Courtesy photo American Lotus is an example of a floating plant. These plants, as well as emergent and submergent vegetation have an important role to play in the ecosystem. Aquatic plants provide habitat and food for wildlife as well as contribute to the nutrients to the sediment.
published: Sunday, August 05, 2012
Watery world is needed for animals, plants to survive
Each plant community or ecosystem is unique in its makeup. The plants and animals that make their homes in different environments are adapted to their specific habitat. Aquatic environments such as swamps, marshes, rivers, streams, lakes and ponds support plants and animals that are unique to their watery world.
The plants in a wet ecosystem provide oxygen, shelter and food for the animals that live there. There are three different types of wetland plants including emergents, floating plants and submergents. All of these plants are important components to the ecosystem.
Emergents are plants that grow in the water but pierce the surface so that they are exposed to air. Pickerel weed is an example of an emergent plant. This perennial plant can reach heights of over three feet out of the water. The leaves are shiny, green and lance shaped. The flower is a purplish color and is tubular in form. Poking out of the water allows emergents to photosynthesize more efficiently as well as reproduce. Generally these types of plants are pollinated by wind or insects. The portion of the plant that is under water provides habitats for various micro and macro invertebrates, which are food for larger species of wildlife such as fish.
Floating plants have adapted so that their leaves float on the surface of the water. These plants can be free-floating or anchored to the bottom of the water body. Regardless of the type of floating plants, all provide food and habitat for fish and wildlife. The roots of floating-leaved plants provide a stable surface for successful fish spawning. When these aquatic plants die, they significantly contribute to the sediment, often making the water body shallower and nutrient rich.
American lotus is an example of a floating plant. Mostly known for its large, beautiful blooms, the seedpods are often sold as ornamental items. The flowers are approximately six inches wide and appear to be a luminescent yellow bloom floating on the water.
Growing underneath the water's surface are the submergents. Most of these plants are anchored to the bottom of the water body by roots, however some are actually free floating under the water with no roots. Coontail is actually a free floating submersed plant that has feathery leaves which are arranged in whorls on the stem giving it the look of a raccoon's tail, which is how it got its name. Coontail does produce flowers, but they are so small that usually they are not seen. All submersed plants provide habitats for the smaller species that live in the water. These are consumed by fish and other wildlife. Once the plant dies, their decomposition by bacteria and fungi provides food for other aquatic species.
Many animals inhabit the wet areas of our planet. Dragonflies rely on plants that grow in wet areas. Although the dragonfly lives its adult life on land, while in the larval stage it is completely aquatic. The female lays her eggs in the water. The eggs hatch into the nymphal stage, which have a special appendage on their head used to spear small fish. These nymphs are predators from the time they hatch from the eggs. These interesting insects actually go through a metamorphosis process where they grow their wings. Most of the life of a dragonfly is spent in the larva stage, which can be up to three years. Once the creature reaches adulthood, it lives only a few weeks.
Animals including fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals can all be found in the wet ecosystems. Bluegill live in shallow and slow-moving waters. They prefer areas where there is an abundance of aquatic vegetation where they are able to hide and search for food. The adult fish feeds on aquatic insect larvae including that of the dragonfly. They will also munch on crayfish, leeches, snails and small fish.
Turtles are another creature that can be found in or near the water. They enjoy basking in the sun on a nearby log or rock where they can quickly dive into the water if threatened. Turtles are omnivores and will eat algae, aquatic plants, dead and live animals such as fish, snails and frogs.
There are literally thousands of plants and animals that rely on these watery worlds to survive. Wetlands are a very important piece of a healthy planet. In addition to providing homes, shelter and food to countless species of wildlife, these areas filter runoff water, ease flooding conditions and help stop erosion.
Corine Burgess is and Environmental Specialist for the Highlands County Parks and Natural Resources Department. Guest columns are the opinion of the writer, not necessarily those of the News-Sun.
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