Before white settlers reached Florida, vast prairielands covered the region north and west of Lake Okeechobee. Having developed on flat terrain with sandy soil and a calcareous, clay subsoil, these grasslands were maintained by periodic wildfires, which suppressed the invasion of adjacent woodlands. Today, only remnants of this "dry prairie" have survived man's impact; fire control, irrigated croplands, orchards, cattle ranching and residential development have all taken a toll.
Remnant prairie areas are characterized by a variety of drought-tolerant grasses (wiregrass, bluestem, sawgrass, needlegrass), saw palmetto and scrub oak. Ephemeral ponds and marshes develop in depressions while hammocks of sable palm, pine and live oak invade drainages. Prairie birds include burrowing owls, Florida grasshopper sparrows, crested caracaras, sandhill cranes, short-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites and loggerhead shrikes. Among the other residents are glass lizards, eastern indigo snakes, gopher tortoises, oak toads, Florida box turtles, pine woods tree frogs, cotton rats, white-tailed deer, bobcats and the endangered Florida panther.
Two of the best places to explore Florida's dry prairie ecosystem are Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, 25 miles northwest of Okeechobee (via US 441 and Road 724) and Myakka River State Park, 9 miles east of I-75 (via Route 72 from Sarasota).