 1987. American alligators are now harvested for their skins and meat. The species is the official state reptile of three states: Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

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