Educational Series: Wetlands Are Vanishing And We Must Act Now

Picture an endangered animal habitat and the first place that comes to mind might be a tropical rain forest or the melting Arctic. It likely won’t be a wetland. Although they are some of the most threatened and important ecosystems on the planet, marshes, swamps, and bogs have too often failed to get the notice they deserve from conservationists. With wetlands and the animal habitat they provide disappearing at an alarming rate, it is time for this to change.

Along with tropical forests and coral reefs, wetlands are among the most biodiverse habitats on Earth, supporting an extraordinary variety of lifeforms. Large animals rely on their waters for drinking, bathing, and cooling off, while many smaller creatures spend all or most of their lives in wetlands. They serve as crucial rest stops for migratory birds and shield coastlines from the effects of hurricanes. As they disappear, these crucial functions are lost–perhaps forever.

A report released in 2018 estimated that wetlands are disappearing at a rate three times faster than forests. More than a third of the world’s wetland area vanished between the years 1970 and 2015. The causes of this are many and complex, but are all due to human activity. Wetlands have been drained to create farmland, paved to build shopping malls, and are drying out because of climate change. But before looking further at the problems wetlands face–and how we can help–it’s worth considering what makes them such unique, irreplaceable ecosystems in the first place.

Wetland habitat types

The EPA defines wetlands as “areas where water covers the soil, or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year, including during the growing season.” This broad definition encompasses a large number of ecosystems which are frequently divided into three main habitats: marshes, swamps, and bogs.

In the United States, marshes are the type of wetland many people are most likely to encounter. They are open habitats dominated by partially submerged grasses, rushes, or reeds, with few if any trees. Marshes are usually found along the edges or at the mouths of bigger bodies of water like rivers, lakes, or bays–and during certain times of the year they may disappear under annual floodwaters. Although the surface of a marsh may appear still, at any given time there is likely to be a certain amount of water moving through and being replenished from elsewhere. Animals commonly found in marshes include beavers, otters, muskrats, and an abundance of birds and insects.

In contrast to marshes, swamps are dominated by water-tolerant trees. This habitat type is most common in tropical parts of the world like Central Africa and Southeast Asia, where it covers vast areas of land. Saltwater swamps such as mangrove forests cling to tropical coastlines, buffering them against storms and offering habitat for animals as diverse as proboscis monkeys and tree-climbing mudskipper fish. Although large swamps are now rare in the U.S., they were once much more common, especially in the Southeast. The disappearance of southern swamps drove many species to or near the brink of extinction–including the ivory-billed woodpecker, a possibly-extinct bird that may or may not still cling to existence in a few pockets of remaining habitat.

Bogs, the final major wetland type, lack an outlet for flowing water. They are especially common at northern latitudes and are often formed from the slow accumulation of dead vegetation on a lake bottom. As more plant debris piles up, the lake slowly transforms into a wetland, a process that may take hundreds of years. A peat bog is a specific kind of bog so old that layers of buried debris have begun to fossilize, reaching a state midway to becoming coal. Peat bogs store vast amounts of carbon underground, making them an essential defense against climate change.

Today, wetlands cover an estimated 5.5% of the United States–a small percentage that belies their outsized importance. Protecting the wetlands we have left should be a priority for everyone who cares about wildlife.

Animal inhabitants

More than 40% of threatened and endangered plants and animals in the U.S. depend in some way on wetlands. These include iconic species like the elusive Florida panther, which once roamed throughout the South but is now found only in the wetland and forest ecosystems of Southwest Florida. A combination of habitat loss and hunting pushed these majestic cats to the precipice of extinction, and only 120-130 are believed to exist in the wild. Habitat loss remains a major threat to their survival, as well as pollution and accidental deaths from vehicle collisions.

Wetlands are also essential habitat for numerous bird species. Every year, tens of thousands of migrating birds descend on marshes and bogs that serve as important resting spots along their fall and spring migration routes. Ducks and other waterfowl, shorebirds, and a variety of songbirds and raptors all depend on wetlands as important migration “stopover” sites where they can feed and rest up for the next leg of their journey. From endangered whooping cranes–one of the largest birds in North America–to tiny warblers and sandpipers, countless birds need intact wetlands in order to complete their migrations safely.

In addition to birds and mammals, an uncountable assortment of mostly smaller, cold-blooded animals live in wetlands. Many frogs, salamanders, and other amphibians rely on wetland habitats for both stages of their lifecycle: as aquatic tadpoles and as air-breathing adults. Reptiles including snakes, turtles, lizards, and–in some parts of the world–crocodiles and alligators also inhabit swamps and marshes. Finally, a huge diversity of insects, mussels, snails, and other invertebrates team both above and below the water’s surface.

Despite covering a relatively small percentage of Earth’s, wetlands are strongholds of global biodiversity, supporting a disproportionately large number of species. To save life on this planet, we must protect wetlands and the countless animals and plants that live in them.

Threats to wetlands

So how can we be good wetland stewards? Depending on where you live, chances are there is a wetland nearby, even if it is just a small marsh surrounded by cattails or a bit of boggy ground in a patch of undeveloped woods. You can do your part to protect local wetlands from pollution by not using toxic pesticides in your yard or garden, taking care that your car doesn’t leak oil (or even better, biking or riding transit), and safely picking up and disposing of litter. Also take care to avoid wasting water, which ultimately comes from some type of aquatic habitat such as a wetland.

Individual actions can certainly help–but society as a whole needs to make changes, too, if we are going to preserve wetlands into the future. Historically, the biggest cause of wetland loss has been conversion of swamps, marshes, and bogs to other types of land use by humans, and you can write to your elected representatives letting them know you support habit conservation policies. Educate friends and family members by talking with them about the importance of wetlands so they will take action, too. Finally, you can sign up to volunteer with an organization engaged in restoring damaged wetlands to their former state; join a community work party, and get your hands dirty for a good cause!

Wetlands are some of the fastest-disappearing ecosystems on the planet, posing a monumental challenge for those of us who care about the wildlife they support. However, the fact that many of us live near one or more wetland means we can play a direct role in ensuring they have a future. Each one of us needs to step up and do our part for wetlands and the amazing animals who call them home.

Photo credit: Gary Leavens

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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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