I have spent countless hours wandering through wetlands in the southeastern Coastal Plain, usually in search of animals that most people will never have the opportunity to observe in their natural environment. Some of the prettiest places that I have stumbled upon can only be accessed by getting your feet wet and exploring off the beaten path. Wetlands in the Coastal Plain tend to be incredibly productive systems that provide habitat to a wide variety of plants and animals, many of which are totally dependent on wetland habitat for at least a portion of their life cycle. Many people may consider these wetlands and swamps to be full of snakes, alligators, biting insects, and black water, but those are all part of the charm of southern wetlands. Although, I would be lying if I did not admit that time spent in wetlands was often more enjoyable in early spring before the mosquitos emerge in mass. If you know were to look, its even possible to find wetlands with crystal clear water, providing an excellent opportunity for wildlife viewing. The southeastern US is home to a significant percentage of the total wetland area found in this country, but these wetlands have been disproportionately impacted by human activity (Hefner and Brown 1985). This decline rivals that of the more-well known Longleaf Pine but often goes unappreciated.
The southeastern Coastal Plain supports an incredible diversity of wetland types, including some of the largest wetlands in the eastern United States. The Altamaha River has an associated floodplain that stretches miles away from the main river in certain places. This region is renowned for the biodiversity that it supports, and tens of thousands of acres of land have been set aside for conservation along the Altamaha River, creating a large network of protected lands. These properties protect some of the last remaining primary bottomland forest in the southeast, and it is hard to appreciate just how big bottomland hardwoods get without being disturbed by human activity. A walk through the bottomland of Moody Forest Natural Area or Big Hammock WMA is a special experience. Not to be outdone, the Okefenokee Swamp covers over 400,000 acres along the Georgia/Florida border and is a haven for wildlife that are protected inside the bounds of Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Both of these systems have been identified as some of the few remaining great natural places in the southeast: the Altamaha River Basin is described by the Nature Conservancy as one of America’s Last Great Places and the Okefenokee Swamp has been designated as one of the seven Natural Wonders of Georgia and a National Natural Landmark.
At the other end of the spectrum, many isolated wetlands are relatively small in overall size but more than make up for it with the biodiversity that they support. These types of wetlands include pine flatwoods wetlands, Carolina Bays, cypress domes, karst ponds, and pitcher plant bogs, just to name a few. Often embedded within surrounding upland pine forests, many isolated wetlands are ephemeral in nature, meaning that they experience seasonal flooding and drying events as a result of changing precipitation and temperature patterns. This makes them great places for amphibians and invertebrates because of lower predation pressure from fish. A large influx of potential prey items attracts many other species (birds, reptiles, mammals, etc.) to these small wetlands during certain times of the year. The resulting exchange of energy and nutrients from uplands to lowlands and back into uplands creates an important link between upland and lowland systems that benefits overall ecosystem health.
When the appropriate weather conditions align, ephemeral wetlands fill to the brim with amphibians, all attempting to find a mate and reproduce quickly so that larvae can escape the wetland before drying occurs. Winter choruses of Spring Peepers, Ornate Chorus Frogs, Leopard Frogs, and in rare cases Gopher Frogs can be deafening. Not to be outdone, Spring choruses of Pine Woods Treefrogs (a personal favorite), Cricket Frogs, Oak Toads, and Southern Toads often start up in the same wetlands once the weather warms up. There are few things better than spending a rainy spring evening listening to frogs calling like there is no tomorrow. Anurans are often joined by various species of salamanders, depending on where you are in the southeast. These are commonly mole salamanders in the genus Ambystoma, which spend the vast majority of their time underground and generally only emerge once a year (or even every few years!) to migrate into breeding wetlands. This collection of amphibians sometimes results in shallow wetlands that are literally teaming with tadpoles and larval salamanders. Overall, ephemeral wetlands can provide habitat for over 50 species of reptiles and amphibians, and this notably high diversity occurs in a variety of different wetland types over a relatively large geographic area (Russell et al. 2002; Dodd et al. 2007; Erwin et al. 2016).
The biodiversity found in southeastern wetlands as a whole is an irreplaceable portion of southern natural history that deserves to be celebrated alongside upland systems. Fire management of fire-adapted pine wetlands lagged significantly behind that of upland forests (Bishop and Haas 2005), and the negative effects of fire exclusion are still apparent in many wetlands surrounded by reasonably well-maintained upland pine. Flatwoods salamanders are a prime, but extreme, example of how a species can go from a relatively large range to on the brink of extinction when wetland resources are destroyed and degraded through poor management. Other wetland dependent species, including Ornate Chorus Frogs, Spotted Turtles, and Tiger Salamanders, have also likely declined across much of their range in the southeast but to a lesser extent.
Some of my most memorable field experiences have occurred while working in wetlands. Whether its listening to the thunderous calls of anurans while checking drift fence traps for Reticulated Flatwoods Salamanders, trapping Spotted Turtles in bottomland swamps, searching the thick mud of a seepage slope for Red Salamanders, or watching a male Bowfin shepherd his school of progeny along a shallow canal, there is rarely a dull day spent in the wetlands of the southeast. I will always remember finding my first Tiger Salamander in a borrow pit on a cold December night. The next time you are driving around the southeast, stop to appreciate the diversity of life that our wetlands support. Listen to the frogs calling in the spring and think how quiet the night would be without them. These wetland resources are worth conserving with the passion and energy often given to upland forests in the southeast. Southern natural history would not be the same without them.
Bishop, D. C., and C. A. Haas. 2005. Burning trends and potential negative impacts on flatwoods salamanders. Natural Areas Journal 25:290–294.
Dodd, C.K., W.J. Barichivich, S.A. Johnson, and J.S. Staiger. 2007. Changes in a northwestern Florida Gulf Coast herpetofaunal community over a 28-y period. The American Midland Naturalist 158:29–48.
Erwin, K. J., H. C. Chandler, J. G. Palis, T. A. Gorman, and C. A. Haas. 2016. Herpetofaunal communities in ephemeral wetlands embedded within longleaf pine flatwoods of the Gulf Coastal Plain. Southeastern Naturalist 15:431–447.
Hefner, J. M., and J. D. Brown. 1985. Wetland trends in the southeastern United States. Wetlands 4:1–11.
Russell, K.R., D.C. Guynn, and H.G. Hanlin. 2002. Importance of small isolated wetlands for herpetofaunal diversity in managed, young-growth forests in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina. Forest Ecology and Management 163:43–59.