Learning from the Plants on St. George Island

The plant community behind the ocean-facing dunes on the backside of St. George Island.

Monday. December 16th, 2023 – Plants are the ultimate storytellers. They can tell us about the soil and water flow of different areas, like along the Apalachicola River, how long ago an area was cut or burned, or how hurricanes have changed the landscape. Dr. Tom Miller, a plant-community ecologist at Florida State University, has been learning from the plants on St. George Island for the past 24 years. Each year since 1999, Tom has led an annual plant census where he and a team of graduate students and FSU faculty identify and count the plants present at 441 permanent plots. Permanent means spots marked by a wooden stake – the plots are natural areas on the very east end of St. George Island, allowed to grow and change as the island changes.

This November Dani Davis, Director of Outreach for Apalachicola Riverkeeper,  joined Tom for the annual plant census and found out quickly that the survey takes quite a team! Over 4 days, groups of a few determined individuals were led by a well-trained botanist from plot to plot. At each meter x meter plot, they identified which plants were present and at what abundance. In addition to the botany teams traversing the island, survey teams follow behind, taking the elevation at each plot.


Dr Alice Winn and undergraduate researcher, Ashley Hennessey, identify plants in the wetter habitat behind the foredunes.

Though it might seem like a lot of work to look at some plants, Tom explains why these data are so important. “We have very little background information, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, about natural ecosystems.” He explained while sitting next to one of his plots, “So, then when you have something like an oil spill occur, or you have a major drought occur, or you have climate change – a much slower, going phenomenon – you don’t know what’s changing.” With 24 years of survey data, Tom has been able to establish a baseline of what dune plant communities look like on Gulf barrier islands and how they respond to shifting sands and elevation changes, droughts, and, importantly, hurricanes.  With 24 years of long-term information about the dunes on St. George Island, Tom has certainly made some discoveries. One of the most impactful for Bay communities revolves around restoration


Ocean-facing dunes covered with Sea Oats (Uniola paniculata) and other important dune builders.

Dunes that run parallel to the shore on our barrier islands are critical for slowing storm surge, acting as the first line of defense when large hurricanes move through the area. These large hurricanes, like Michael in 2018, can completely topple the dunes, washing over and turning the width of the island into one big beach. Being able to effectively rebuild dunes after these sorts of events is therefore important for restoring this natural protection for our coastal communities. Wondering what this has to do with plants? Plants are the glue that hold dunes together! By observing which plants come back quickly after hurricanes, and in what abundances (along with a few experiments), Tom has been able to identify which species are best for dune restoration and provide this information to land managers.

Woody goldenrod (Chrysoma pauciflosculosa) in the morning light

There are still plenty of unanswered questions on the dunes but through long-term data collection, Tom and his graduate students hope to better understand how barrier islands function, change over time, and respond to climate change. For a more in-depth look at the data and the habitats on St. George Island, give this article a read.

The census is a great time to get to know the other wildlife on the island as well!

Common Nighthawk
Black-bellied Plover (winter plumage)






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