Even if you don’t always recognize a wetland, you probably would know some of these old cottage country friends:
The beaver is the only creature other than humans that engineers wetlands, and it’s way more efficient. It takes just three minutes for a beaver to fell a willow and a few days for a pair to build an impermeable branch-and-mud dam. The beaver’s pond protects its lodge and serves, essentially, as farmland for the water-loving plants the rodent eats. Their engineering may block our culverts and flood our fields, but as we curse them, we can also appreciate their skill at creating habitat for themselves and their wetland neighbours.
Saved by the swamp
The male wood duck is a sight to behold with its red eyes, swept-back crest, and rainbow iridescence. Slim enough to take over an abandoned woodpecker’s home, this perching duck nests in tree cavities. A century ago, wood ducks were imperilled, but enough were secretly thriving in swamps that they rebounded during a decades-long hunting moratorium introduced in 1918.
Bog bug bonanza
The pitcher plant collects rainwater in its green, red-veined trap-leaf, then releases digestive enzymes into the contained pool. Insects scamper in, slip down, and are kept from climbing out by stiff hairs: they drown and are “eaten,” providing nutrients the acidic bog cannot. The sundew, meanwhile, beckons bugs with sweet, glistening drops on the ends of its leaves. The bugs stick to its tentacles, which fold in and trap them.
Infernal buggy swamp, you say? In fact, wetlands of yore were widely blamed for malarial outbreaks because we’d polluted them so badly that they weren’t healthy enough to keep pests in check. The truth is, mosquitoes breed far more successfully in a pail of water than in a thriving wetland, where their lowly larvae, unable to swim, stand little chance against minnows, tadpoles, and the mighty dragonfly, which, in its underwater nymph stage, uses jet propulsion to hunt mosquito larvae.
Icon of the marsh
Cattails exemplify the wetland’s multi-functional spirit. Cattail stems and blade-like leaves give cover for nesting and resting birds, plus fish and aquatic invertebrates. Muskrats harvest cattail leaves for lodges, wrens use them in nests, and geese and ducks eat the roots, while their rhizomes stabilize soil. The slimy stem hosts a parasitic algae-bacteria blend (the smallest living things in the marsh). The slime helps detoxify organic pollutants and is gourmet insect food.
Home, home on the slough
The slender northern pike, a.k.a. jackfish, is a wetland “obligate”: it utterly depends on healthy wetlands. This popular game fish, which can grow to 60 inches long, spawns in quiet, shallow pools and uses shoreline reeds as hunting blinds. A top predator, pike keep an ecosystem balanced.
Other obligates include reptiles such as the spotted turtle, an endangered Ontario species that is closely monitored in an isolated population at Ottawa’s Mer Bleue Bog. The canvasback, with its russet head and whitish back, returns each year to the wetland where it was born to mate and raise its young, which makes this species—common in the prairies but found country-wide—especially vulnerable to wetland loss.