Background for Teachers
One State, Many Places
TPW Magazine, December 2009
This month, we are looking at geographic and ecological diversity. Texas is an amazingly diverse state. With northern prairies, south brush country, deserts and mountains of West Texas, northeast woods and wetlands, Texas’ many ecological regions harbor unique plants and wildlife. Texas has the nation’s highest number of birds and reptiles and is second only to California with its number of plants and mammals species. Much of the state’s biodiversity is due to sheer size.
Texas by the Numbers
Approximately 267,000 square miles of land and inland waters
Approximately 367 miles of Gulf of Mexico coastline.
Approximately 200,000 miles of streams and rivers
15 major river basins
1.7 million acres of reservoirs and public water impoundments
6,000 species of plants; greater than 425 of those species are endemics that occur nowhere else
More than 600 bird species have been identified
184 known mammals, including marine species that inhabit Texas’ coastal waters
258 fish species that inhabit fresh water for at least a part of their lives
Approximately 30,000 insect species
Texas watercourses range from wide, shallow and sandy prairie rivers, clear, spring-fed streams, to slow-moving bayous with extensive hardwood bottomlands. Many of the state’s rivers and streams originate from Texas freshwater springs. These springs support unique habitats with species found nowhere else in the world. Both the river and stream systems provide water for reservoirs, which range in size from less than one acre to the 185,000 acre Toledo Bend Reservoir. In addition, aquifers underlie much of the state and provide groundwater for people, springs and wildlife.
Political boundaries, vegetation types, soil characteristics, river basins and presipitation are just a few of the ways to divide Texas in regions. You may download TPWD's geographic information system (GIS) lab maps. The Bureau of Economic Geology sells printed maps.
For our purposes, we are using the state travel regions. A collaborate effort among multiple state agencies resulted in this map. This map of only seven regions provides an easy-to-remember designation that brings general characteristics to mind.
Big Bend Country
The Big Bend area, also known as the Trans Pecos, occupies the extreme western part of the state eastward to the Pecos River. This is a region of diverse habitats and vegetation, varying from desert valleys and plateaus to wooded mountain slopes. Elevations range from 1,850 feet to more than 8,749 feet at Guadalupe Peak. Even the mountain ranges vary greatly in the environments they offer for plant and animal life; some are characterized by volcanic rocks, others by limestone. [more...]
The Gulf Coast is one of the most ecologically complex and biologically diverse regions of the state. It is comprised of nine major bays, from Sabine Lake in the north to the upper and lower Laguna Madre in the south, as well as the Texas Territorial Sea stretching nine nautical miles out from the Gulf beach. More than one-third of Texas’ population and about 70 percent of its industrial base, commerce and jobs are located within 100 miles of the coastline. More than half of the nation’s chemical and petroleum production are located on the coast and the coastal waters support major commercial and recreational fishing industries. Texas leads the nation in marine commerce and the beaches, bays, marshes, prairies and other fish and wildlife habitats of the coast provide numerous recreational opportunities.
The Gulf Coast region is a nearly-level plain, dissected by streams and rivers flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. The 21,000 square mile region includes barrier islands along the coast, salt grass marshes surrounding bays and estuaries, remnant tallgrass prairies, oak parklands and oak mottes scattered along the coast and tall woodlands in the river bottomlands. Soils are acidic sands and sandy loams, with clays occurring primarily in the river bottoms. [more...]
Rising at the Balcones Escarpment, the juniper-and-oak-blanketed Hill Country spreads westward across the Edwards Plateau. This region offers numerous caves, cascading whitewater streams and deep blue reservoirs. It is a land of many springs, stony hills, and steep canyons. The region is also home to a host of rare plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. The Edwards Plateau, covering 31,000 square miles of central Texas, is honeycombed with thousands of caves. Beneath the eastern edge of the Plateau lies a hidden world of underground lakes known as the Edwards Aquifer. This precious water resource also is home to a number of curious creatures, such as the blind salamander. Today, the Edwards Plateau is characterized by oak and juniper, however grasslands and savannahs were more common in pre-settlement times than they are today. [more...]
Located in northwest Texas, the High Plains and Rolling Plains of the Panhandle form the southern end of the Great Plains of the central United States. The landscape varies from gently rolling to brushy, rough and dissected with canyons. The legacy of the Old West stands amid the rainbow-hued canyons of the Caprock Escarpment carved by the headwater tributaries of the Red River. The Panhandle Plains are part of an ecological region of international significance. Scattered across the southern high plains of Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado are more than 25,000 playa lakes -- havens for wildlife and people. [more...]
Here green cathedrals of loblolly and shortleaf pines tower over East Texas highways and byways, while blossoming dogwoods and redbuds herald the spring. Slow-moving rivers drift under stands of moss-draped stately cypresses, and the calls of myriad birds echo through the woods and across scattered swamps.
This rich environment supports 101 species of birds that breed in East Texas and 116 species of fish that inhabit East Texas bottomlands during seasonal flooding. The Pineywoods is home to the rare Red-cockaded woodpecker, which can be heard drumming on large, mature pines. [more...]
Prairies and Lakes
Located in north central and central Texas, this region hosts major reservoirs and remnants of the tall grass prairie and wildflowers that greeted early inhabitants. Here you find the rich soil of the Blackland Prairie and the oak "cross timbers" noted by early European explorers. This is where millions of years ago, gigantic dinosaurs roamed and, but a short century ago, Kiowa and Comanche warriors stood against the pioneers. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, freedom-loving patriots forged the Republic of Texas at Washington-on-the-Brazos, now a state park in this area. Numerous reservoirs in the region provide water for metropolitan areas while offering unexcelled opportunities for boating and fishing. Eisenhower, Cleburne, Lake Mineral Wells, Cooper Lake, Lake Whitney, Meridian, Ray Roberts Lake and the oldest state park, Mother Neff, are some of the recreational parks in this region, as are Buescher and Bastrop situated in the unique Lost Pines area. [more...]
South Texas Plains/Brush Country
This region stretches south from the edges of the Hill Country and San Antonio through brush and mesquite plains, dotted with deep bluewater lakes, into the subtropical environment of the lower Rio Grande.
In the dense brush of the mustang plains, Mexican vaqueros developed the tools and skills for herding wild Texas longhorns, giving birth to the cattle industry and that greatest of American heroes – the cowboy. Historic sites such as Casa Navarro in San Antonio, the restored mission at Goliad and Fannin Battleground recall early Spanish and Mexican culture and Texas' struggle for independence. Choke Canyon and Falcon offer wonderful water recreation to winter vacationers and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley is a subtropical gem replete with birds and other animal life found nowhere else in the U.S. [more...]
To Learn More
As students learn more about Texas, they will discover that rare and endangered species are only in the Arctic or Amazon. Fascinating species and habitats are right here at home, and so are opportunities to be responsible caretakers of our resources. To learn more about the issues facing Texas, read Conservation Challenges.