If standing water determines the type of soil, as well as the kind of animals and plant species that live a given area, then the result is a wetland. The lower forty-eight states of the US have lost more than half their wetland ecosystems to human activity. Many have been drained and converted to farmland. Over the past several years, however, wetlands are being recognized as having more value than just a habitat for plant species and animals. They are now known to be a vital part of the environment for humans as well.
Characteristics of Wetland Ecosystems
Wetlands have provided vital habitats to many types of plants and animals, many of which are useful to humans. Coastal wetlands provide breeding grounds for shrimp, crabs and fish, which are harvested in the deeper ocean waters. Additionally, many plant species used by man are dependent on this type of natural ecosystem. Cranberries, wild rice, blueberries and some types of trees harvested for timber are examples of useful plant species that require wetlands for their growth cycle. Humans also depend on wetland areas for such recreational activities as hunting, bird watching, fishing and even camping.
Wetland soil absorbs excess water from rainfall, snow melt, and agricultural runoff and releases it slowly back into the waterways. This is vital for controlling flooding in the surrounding areas. Wetland plant species also slow the flow of water into streams and rivers, helping to control flooding in areas downstream. These plant species also help to control erosion by anchoring the soil with their roots.
Coastal wetlands are important buffer zones that not only reduce tidal erosion, but also help to absorb storm surges, which greatly reduces the flooding caused by hurricanes.
Wetland ecosystems also function as natural water purification systems. Their plant species absorb excess nitrogen and other pollutants, thus preventing them from entering the waterways.
Humans have long known the importance of wetlands to wildlife, but their economic value has only recently been fully understood. Wetland ecosystems are the breeding grounds for many of the aquatic animals that provide us with food. In addition, several food plant species are dependent on wetlands.
They also provide us with natural erosion and flood control. Their plant species also act as natural water treatment facilities. In dry areas, they provide places to water livestock. Wetland ecosystems are not just important to animals – they are vital for humans as well.