6 familiar faces you’ll find in Canadian wetlands

Published: July 25, 2019

beaver in a wetland Chris Moody/shutterstock

Even if you don’t always recognize a wetland, you probably would know some of these old cottage country friends:

Busy builders

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.

 Mosquito hunting-grounds

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.

Find out more about how wetlands help us, and how we can help them.

 

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