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drone photography image of grassland in Florida

UF/IFAS researchers to conduct eco-assessment of DeLuca Preserve, create open database

A team of UF/IFAS researchers plans to characterize the soil, water, and microbiome features of the DeLuca Preserve, a roughly 27,000-acre parcel of land in Florida’s southern Osceola County. The property, donated to UF in November 2020, includes ranchlands, citrus groves, wetlands, and forests. It also is home to many endangered species. UF is responsible for protecting this one-of-a-kind natural area. It will be a living classroom and laboratory for students and faculty throughout the university.

“We selected soil-water-microbiome domains based on their sensitivity to global change, their high importance to the functioning of Florida’s diverse natural landscapes, and their unknown status throughout the DeLuca Preserve,” explained Dr. Jehangir Bhadha, assistant professor of soil, water, and nutrient management in the UF/IFAS Soil and Water Sciences Department (SWSD).

Project Details

For his part, Bhadha will determine baseline soil health characteristics, for both wet and dry periods. The team will take samples at numerous sites featuring unique plant communities or land-use types. He will analyze those using ten soil health indicators including pH, organic matter, and active carbon. The Soil, Water, Nutrient Management (SWNM) Laboratory at the UF/IFAS Everglades REC will handle all analyses.

Additionally, Dr. Willm Martens-Habbena, assistant professor of microbial ecology in the UF/IFAS Department of Microbiology & Cell Science, will establish microbiological monitoring of microbial community diversity and activity. This will also be done across various cover types for wet and dry periods. Dr. Anna Braswell, assistant professor of coastal watersheds and ecosystems in the UF/IFAS School of Forest, Fisheries, & Geomatics Sciences, will develop seasonal and annual trends in the hydrologic periods across both isolated wetlands and wetlands connected to agricultural ditches or canals. Dr. Sam Smidt, assistant professor of watershed science in SWSD, will create a digital data repository to be openly accessed by project and external users. This will include the development of extension and K-12 teaching and learning material.

“There is an urgent need to make DeLuca Preserve data readily available for research, teaching, and extension,” Smidt said. “Open access data and imagery will significantly increase the opportunities for this property to be leveraged for the benefit of all.”

The project received nearly $88,000 in funding from the UF/IFAS Office of the Dean for Research. The goal is to expand research focused on the sustainability and resilience of the DeLuca Preserve. The team hopes that developing a baseline dataset of hydrological, soil microbiome, soil health, and geospatial features will allow for more in-depth research in the future.