Everglades Islands Are Actually Ancient Piles of Trash

tree islands everglades photo
Photo: vladeb / CC

Like great-great-great-great-great grandfather like son, our early ancestors were epic trash-producers, too -- but, as it turns out, their heaps of waste may have actually had a positive impact on the environment. Researchers studying 'tree islands' in the Florida Everglades say that those portions of elevated land where large plants and other wildlife thrive are, in fact, piles of garbage amassed by early settlers in the region around 5,000 years ago.

>> WATCH SLIDESHOW: Taking Out the Trash....From Ocean Garbage PatchesThroughout the sprawling marsh that is the Everglades there are areas of exposed land, rising a few feet above the waterline with enough soil to host a wealth of large plants and wildlife. These 'tree islands' serve as important breeding and nesting grounds for animals like panthers, alligators, and birds -- but scientists say new research suggests there's nothing natural about these zones of biodiversity at all.

Instead of being natural geological formations as was previously assumed, tree islands appear to be made up largely of bones, leftover food scraps, bits of pottery and tools, charcoal, and other ancient artifacts left behind by early settlers in the region. The decomposing organic waste even helped promote plant growth, releasing nutrients, like phosphates, into an ecosystem where it is hard to come by.

"This goes to show that human disturbance in the environment doesn't always have a negative consequence," says McGill University paleoecologist Gail Chmura, one of the lead researchers.

Just like those settlers tossing their trash in the Everglades thousands of years ago, we carry on the tradition in full spirit today-- but the most common materials to make up our landfills have gone from the organic waste of yesteryear, which was a potential boon the environment, to petroleum-based plastics which continually do it harm.

The future of these biologically rich tree islands are also under threat from human development. Researchers say that the clearing of vegetation on these elevated spots in the Everglade is weakening the root systems that hold them together, making the islands more susceptible to the forces of erosion.

Leave it to us humans, I suppose, to start mucking around with our ancient piles of trash just when there's a wealth of biodiversity getting all cozy on it.

Via Eureka Alert
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