What is a Marsh?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A marsh is a type of wetland which is distinguished from other wetland varieties by having an assortment of grasses, reeds, and sedges, without large bushes and tall trees. The height of standing water in a marsh can range, depending on the location and the season, but the mud or clay that forms the base of the marsh is always heavily saturated. A marsh can be salt or fresh water, and often has large spaces of open water which are heavily colonized by birds. Like other wetlands, a marsh provides vital habitat to many plant and animal species as well as protecting neighboring areas of land from flooding, and in the case of saltwater marshes, excessive salination.

Cattails commonly grow in marshes.
Cattails commonly grow in marshes.

In drier seasons, the level of standing water in a marsh may be as low as six inches (15 centimeters). In more wet times, the water can rise to three feet (one meter) or more, if flooding becomes excessive. Therefore, the plants that live in marshes are adapted to flexing water levels, and to having thoroughly saturated roots. In some marshes, water is deep year round, supporting communities of cattails, tall reeds, wild rice, and water lilies. More shallow marshes have sedges, grasses, rushes, and short reeds.

Flamingos are often found in marshes.
Flamingos are often found in marshes.

Plants adapted to the marsh environment tend to be very hardy. They have broad leaves, because their state of constant saturation means that the plants do not need to concern themselves with moisture loss. The leaves help the plants absorb sunlight and photosynthesize their energy. Many marsh plants also have hollow or spongy stems to prevent rot and move energy around the plant. These broad spaces also oxygenate the water and soil of the marsh, creating a healthy environment for fish and other animals to thrive in.

The height of standing water varies in marshes.
The height of standing water varies in marshes.

Most marshes also have a large population of birds adapted to aquatic life. Ducks and geese are very common, as are flamingos, herons, egrets, and other long legged birds which have ample sources of food in the marsh environment. Beavers and muskrats can also be found in many marshes, and a delicate balance between all the plant and animal species that share the marsh is usually maintained.

Water lilies may grow in a marsh.
Water lilies may grow in a marsh.

The protection that marshes provide to neighboring lands has led to many government sponsored efforts around the world to preserve and restore marshes, along with other wetlands. Animal conservation organizations also participate, to retain the unique habitat provided by marshes. In many areas with well-maintained marshes, walking paths have been built so that people can enjoy the beauty of the marsh as well. Please use care when exploring a marsh, as it is a delicate environment that can easily be damaged by garbage, loose dogs, and other acts of carelessness. It is also very easy to get lost in a marsh, or stuck in a deep area of mud or clay, so always explore with others.

Mudfish may be found in wetlands.
Mudfish may be found in wetlands.
Heron often frequent marshes.
Heron often frequent marshes.
The bittern, a type of bird in the heron family, is often found in marshland and other water areas.
The bittern, a type of bird in the heron family, is often found in marshland and other water areas.
Glossy ibises may be found in wetlands.
Glossy ibises may be found in wetlands.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon185852

Where are they found?

ShadowGenius

@BostonIrish

A swamp is a bottomland which often has trees. Unlike a marsh, it is not a transition between bodies of water and land, but simply a minor body of water at a low area, and it is usually stagnant and shallow. Marshes do not generally have many trees, but are home to smaller vegetation. There is also the bog, which is a bottomland which sometimes doesn't have any water, just loose ground, and often is a great source of peat.

BostonIrish

What is the difference between a marsh and a swamp?

GigaGold

Marshes are arguably the oldest kind of habitat on earth. Before there was a distinguished separation of land and sea, the entire earth was something like a volcanic marsh, depending on which period of geological history we're talking about. Marshes came to spawn the earliest forms of life, and fostered an environment of creation and birth. The clearest remaining example of life in an environment of varying water is the lifecycle of an amphibian, which is born in the water, and lives its adult life with legs for both walking on land and swimming.

hangugeo112

Salt marshes have a varied depth depending on the time of day and the tide of the ocean. It is not uncommon to see boats in certain salt marshes resting in the mud, next to unusually tall docks. If you see this kind of thing, return to the same spot at a later time in the day, and you'll be surprised to see how much the scene has changed in such a short time. The fishermen may be sailing out to set and check lobster or crab traps, following a tide-controlled schedule.

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