Sandhill communities occur only in north and central Florida in areas of gently rolling terrain on deep, well-drained, mostly yellow, sterile sands. This xeric community is dominated by an overstory of widely spaced, scattered longleaf pine, along with an understory of turkey oak, sand post oak, and bluejack oak. The park-like ground cover consists of various grasses and herbs, including wiregrass, lopsided Indian grass, bluestems, blazing star, partridge pea, beggars tick, milk pea, queen's delight, and others.
Due to the poor water retention properties of the soils and open canopy, temperature and humidity fluctuate rapidly and frequently in this habitat compared to high-moisture closed-canopy forests. However, many temporary wetlands are found throughout sandhill landscapes and are an integral part of this habitat type, providing breeding and foraging habitat for many wildlife species.
Sandhill is a community that is sustained by ground fires with short return intervals to reduce hardwood intrusion and to promote flowering of many grasses and herbs. In the absence of fire, sandhill will eventually succeed into a xeric hammock. Sand pine can quickly invade sandhills where seed sources are available and fires are suppressed.
Altered fire regimes or the absence of fire, along with other climatic changes, could lead to compositional and structural changes to these habitats, potentially altering their suitability to the current suite of species. The absence of fire in the longleaf pine sandhill community can lead to an increase in woody vegetation, creating a dense mid-story. Plant species dependent upon fire (e.g., longleaf pine, wiregrass) to initiate/facilitate germination/flowering will be impacted by altered fire regime (changes in frequency and timing of fires). This could lead to shifts in species composition and system structure. Additionally, the reduction or lack of prescribed fire (fuel reduction) coupled with increased evapotranspiration rates could lead to more frequent and intense wildfires.
Drought and heat stress caused by increased temperatures can lead to increased insect outbreaks and mortality in forests. Higher winter air temperatures will increase over-wintering Southern pine beetle larva survival rate, and higher annual air temperatures will allow the beetles to produce more generations per year. Severe drought stress reduces resin production and greatly increases the susceptibility of trees to beetle infestation.
Increased summer and winter minimum temperatures, as well as extreme events (e.g., droughts, floods) will enhance invasive species processes, from introduction through establishment and expansion.
Decreased precipitation, coupled with increased temperatures would cause degradation of small associated wetlands found within the sandhill community.
More information about general climate impacts to habitats in Florida.
Species such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise and Sherman's fox squirrel rely on the openness of the sandhill community that is maintained by prescribed fire. Alterations to the frequency or seasonality of fire would lead to habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss due to heavy hardwood and shrub encroachment. Additionally, it could lead to decreased reproductive success and mortality.
Loss of mature longleaf pine due to heat-induced stress, storms and/or insect outbreaks would reduce the number of suitable nest cavity trees for red-cockaded woodpeckers.
Reproductive success for species such as the striped newt and gopher frog would decrease as critical breeding ponds found within the sandhill community are impacted by decreased precipitation and increased evapotranspiration rates.
The loss of gopher tortoises within a system will impact a suite of other species (commensals) that depend on the tortoises' burrow for habitat, including gopher frog, Florida mouse, eastern indigo snake, and many hundreds of species of invertebrates.
More information about general climate impacts to species in Florida.
This habitat was assessed as part of the Standardized Index of Vulnerability and Value Assessment - Natural Communities (SIVVA).
This habitat is within the top 5 most vulnerable natural communities in one but not all of the SIVVA vulnerability categories.
Read more information about SIVVA natural communities.