Brazos Bend State Park – Habitats and Niches
A habitat is an animal's home - the place where it finds everything it needs to survive. As you travel through Brazos Bend State Park today, you will discover many different habitats including marshes, woodlands, and prairies. Each habitat is home to a different community of species.
Every living thing has a "niche" or special job to do within its habitat. Plants are nature's producers and make their own food using energy from the sun. Some animals eat only plants, and they are in turn eaten by larger animals. All plants and animals are important links in the chain of life. Together they make the natural community strong.
Have you ever looked closely at a marsh? Notice how each plant and animal lives in its own special place. Some live in deep water, and some live at the edge. Some stay on the surface, and some never leave the bottom. All of the plants and animals living here need a healthy marsh to survive. Each species is an important part of the park's aquatic ecosystem.
ALGAE - BOTTOM OF THE FOOD CHAIN
Life in marshes and ponds begins with scum! Millions of tiny green plants called algae make up this scum. Some are just one cell big, but they provide food for other creatures living in the marsh.
MARSH PLANTS - COMPETING FOR LIGHT
Although they live underwater, marsh plants still need sunlight to grow. Big, floating leaves help some of these plants gather the light they need.
PHOTOSYNTHESIS - NATURE'S GREEN MACHINES!
Plants are nature's green machines! They supply you, me and all the animals on the earth with energy, food, and life-giving air. Using just sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide, green plants make and store simple sugars that they need for energy. This process is called photosynthesis.
CONSUMERS - EATING AND BEING EATEN!
Unlike green plants, none of the animals found in marshes can produce their own food. Animals are called consumers because they need to eat other plants and animals to survive. In Brazos Bend, consumers come in all sizes. Fish form a fascinating part of the food chain. What is the smallest you can see?
INSECTS - A SIX LEGGED WORLD
Insects are an important link in the chain of life, providing food for larger animals such as fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Some insects live in water; others are born in the water, leave and then return to reproduce. Can you find these bugs?
METAMORPHOSIS - CHANGING SHAPES
Frogs, toads, salamanders and many species of insects go through dramatic changes in life. When tadpoles first hatch from frog's eggs, they don't look much like frogs! As tadpoles grow, they lose their tails, grow legs, and begin to breathe air. We call these changes metamorphosis. Can you name any insects that go through metamorphosis?
MARSH BIRDS - BEATING THE COMPETITION!
Although marsh birds hunt for similar food, they each have their own role to play or "niche" in the marsh community. Some have long legs for fishing in deep water, and some have short legs for wading in shallow water. Different sized legs, beaks and feet allow marsh birds to catch different sized prey. This reduces the competition between them. Take a look at some of the birds at the park.
REPTILES - COLD BLOODED CONSUMERS
Reptiles are cold-blooded and cannot regulate their body temperature the same way we do. Instead of using their own energy to cool off or to keep warm, they let the sun, shade, and water do this for them. In wintertime, you may not see alligators or turtles in the park. They are keeping warm in sheltered areas underwater. Try to identify these reptiles and their favorite spots in an aquatic habitat.
WATER - RECYCLING IN NATURE
The water you are drinking may have been drunk before! As water in lakes and oceans evaporates, it eventually falls as rain and is taken in for use by animals and plants. The earth recycles its water over and over again.
SUCCESSION - LIFE AND DEATH OF A HABITAT
Nothing stays the same in nature; the only certain thing is change. As wetlands grow older, they gradually fill in with mud and silt. Shrubs and trees begin to grow, and finally a new woodland habitat is born. This natural change is called succession, and it is always going on around us.
What happens when plants and animals die in the marsh? Worms, crayfish and other scavengers eat their remains and break them down even further so that bacteria and others decomposers can do their jobs. Look closely - can you see evidence of a scavenger at work? That mud "chimney" was made by a crayfish digging his burrow.
What do bison, red wolves and Attwater's prairie chickens have in common? They all once belonged to the fertile grassland habitat that we call prairie. Unfortunately early settlers plowed or grazed most of our native Texas prairies, and as a result, many of these species have disappeared from the wild. Use this guide along prairie paths.
GRASSES AND WILDFLOWERS - FROM HORIZON TO HORIZON
Native tallgrass prairie once covered the coastal plains of Texas. From horizon to horizon, grasses stood over six feet tall and grew in bunches called tussocks. Texas prairies are famous for their colorful spring wildflowers.
PREDATORS! COYOTES AND WOLVES
Red wolves used to be more common in East Texas than coyotes. Shy by nature, red wolves retreated as human settlement advanced. Ranchers blamed them for killing domestic livestock, when coyotes probably did more damage. Today, pure-bred red wolves are extinct in the wild, but coyotes are still common because they have adapted to human presence.
PREY! - RABBITS AND RODENTS
Rabbits and rodents are both prey for bigger species of animals like coyotes and bobcats, hawks, and owls. Prey species use many different strategies to escape predators. Rodents have strong claws that they use to dig burrows and hide from predators. Instead of hiding in a burrow, rabbits often run to escape. Predators are important too! Coyotes help keep populations of rabbits and rodents in check. Can you imagine how much damage rodents and rabbits would do to crops and gardens without predators like coyotes and hawks? Try to identify these animals. Which is a predator, which is prey?
VULTURES - NATURE'S CLEAN UP CREWS!
Vultures are nature's clean up crews! They soar in high circles, looking for sick or dying prey. When death comes, they land near the corpse and begin to feed. Although the job they do seems unpleasant to us, they are an important part of the natural community.
FIRE! - MAINTAINING A PRAIRIE HABITAT
Lightning used to spark wildfires which regularly burned large sections of the prairie. Fire enriches grassland soils, encourages the growth of native grasses, and prevents the invasion of non - native trees and shrubs. To restore native prairies, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department starts controlled fires on small parcels of land every two to five years.
NITROGEN - BUILDING BLOCKS OF LIFE!
Nitrogen. You cannot see it, smell it, or taste it, yet you would not be here without it. Nitrogen makes up 78% of the earth's atmosphere, and all living things must have nitrogen to live and grow. In a never ending cycle, plants take nitrogen from the soil and use it as a building block for making protein. Animals must eat these plant proteins to survive. When animals and plants die, their bodies break down, and nitrogen is ultimately released back into the atmosphere to be used again.
Peas and beans have special nitrogen-fixing bacteria growing around their roots which convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into usable nitrogen compounds called nitrates. These nitrates are like natural fertilizers in the soil, helping plants grow strong and healthy.
Forests are like high-rise apartment buildings. Different families of animals live at different levels. Some live high up in the trees and never come down to the forest floor. Others live in burrows and never leave the ground. Some visit all levels of the forest. Can you tell who lives where? Do you know the animals of the forest? Use this guide on the trail.
FOOD AND REPRODUCTION
Food gives us energy, but do you know where all that energy originally came from? Green plants gather sunlight and produce all the chemical energy we need to survive. This energy is stored in tissue as calories and passes up the food chain from plant-eaters to meat-eaters. It takes many calories to sustain large animals like deer and alligators. That is why there are fewer large predators and many more smaller prey species in the wild. All living creatures must reproduce successfully for future generations to survive. For smaller creatures,success lies in the number of eggs or young they can produce during their short lives. Larger creatures may not have many young, but they invest more time and energy looking after them. Either way, all living creatures have a finely tuned strategy for survival.
CARBON - DEATH AND DECAY
Bacteria, fungi and worms have important jobs too! They work night and day to decompose dead plant and animal materials, giving us rich and fertile soils. Life would be impossible without them.
Where are you most likely to find wildlife? Look carefully in places where two habitats come together. These special places are called ecotones. In these edge zones you will find two different plant and animal communities living side by side. When is the best time to find wildlife? Watch quietly at dawn and dusk when animals are most active, either beginning or ending their days.
It takes all kinds of relationships to make the world go round! Some plants, like Spanish moss, live on their hosts without harming them. Some insects, like ticks, are parasites and feed on their hosts, often causing them harm. In some relationships, both individuals benefit and need each other to survive.
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