Wetlands Fact Sheet
Wetlands are swamps, marshes, bogs, Carolina bays, floodplain bottoms
and other areas where land is covered by shallow water at least part of
the year. Wetlands, characterized by somewhat mucky soil, are home to
a host of water-loving plants and animals. Wetlands can be transition
zones between dry land and lakes, rivers or oceans; they share many characteristics
of both environments. Some wetlands, such as Carolina bays, are isolated
from any body of open water.
Wetlands range in size from thousands of acres to less than one acre.
They occur just about anywhere, from the Arctic tundra to the humid tropical
regions, in wooded areas or sunny, open, wet grasslands.
Once plentiful in the United States, wetlands are in serious decline
now because of their loss to agriculture and commercial development. The
United States has lost more than half of its original wetland areas. More
than 400,000 acres are lost annually, even though development in wetlands
is now regulated by the federal government.
People often view wetlands as worthless. Wetlands are sometimes drained
and filled for development; others are polluted from dumping. But ecologists
and others are beginning to get the message out that wetlands are some
of the most biologically valuable ecosystems on earth and should be preserved.
Wetlands have numerous functions. Among them are:
1. Flood control: Wetlands, often called natural sponges, help control
flood waters by absorbing water during heavy rainfall, then slowly releasing
2. Water quality and availability: Like giant kidneys, wetlands help
purify water by processing nutrients, suspended materials and other
pollutants. Wetlands also increase the availability of water by absorbing
and adding water in wet seasons, then gradually releasing it during
3. Erosion control: Because they are often located between water bodies
and high ground, wetlands buffer shorelands against erosion. Wetland
plants also bind soil with their roots and help to absorb the impact
from wave action.
4. Fish and wildlife habitat: Most fish and shellfish eaten by humans
live in wetlands when they are young. Wildlife also migrate through
wetlands, and many endangered species, such as the wood stork, live
there, as do many other birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
5. Recreation: Wetlands attract hunters, fishermen, hikers and boaters.
Wetlands are also havens for bird watchers and provide scenic inspiration
for artists and writers.
The University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL)
located at the Savannah River Site near Aiken, S.C., has conducted wetlands
and other ecological research for several decades. One of the most studied
wetland types is the Carolina bay, found primarily in Georgia and the
Carolina bays are naturally occurring shallow depressions of an elliptical
shape. They are typically isolated wetlands that are largely fed by rain
and shallow groundwater. Researchers believe they are 10,000 years old
or older. Some are wet all year, while others fill with water, then dry
up, depending on the season.
Researchers have counted 194 Carolina bays on the Savannah River Site.
These and other Carolina bays host a variety of plant and wildlife, providing
a valuable habitat for such animals as frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes
and alligators. Also mammals such as deer, raccoons, skunks and opossums
are believed to get food and water from Carolina bays. Amphibians, such
as salamanders and frogs, are the most abundant wildlife found in Carolina
Plants found in Carolina bays include loblolly and longleaf pines; black
gum and sweet gum trees; blackjack and turkey oak trees; and shrubs such
as sumac, gallberry and red bay. Also common in Carolina bays are broomsedge,
water lilies and three-awn grass.
Researchers have also looked at the abundant microscopic organisms that
live in Carolina bays. They are totally dependent on water to survive.
Given the changing water levels of Carolina bays, Dr. Barbara Taylor,
an assistant ecologist at SREL, is looking at how these microscopic organisms
adapt to that extreme variability. She is developing a computerbased model
that could predict the effects of climatic change -- particularly global
warming -- on these and other biological communities.
The Environmental Protection Agency offers a toll free hotline that is
responsive to public interest, questions and requests for information
about the values and functions of wetlands and options for their protection.
The hotline operates from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Eastern Time Zone, on weekdays.
Callers within the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
may reach the hotline by calling 1-800-832-7828.