Wild Miami

Explore the Amazing Nature in and Around South Florida


By TJ Morrell

By Shannon Jones

By Brian Diaz

By Fernando Bretos

Formats and Prices




$32.99 CAD



  1. Trade Paperback $25.99 $32.99 CAD
  2. ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 3, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A vibrant, family-friendly guide to the unexpected nature found in and around Miami.

Miami may be a bustling city with a vibrant nightlife, but its wildlife is just as wild, if you know where to look. Wild Miami reveals the amazing ecology of this tropical metropolis. Equal parts natural history, field guide, and trip planner, Wild Miami has something for everyone. This handy yet extensive guide looks at the factors that shape local nature and profiles over 100 local species, from beautiful flowers and towering palm trees to manatees and green treefrogs, spotted sunfish, and great blue heron. Also included are descriptions of day trips that help you explore natural wonders on hiking trails and beaches, in public parks, and in your own backyard. 



A History of 305

South Beach, Cuban coffee, the Wynwood Walls, and Ocean Drive. These all conjure an image of the trendy, modern-day Miami we’ve come to know and love. It’s a city with a rich, diverse history built on migration. From the first Miamians who arrived at least 14,000 years ago to the most recent arrivals from Latin America, Europe, or even Manhattan, waves of visitors over the years have made Miami their home. Throughout the centuries, Miami has been a haven for those seeking a new beginning or fortune. While some crossed the Florida Straits from the Bahamas to build this city from pristine pine rocklands, others were forced to leave as new settlers arrived. Miami’s origin story is one built on movement, war, innovation, and inspiration.

Miami’s draw was not always its warm weather. When the first Paleoindians arrived in Florida, our mighty peninsula was just exiting the current ice age and its climate was colder and dryer. Since then, a warming trend commenced, which continues today at an accelerated pace. The size of the state was also dramatically different back then. In fact, not too long ago, Florida was twice as wide as today, its western half high and dry and bustling with woolly mammoths and giant sloths. Today, this half is submerged under the Gulf of Mexico. Going back even further—millions of years ago—all of Miami lay under the sea. This back-and-forth submersion and exposure explains why dinosaurs are nowhere to be found in Florida’s fossil layers today. Instead, you can find shark teeth and shells embedded in a hard, white rock that was once an ancient coral reef and is now our limestone bedrock. This reminds us that Miami has always been at the beck and call of the ocean. It is our source of food, rain, peace of mind, and those stunning ocean-front views.

Water World

Ours is a history of water. We are surrounded by it. To the east lies the Atlantic Ocean and to our west the Everglades, the largest freshwater wetland in North America. These two bodies of water set off a convection cycle, and as a result, Miami is one of the rainiest cities in America. At sixty-two inches of average rainfall per year, our city receives almost twice as much rain as Seattle, Washington, a city famous for never-ending rain. Convection is also the source of our warm and sticky summer afternoons. Fortunately, our sandy soils and porous limestone bedrock allow much of the rain to drain rapidly. Ever wonder why Miami has so few rivers? Rainwater drains so fast here that there’s essentially no need for them. Beneath the Miami cityscape is the Biscayne Aquifer, an enormous subterranean lake that gives us the excellent drinking water we enjoy. So, water and all of its forms is above us, around us, next to us, and even under us.

The Florida Peninsula

Miami’s First People

Miami’s human history is as rich as its natural history. The first documented civilization here was that of the Tequesta, a tribe that lived off natural resources of the sea and land. Due to a lack of topsoil, low nutrients, and near-impenetrable coral bedrock, agriculture in South Florida was a losing battle and therefore never practiced by the Tequesta. As hunters and gatherers, they stuck to harvesting naturally growing nuts, roots, and fruits and used resources from the sea such as mollusks, fish and even manatees. Archeological digs have revealed bones and shells at Tequesta sites that paint a picture of this lifestyle. Close your eyes and try to imagine what Biscayne Bay must have looked like back then: crystal clear waters teeming with fish and birds and underground springs bubbling freshwater into the saltwater bay.

The Tequesta lived at the mouths of our few rivers. During the hot summer, they would move to the barrier islands of Miami Beach and Key Biscayne where the mosquitoes were less of a nuisance. Today, you can visit a Tequesta archeological site right in downtown Miami at the Miami Circle National Historic Landmark. You can also see a Tequesta habitation mound just north of the Little River in El Portal; it’s located at one of the highest points above sea level, suggesting the Tequesta recognized changing seas as a threat. As flat as Miami is, it’s easy to discern the elevated knolls where the Tequesta once piled food remains in middens (mounds of shells and other artifacts).

Statue of a Tequesta family on Brickell Avenue in Downtown Miami

The Miami Circle is a National Historic Landmark and archeological site right in downtown Miami.

There’s evidence the Tequesta, always sparse in population compared to the magnificent pre-Columbian civilizations of the American south or Mesoamerica, were pushed around by the more powerful Calusa who inhabited lands west and south of Miami. This and their lack of agriculture meant their population wasn’t very large when the Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century. It would soon disappear entirely due to the slave trade, forced relocations, and the spread of disease.

The first European to explore Florida was the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who sighted the coast in 1513. As his sighting took place during Easter, or Pascua Florida as they call it in Spanish, the name Florida stuck. The first European settlement was at St. Augustine, about 300 miles north of Miami, where the soil was firmer and impenetrable mangroves weren’t a concern. Founded in 1565 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, St. Augustine became an important Spanish colony for protecting Spanish galleons filled with pirated silver and gold from Peru and Mexico.

Menéndez de Avilés, founder of St. Augustine

St. Augustine was the first successful European colony in what would become the United States.

St. Augustine was always more of a defensive fortification, but it was critical to the Spanish in that it lay adjacent to the important Gulf Stream, the oceanic conveyor belt of warm, fast-moving ocean water that runs from just north of Venezuela all the way to Ireland via the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. On its way it passes Colombia, turns north, and flows well offshore from the Central American Caribbean coast before picking up speed at the Yucatan Straits. It then enters the Gulf of Mexico where half of its water splits off and passes by Florida into the Atlantic Ocean. Once off the coast of Florida, the water moves at about the speed of a brisk walk. Ponce de León himself was the first European to realize that ships could hitch a ride back home on this conveyor belt and save considerable time. Gold- and silver-laden galleons sailing from the mines of Colombia by way of Havana could stop off for provisions and fortifications before delivering their bounty to King Phillip II of Spain. A young Benjamin Franklin later took so much interest in what he called a “river in the ocean” that he lobbied hard in his position as the Deputy General Postmaster of the American colonies to use the Gulf Stream to increase the speed of the mail service from the east coast of America to Europe.

A Young History, Even for a Geologist

Florida, as we know it today, is quite young on a geological scale. Coming out of the ice age eleven millennia ago, rain levels increased and sea levels continued to rise until South Florida lay, like many other coastal areas, just above sea level. It remains at this level today. Miami averages only 6.5 feet in elevation, making rising ocean levels an increasingly worrisome threat.

The Gulf Stream is an oceanic conveyor belt with an average velocity of four miles per hour, but it can reach speeds of more than five miles per hour near the surface.

Further inland, the vast Everglades wetland system is only 6,000 years old—quite extraordinary considering it spans the entire width of our state and is large enough to be seen from space. Heavy summer rains fall in the wetlands just north of Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest lake, and are transported via the Kissimmee River directly to the lake, which, due to all that incoming water, overflows its banks and continues as a shallow river all the way south to Florida Bay, the southern terminus of the peninsula. Travelling over rugged, porous substrate makes the Everglades not only the widest river in the world, but also the slowest, moving at a speed of 0.00062 mile per hour. That’s about fifty times slower than an applesnail (a common Everglades inhabitant). This enormous wetland is critical to our state’s well-being. It not only provides freshwater for most of our urban areas and wildlife but also underpins the cycle of life here, supporting millions of birds, reptiles, and mammals. Unfortunately, all this water wasn’t what the European settlers wanted to see, as it made settlement almost impossible.

Removing the Unwanted

Ever since Europeans first saw Florida, they set their sights on making it more like Europe: dry, temperate, agriculturally productive, and tame. This wasn’t practical for the first European-Floridians who were struggling to feed themselves on a daily basis, but in the nineteenth century it became not only possible, but necessary. After Spain grew tired of American settlers entering their land, they ceded Florida to the United States as part of the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819. This also meant the Spanish would no longer have to worry about the persistent confrontations with native Seminole warriors.

The Miami River was the Seminoles’ home.

The Seminole, an offshoot of the Muscogee, also known as the Creek Tribe, originally from Georgia and Alabama, acquired their name from the anglicization of the Spanish word cimarron, which means runaway. Upon its possession of Florida, the new American nation decided it needed to rid its Florida territory of two stubborn elements: indigenous inhabitants and water. The two went hand in hand, as it wasn’t until the young nation declared war on the Seminole and penetrated deep into their last hiding spot, the soggy Everglades, that the idea to drain the peninsula first dawned on them.

Seminole Wars

The United States needed not one, but three military conflicts, called the Seminole Wars (1816–1858) to remove the rebellious and elusive Seminole from Florida. Each of the three wars were highly unpopular, expensive, and deadly, with thousands of casualties on both sides. The First Seminole War was led by General (and later President) Andrew Jackson and led to the Seminole retreating deep into the Everglades. The Second Seminole War was intended to drive the Seminole out of Florida entirely but was unsuccessful. The Third (and final) Seminole War saw the end of Seminole Nation. Though 500 hardy individuals held out in the most inhospitable corners of the Everglades (a testament to their unflinching bond with their homeland) the majority of Seminole moved west along the Trail of Tears, one of the most infamously cruel episodes in American history, which saw the forced displacement of all major southeastern indigenous tribes to Oklahoma, where many of them still live today. Over 60,000 people died during this journey, many starving along the way. Throughout the wars, Miami, known then as Fort Dallas, served as a military base focused on purging the last of the Seminole. The origins of the name Miami remain a mystery, but most historians agree the name stems from the Mayaimi, a now-extinct tribe that inhabited the area near Lake Okeechobee.

Seminoles sought cover from US soldiers within mangrove swamps.

Draining the Wetlands

During their forays into the Everglades, many Seminole War generals commented on the wateriness of South Florida, writing home with far-fetched ideas of draining the water for agriculture and habitation. The standing water had proven difficult to build on or harvest from, and the scourge of yellow fever and malaria from mosquitoes made permanent settlements south of Tampa impossible. Once the surviving Seminoles had been expelled from the state, Florida’s new settlers turned their attention to removing as much water from the peninsula as possible, but, lacking modern machinery, there was no plausible way to pull this off.

In 1881, Hamilton Disston purchased four million acres of land for one million dollars (equal to about twenty-seven million dollars today). His original intention was to build canals that would drain the water, but he only ever managed to construct a few miles of them. Luckily for him, his project attracted so much speculative attention that population increases and a doubling of property values allowed him to recoup his money by selling off land by the acre. Decades later, Florida’s nineteenth governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, campaigned successfully on a promise to drain the state. He imposed a tax on all counties benefiting from drainage and managed to install two dredges that cut just six miles of canal before he had the state sell the land. In the end, wholesale draining of the Everglades wouldn’t be successful until the next century. In the meantime, attempts to rid the area of water paved the way for another money maker: tourism.

Governor Broward (1857–1910)

Julia Tuttle (1849–1898)

Julia Tuttle, Henry Flagler, and The Brickells

Miami is the only major US city to be founded by a woman. In 1875, Julia “The Mother of Miami” Tuttle, a wealthy businesswoman from Cleveland, Ohio, came to Fort Dallas to visit a citrus grove owned by her father. At the time, Fort Dallas was a harsh backwater on the banks of the Miami River, but it must have made a positive impression. After her father died, she used her inheritance to purchase 640 acres of coastal land on the northern banks of the Miami River. After the devastating Great Freeze of 1894–95, which fortunately spared Miami, she began to sell parts of her tract and convinced railway tycoon and fellow Clevelander Henry Flagler to extend his great railroad to South Florida. Flagler eventually sent a team of speculators and, soon after, began building the Royal Palm Hotel as a terminus for his railroad on the land now called Brickell.

William and Mary Brickell were also instrumental in the foundation of Miami. The pair operated a trading post, exchanging goods with the remaining Seminoles and the Miccosukee, an offshoot Seminole tribe then living in the Everglades. The Brickells donated hundreds of acres to Flagler to extend his Florida East Coast Railway, which would eventually make its way all the way to Key West. On July 28, 1896, Miami went from a remote military base to an officially incorporated city of the United States. The Magic City was born!

A City Built on the Backs of Bahamians and African Americans

At the turn of the nineteenth century, there were few people willing to live in Miami and help build the city. The first Miami residents were Black laborers from the Bahamas. Initially they made the short crossing of the Florida Straits to use their seafaring talents salvaging shipwrecked vessels and repairing boats. As the city grew, more Bahamian laborers arrived to clear vegetation and build homes and hotels. The first Miami hotel was the Peacock Inn, which was built entirely by Black hands in 1882. Bahamians mostly settled in the current day Coconut Grove neighborhood, which lies south of downtown Miami. If you take a drive down Charles and Williams Avenues, you can see some of the old, British West Indian–style wood houses they built. As long-time island inhabitants, they knew how to build homes that suited Miami’s climate and could withstand the strongest of hurricanes. In the early nineteenth century, African Americans, migrating from the rural South, joined the Bahamians to make up 40 percent of the city’s population. Not only did they build the city with their own hands, but, when massive tropical cyclones such as the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 devastated the city, they rebuilt it.

The new Black Miamians settled in downtown Miami in what is now Overtown (called Colored Town at the time). Known as the Harlem of the South, Overtown was a cultural powerhouse, hosting music, sporting, and theater events featuring stars such as Nat King Cole and Muhammad Ali. When visiting Overtown today, make sure to visit the Lyric Theater, which has occupied the same building since 1913. Overtown, unfortunately, was the victim of a political agenda that would forever alter the town’s layout. In 1961, the US Department of Transportation went in search of land for Interstate 95, a federal highway which would start in Miami near Vizcaya Gardens and run 1,908 miles to the Canadian border in Maine. They chose the path of least political resistance, Overtown, as the site to build the overpass. This effectively cut the neighborhood in two with a concrete span, a specter of intolerance and exploitation that remains to this day. With no heed for the damage this caused, the city also built the I-395 connector through Overtown ten years later, this time quartering the neighborhood. Recent efforts to revitalize Overtown have made progress, but residents there and in nearby Liberty City are now facing another dilemma—getting priced out by developers searching for higher-elevation housing that’s less vulnerable to sea level rise.

Early Bahamian residents of Coconut Grove in front of the boat house that is now part of the Barnacle Historic State Park.

Harvesting the Everglades

Unable to effectively drain the Everglades in the early twentieth century, prospectors found a gold rush of another kind, hunting otters, alligators, and raccoons for valuable pelts. Wanting to squeeze additional money from the Everglades, the hunters also turned their guns on its plentiful and beautifully colored wading birds. Millions of birds were shot each year, mostly in the early spring when their plumage was brightest, for feathers to adorn women’s hats. It’s said that, once, Florida skies would go completely dark as countless birds flew overhead blocking the sun. Thanks to plume hunting, many species of wading birds almost went extinct.

A silver lining to this devastation was the creation of the National Audubon Society in 1905, which continues to protect American birds to this day. The carnage was also a major impetus for the creation of Pelican Island Sanctuary in 1903 and Everglades National Park in 1947.

The River of Grass

A woman founded Miami and another woman saved it. Marjory Stoneman Douglas, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, moved to Miami in 1915. Here, she started her career as a writer for the fledgling Miami Herald, then called the Miami Evening Record, which was founded by her father. Eight years later, she left the newspaper to write as a freelance journalist and hone her talents for scathing, yet poetic, independent writing in which she could express her passion for nature. While doing research for a book chapter about the Miami River, Douglas came to feel that South Florida’s true river was not the short and shallow Miami River but the Everglades, which she christened the River of Grass. Though it is a more complex ecosystem than a river, the Everglades does flow ever so slowly, covered in sawgrass and sitting atop a massive freshwater aquifer. Douglas’s book, The Everglades: River of Grass, required five years of extensive ecological research and was published in 1947, the same year the Everglades became a national park. In it, she pointed to the unique nature of the wetland as a source of water, tranquility, livelihood, and wildlife and highlighted the threats it faces: cattle grazing, draining, and sugar cane production.

Original cover of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s timeless classic

Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived a remarkably long life, passing away in 1998 at the age of 108. Her book has sold more than 500,000 copies and helped give this South Florida ecological marvel international recognition. In part or in whole, River of Grass is narrated by almost every schoolteacher in South Florida to young wide-eyed pupils realizing their city is buffered by one of the vastest, most unique wetlands on earth.

The iconic, modern-day Miami skyline is currently the third tallest in the United States, behind New York and Chicago.

Miami Bustles with Tourism and Migration

The opening of the Royal Palm Hotel in 1897 initiated a phase of mass-scale tourism. While the hotel only stood for three decades (until the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 caused enough damage that it needed to be demolished), it and Flagler’s railroad cemented Miami as a tourism destination. First to arrive were northern snowbirds, but eventually tourists from all over the world would start arriving. Only World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and economic recessions in the 1970s and 1980s caused major pauses in the expansion of Miami tourism. While many of the early hotels have been destroyed or remodeled, several buildings still remain along Ocean Drive and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The Art Deco architecture alone is worth the visit. One example, the Miami Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, built in 1926, is a vestige of this period. Though it was abandoned for several decades, it has been restored and operates as a luxury hotel today.

In 1960, Miami had a population of 291,688, but that number soon began to grow. That year, Cubans fleeing the Cuban Revolution arrived in southeast Florida en masse. Subsequent waves of immigration further expanded Miami’s population—Haitians and Nicaraguans in the 1980s and Colombians, Argentines, Central Americans, and Venezuelans in the years that followed. These migrations would lead to the city’s incredible cultural diversity.

Miami Here and Now

Miami’s metropolitan area, which includes areas in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties, now numbers over six million inhabitants and growing. Upon landing at Miami International Airport or driving in from I-95, you may be struck by the amount of concrete you see. Miami-Dade County lies on a thirty-mile-wide sliver of highly urbanized cityscape buffered by water on all sides. As a result, Miami has strict geographical limits. But don’t let the concrete fool you into thinking there isn’t a vast array of wildlife within and surrounding the city. Within our urban zone, and especially east and west of it, nature is everywhere. There are hundreds of city and county parks, green spaces, and undeveloped coastlines waiting to be explored. You just need to know where to look.

Clear Days and Sunny Rays

Miami’s climate allows you to get outside and explore year-round. We typically don’t have a harsh winter that traps you inside. In fact, winter is arguably the ideal time of year to enjoy outdoor activities, with temperatures generally around 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, as opposed to summer when it’s usually hot, humid, and rainy.

Miami’s location at 25 degrees north latitude puts it just south of the horse latitudes, which are located at roughly 30 degrees north and south of the equator and characterized by peaceful winds, minimal precipitation, and sunny days. The horse latitudes are named for the horses that were thrown overboard by crews on cargo ships who needed to conserve scarce drinking water after being stalled by a lack of wind. The trade winds between the horse latitudes and the equator circle the globe in a constant westward direction and connect us to Africa and the Saharan Desert—importantly, they act as a carrier for the desert dust that blows across the Atlantic, bringing important nutrients for our coral reefs.

With its gorgeous beach and pristine coastal environment, Crandon Park on Key Biscayne is the epitome of a beautiful subtropic habitat that invites you to be outside and enjoy it.

On the east coast, the trade winds come fresh off the ocean to envelop the city, leading to enviable air quality year-round. Winter is our dry season, with the period between November and April characterized by little rain and cool nights. Occasionally, a cold front descends from the north, plummeting temperatures to just above freezing, a reminder that though close to the tropics, Miami is still part of a massive temperate continent. Summer is our wet season, and the afternoons from May to October often experience the heavy summer rains common in tropical climates.

Diversity in Miami is emphasized in its habitats and native flora and fauna. The subtropical climate here on the southeast tip of Florida supports an incredibly high number of plant and animal species. There are few other places in the world where such a mix of temperate, tropical, marine, and aquatic organisms coexist.

Coasts in Crisis

Water is the defining feature of essentially all South Florida’s ecosystems. It flows from freshwater wetlands to marine areas, intermixing with saltwater to form productive, brackish estuaries. In turn, ocean waters evaporate and form dense rain clouds, which bring freshwater back inland. Life is not possible without water, and this interconnected flow is incredibly fragile. South Florida’s waterways have been altered over the past century and a half, affected by climate change-induced sea level rise, water quality, and pollution.

With elevation averaging just over six feet above sea level, Miami is very susceptible to sea level rise.

The Seas Are Rising


  • “The most notable and engaging features of this work are its incredible color photography and its vibrant layout. Authored by four passionate scientists and conservation professionals, the pictures and their descriptions bring these species and their habitats to life. These alone make the book mandatory. Readers, both leisurely browsers and students, and native Miamians, Floridians, and citizens all over the world will likely find it engaging and enriching.”—Library Journal

On Sale
Jan 3, 2023
Page Count
376 pages
Timber Press

TJ Morrell

TJ Morrell

About the Author

Brian Diaz is the Coordinator for the Museum Volunteers for the Environment (MUVE) program at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. Fernando Bretos is a conservation scientist and manager of the Wider Caribbean Region at the Ocean Foundation. Shannon Jones is the Conservation Programs Manager at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science. TJ Morrell is a freelance writer with a degree in journalism from the University of Florida. 

Learn more about this author