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Update on the Ancient Giants of the Swamp Expedition

Mike Knight, PhD FN’07 launched an expedition in April 2013 to survey Corkscrew Swamp, the world’s largest remaining old-growth Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) swamp forest. Located in the western Florida Everglades, this 13,000-acre wilderness is owned and protected by the National Audubon Society. It also has been designated a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Wetlands Convention. Nearly surrounded by the urban sprawl of southwestern Florida, Corkscrew Swamp has remained virtually unchanged for thousands of years and provides habitat for numerous endangered plant and animal species, as well as a critical hydrologic connection with coastal areas.

Corkscrew Swamp is estimated to be at least 5000 years old, and its oldest trees narrowly predate the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World. However, scattered throughout the forest are numerous giant Bald Cypress trees, much larger and possibly older than the average old-growth trees. Venturing into the unexplored depths of the swamp, Dr. Knight and his team are mapping these ancient giant cypress trees and determining the exact size of the old-growth swamp forest.

Research team member Sally Stein enjoying a day exploring Corkscrew Swamp.

The early months of the expedition proved to be a race against the approaching summer rainy season. Enduring extreme heat and treacherous hikes through dense saw grass, the team successfully mapped over 430 acres of old-growth swamp – an area about half the size of New York’s Central Park. During this time, over thirty giant Bald Cypress trees were discovered and mapped, the largest measuring 24ft circumference. In the past week, six additional trees measuring between 17ft and 22ft have been found. Heavy summer rains have slowed recent survey work, but final mapping of the old-growth swamp should be complete by early 2014. Following the mapping effort, Dr. Knight and his team are planning additional research that includes ascending into the forest canopy to conduct intensive biological inventories of individual old-growth cypress trees.

Research team members John Elting (left) and Jason Lauritsen (right) measuring one of the old-growth Bald Cypress trees (at 13ft, one of the small trees).

In a region that has lost over 80 percent of its natural wetlands, Corkscrew Swamp offers a glimpse of a bygone era and a piece of wild Florida as it has existed for centuries. The “Ancient Giants of the Swamp” expedition hopes to aid conservation efforts and increase human awareness of wetland values.

Dr. Mike Knight carries Explorers Club Expedition Flag #174, last used by Cdr. Henry Jorda on the Trans-Antarctica Expedition of 1956, which made aviation history with a flight over the South Pole and the discovery of two new mountain ranges. Flag #174 was subsequently lost and remained missing for over half a century before it was found by Dr. Knight on an eBay auction (see Explorers Log, Fall 2008), recovered, and returned to The Explorers Club.

Expedition leader Dr. Mike Knight, FN’07 with Flag #174

Nearly surrounded by urban sprawl, Corkscrew Swamp is located in southwestern Florida and is a vital ecological part of the western Everglades system.

Within the 13,000 acres of Corkscrew Swamp, the oldest Bald Cypress forest forms a horseshoe-shaped area of approximately 700 acres. Intensive logging of the cypress swamp in the 1940s-1950s advanced as far as the southern edge of Corkscrew Swamp before the National Audubon Society purchased the land as a wildlife sanctuary. To date, our expedition has surveyed both the western and eastern extensions of the horseshoe-shaped forest.

This update was provided from the field by C. Michael Knight, Ph.D.

Published by : Kevin Murphy

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