This summer, as water temperatures across the Everglades reached triple digits, much of the nation’s attention focused on the Atlantic side of the Keys, where rapid bleaching devastated much of the Sunshine State’s beautiful coral reefs. But in Florida Bay, which sits on the west side of the Keys, many marine species have been fighting their own battle with bleaching and other effects of extreme heat, sending a strong, if silent, message about their own stress and the health of the essential habitat they inhabit.

Normally resilient creatures are struggling to survive. The record heat has not only threatened individual species — an astonishing effect on clear display in the warm South Florida waters — but the expansive and interconnected habitats, stretching from the Florida Bay to the wider Everglades and beyond.

It’s not a grass problem, it’s not a coral problem, it’s not a sponge problem,” said Matt Bellinger, owner and operator of Bamboo Charters in the Keys. “It’s a complete ecosystem problem.”

Jerry Lorenz, the state director of research for Audubon Florida who has decades of experience in Florida Bay, likens the risks facing the estuary to playing Jenga.

“You can pull this piece, you can pull out that piece,” he said. “And you can pull out a lot more pieces. But eventually, you’re going to pull out one last piece that’s going to topple the whole thing. And that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re seeing here.”

Dramatic increases in water temperature can throw a potentially catastrophic knock to the entire ecosystem where even the most robust and resilient species, including glass anemones, relatives to coral, are fighting to survive. These common and resilient spindly invertebrates, normally difficult to see due to their brown hues, are now easily spotted in ghostly white clusters — a sign that something is very wrong.

Read the full article about the effects of extreme heat on marine ecosystems by Abigail Geiger and Gabriela Tejeda at Grist.