What is a Wetland?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies wetlands as areas where water either covers the soil or is present at or near the surface of the soil for at least part of the year. The water is often groundwater from an aquifer or spring. A wetland may also be filled by water from a nearby river or lake or, in coastal areas, by the ocean tides. Basically, wetlands are wet places.

painted turrle among plants in water

This painted turtle was rehabbed and released to her wetland habitat in 2021.

While some wetlands are permanently under water, others may flood seasonally. The depth and duration of this seasonal flooding varies. What is important is that, in each wetland, the presence of water determines the biological, physical, and chemical characteristics of the land and creates a distinct ecosystem.

Plants that live in wetlands are uniquely adapted to watery soil and vary from mosses and grasses to trees. A wide variety of animal species live in wetlands, too. Birds that frequent wetlands for protection and food include ducks, geese, kingfishers, and sandpipers. Mammals like otters and beavers rely on wetlands for food and shelter. Wetlands are home to many types of fish and – our favorites – reptiles and amphibians such as frogs, salamanders, snakes, and turtles.

Wetlands exist in many climates and are found on every continent except Antarctica, both along coasts and inland. The largest wetlands in the world include the Amazon River Basin in South America and the Hudson Bay Lowland in Canada. The world’s largest protected wetland, Llanos de Moxos in Bolivia, is more than 17 million acres, about equal in size to North Dakota.

Wetlands take many forms including rivers, marshes, bogs, mangroves, mudflats, ponds, swamps, billabongs, peatlands, sloughs, muskegs, fens, lagoons, potholes, mires, and floodplains. Most large wetland areas include a combination of different forms. Swamps, marshes, and bogs are the three major kinds of wetlands.

Wetlands are essential ecosystems. In addition to providing homes for many plant and animal species, they are giant sponges that limit the effects of flooding from heavy rain. Coastal wetlands absorb storm surges to protect fragile beaches and shore communities. As storms worsen due to climate change, wetlands may save us all.

Interested in learning more about wetlands? Check out our Wild Wetlands educational outreach program. We would love to bring Wild Wetlands or one of our other programs to your school, library, or club. Contact us to find out how.

Sink or Swim

If you have been lucky enough to watch a turtle in a glass aquarium, you saw that turtles are strong swimmers, but sometimes they just hang out on the bottom. For you to do that, at the bottom of a pool, for instance, you would need two things: a way to breathe and something heavy to keep you down there. How does a turtle stay under, perhaps even napping?

painted turtle in aquarium floating just below the surface

Educational ambassador Diane demonstrates how turtles can float just below the surface.

In our last post about turtle physiology, we noted that, because of the shell, turtles have significantly more bone mass than other animals. That heavy bone sinks like a rock. But turtles can also float, so something must be making them buoyant.

We have seen turtles described as little submarines. That is a pretty accurate comparison. Turtles sink or swim like submarines dive or surface except, instead of ballast tanks, a turtle has a bladder.

To counteract the weight of their shells and float, turtles pump air into their large lungs. To submerge, they draw water into the urinary bladder through the cloaca. How deep a turtle stays depends on the ratio of air in the lungs to water in the bladder. There are variations in this depending on the species of turtle, but that is the general idea.

Having all that air in their lungs, plus slow metabolism, means a turtle can hold their breath a long time. Under normal summer conditions, it might be an hour before a turtle comes up for air. Napping, the turtle might stay even longer. And if the oxygen in the lungs gets used up before the turtle surfaces, they will switch to anaerobic metabolism and not need any oxygen at all. But that is a story for another time.

You can learn more about how turtles sink or swim in our educational outreach programs. We are always looking for new program hosts. Please contact us to bring a program to your school, library, or club meeting.

Save the Snakes

Snakes get a bad rap. Just the way snakes move freaks some folks out, not to mention the venom. When you get to know a bit more about them, though, you might understand why we think snakes are worth saving.

According to the CDC, between 7,000 and 8,000 humans are bit by venomous snakes in the United States each year, and around five of those will die. For perspective, though, 49 people die, on average, from lightning strikes. Unlike lightning, which does not care, snakes would rather not bite you, because that rarely ends well for the snake. Instead, snakes will go out of their way to get out of your way and go about the business of catching prey, which is what that venom is really for.

snake skeleton

Image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay

The name “snake” comes from an Old English word, “snaca,” which means “to crawl or to creep.” They do not actually creep, though. Snakes slither, which is the serpentine motion you often see. They also “walk” on their belly scales to move slowly straight ahead, or bunch up then stretch forward like an accordion. While they have no actual legs, their ancestors did. Many snakes still have what remains of the pelvic and leg bones in there.

Going legless could not have been a bad idea, since some lizards decided to do it, too. Wait! Isn’t a legless lizard just another snake? Nope, and if you are not sure, have a staring contest. If they blink, they are a lizard. Snakes have no eyelids. Instead, their eyes are covered with a transparent scale for protection. The scale will shed along with the rest of the snake’s skin.

While shedding is common in the reptile world, the way snakes slide out of their skins and leave them behind in one piece is unique. The process is so mysterious and wonderful that humans have symbolically associated it with growth and transformation. The poor snakes must go around being spiritually significant, as if being nature’s rodent control service was not burden enough.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Rats, mice, and other small mammals make up a good portion of a snake’s diet. In keeping the rodent population controlled, snakes also reduce the number of ticks which carry Lyme and other diseases. Whenever we get a call about a snake hanging around where they are not wanted, the first thing we ask is, “What is the snake eating?” Chances are good there is something there attracting mice. The snake is doing pest management for you and will not even send you a bill.

While we specialize in turtles, our door is open to any injured reptiles in need of care. We think snakes are fascinating and recognize how important they are to the ecosystems they occupy. We will keep learning and working hard to save the snakes.