Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
A wetland really is more than just ‘land that is wet’. There are certain key ingredients that need to go into a wetland for it to truly be a wetland. Of course, water needs to be present for at least part of the growing season. It can simply be in the form of temporarily saturated soils or even standing water a few feet deep.
As soil becomes saturated with water, oxygen levels are greatly reduced. Quite often, bacteria in saturated soils will create hydrogen sulfide, giving wetland soils that stinky odor of rotten eggs. As plants grow in a wetland over several years, their decaying matter helps to create a thick, dark layer of organic soil.
The presence of water in a wetland encourages the growth of hydrophytes, or ‘water-loving’ plants, that are specially adapted to living in wet environments. Many wetland plants have open spaces within the leaves and stems- often referred to as aerenchyma. This allows oxygen to diffuse down to the roots, sometimes creating an oxygen-rich environment in the soil around a plant. Also, many wetland plants reproduce both by floating or wind-dispersed seeds and by rhizomes, which are underground roots that can travel great distances. Some plants that grow in salty wetlands around the Great Salt Lake are able to control the salt in their tissues by depositing it on the outside of the leaf or containing it in chambers within their cells.
Like plants, specially adapted animals also call wetlands their home. Mammals and birds have oily fur or feathers that allow them to swim in cold water without losing much body heat. They also often have webbed feet to aid in swimming. Other animals, such as fish, amphibians, and insects, have gills to breathe in water.
Despite being the second driest state in the country, Utah has a high diversity of wetlands. Vast marshes surround the Great Salt Lake, providing habitat to enormous populations of migratory birds. Less obvious wet meadows provide unique habitat to butterflies and other insects. Salty playas, which are shallow basins with no outlet, are found throughout the West Desert, creating unique ecosystems of highly adapted plants. Riparian wetlands can grow along the edges of rivers, providing a unique transition between the swift water and upland habitats. Southern Utah is home to some peculiar wetlands such as potholes and hanging gardens, both associated with sandstone bedrock. A hanging garden clings to the side of a moist cliff, creating a microhabitat for rare plants, such as orchids and monkeyflower. Potholes can simply be eroded basins in the sandstone where water collects in spring. A pothole is an oasis that provides water for desert wildlife and a home for fairy shrimp and spadefoot toads.
Spring is the perfect time of year to visit a wetland. The constant chorus of birds, insects and amphibians are a testament to the importance of wetlands, teeming with life in the middle of a desert.
For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.
Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark Larese-Casanova
Text: Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Mitsch, W.J., and J.W. Gosselink. (1993). Wetlands. Van Nostrand Rheinhold.
Tiner, R. W. (1999). Wetland Indicators: A Guide to Wetland Identification, Delineation, Classification, and Mapping. CRC Press
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. (1995). Playas to Marshes…Where Water Meets Land. Growing WILD Newsletter. http://www.wildlife.utah.gov/education/newsletters/95spring-gw.pdf
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. (2003). Utah’s Wonderful Wetlands Activity Guide. http://wildlife.utah.gov/education/pdf/wetlands_activity_guide.pdf