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Ecology

The Heart of an Ecosystem: Healthy ponds, streams, and wetlands

This week, my students and I took a field trip to a local creek. Getting outside to make observations in nature is one of my favorite hands-on ways to learn about science and the natural world! Ponds, creeks, and wetlands are some of the best places to do this. These aquatic areas are teaming with life and activity – there is so much to watch, listen to, and wonder about. Like most living creatures, we humans are naturally drawn to water sources. Being outside with my students at the creek this week got me thinking more about ponds, streams, and wetlands, and their important role in all kinds of ecosystems...

A stream in Northern Wisconsin is home to a variety of plant and animal species

Perhaps you have noticed that some of the best places in your area to see birds, plants, and other wildlife are near water! Where you find water you usually find an abundance of life! All plants need water to perform photosynthesis, the process plants use to make their own food. A healthy ecosystem will have a healthy food web! An ecosystem with many different plants will attract herbivores, or animals that eat plants. You might have seen some herbivores around ponds or streams in your area, such as plant-eating species of fish, birds, and insects. A thriving herbivore population will, in turn, attract predators, or animals that hunt and eat other animals. You may notice predators such as larger fish species like pike and walleye, as well as otters, heron, king fishers, spiders, and dragonflies. Decomposers, like mushrooms and earthworms, also thrive in moist environments. It is no surprise that water features like streams, ponds, and wetlands are the lively, bustling centers of many ecosystems! 

I became very familiar with aquatic ecosystem health while collecting field samples for an aquatic ecology laboratory several years ago. While going out and collecting samples from streams, ponds, and rivers all over Colorado, I quickly learned that not all aquatic ecosystems are equal. I saw and studied all kinds of aquatic ecosystems  – from streams that were little more than stagnant ditches on the sides of roads,  to roaring mountain rivers overflowing with spring snowmelt. I visited remote beaver meadows miles from the nearest dirt road, and also popular lakes in national parks that host thousands of hikers, fishers, and sight-seers every year. I studied mountain springs that bubbled out of the ground looking as clean and clear as tap water, and also streams where the water flowed bright orange, polluted with runoff from mining sites. It didn’t take long for me to start noticing some other big differences between these contrasting aquatic ecosystems…

As I visited these places, I would listen, touch, smell, and look – and notice the differences. I heard the sounds of many songbirds, or the sounds of nearby highways. I felt the squishy, moss-covered river banks between my toes as I waded bare-foot in remote streams, or I felt the hardened plant-less dirt under my wader boots on riverbanks where too many boots from too many visitors had over-compacted the soil. I smelled the earthy scents of decaying leaves and wildflowers, or the stench of manure from a nearby herd of cattle grazing on the sweet riparian vegetation.  I counted the number of native plants, or the number or invasive species.

Ponds, streams, and wetlands are like the heart of many ecosystems. If these water features are unhealthy, the whole ecosystem will decline. Take away a clean and plentiful source of water, and the vegetation will suffer, sending ripple effects through the local populations of herbivores, predators, and decomposers. 

Consequently, these vital water features are also a great indicator of ecosystem health. If something is not right in an ecosystem, you can often observe signs of poor health in the streams, ponds, and wetlands. An unhealthy ecosystem cannot support a diverse community of plants, herbivores, predators, and decomposers. Scientists monitor ponds, streams, and wetlands due to their importance to animals and plants (and humans) in a variety of environments, and also because the symptoms of ecosystem imbalance are often quite visible there.

A variety of animal and plant species that are found around healthy ponds and wetlands
  • Continue to part 2 to learn how to recognize the signs of a healthy aquatic ecosystems wherever you go!
  • If you are looking for ways to teach kids or young students about aquatic ecosystem health, you can download and print the free nature journal page for kids, about pond ecosystems or purchase the Pond Ecology Bundle on Etsy!
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References and Further Reading

  1. Environmental Protection Agency. (2020). Impacts of Mismanaged Trash. Available: https://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters/impacts-mismanaged-trash
  2. Environmental Protection Agency. (2016). Indicators: Benthic Macroinvertebrates. Available: https://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters/impacts-mismanaged-trash
  3. Frey, D. (2018). Study shows Yellowstone wolves’ impact on streams. The Wildlife Society. Available: https://wildlife.org/study-shows-yellowstone-wolves-impact-on-streams/
  4. National Park Service. (2017). Elk and moose exclusion fence. Available: https://www.nps.gov/articles/elk-and-moose-exclusion-fence.htm

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