Ribbons of Life

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

A river begins as a trickle and ends in the ocean, but during its journey it creates a wide ribbon of habitat for animals. It's easy to think of a river as merely the water flowing between its banks, but a river is also deep pools, shallow riffles, sycamores, mud banks, plants and fish.Because of the connections between the river, the land and the species that depend on the river environment, it is difficult to point to an exact place where the river begins.

If the animals that depend on rivers and streams could tell us about their river homes, each would describe a different place. Catfish would tell about deep pools and tangles of roots. Kingfishers would chatter about the high cut-banks and shallow areas. Wood ducks would point out the mature sycamore trees along the water's edge. Herons would point to the endless backwaters, filled with frogs and crayfish.

Of course, rivers start with water. To catfish, that's all the river is. They spend their entire lives in the water, using their gills to absorb oxygen from it and their sensitive whiskers to find food in its dark depths.

Softshells live in the water right along with the catfish. Their webbed feet make them fast swimmers, and a periscopelike nose allows them to breath while the rest of their body remains submerged beneath the surface.

Softshells need more than water, however. When it is time to lay eggs, female turtles crawl out of the water onto a sunny sand bar. The turtle digs a nest, deposits eggs and leaves them to incubate in the warmth of the sun. When new hatchlings emerge weeks later they head for the safety of the water.

A sandbar is an essential part of the life history of this aquatic turtle and, therefore, part of the river. They could not live in a river without sand bars.

Tall mud banks stand high above the sand bar. An eroding section of the bank reveals layers of sand, soil and gravel. Some layers are thick, some thin. Each layer is a clue that the rising waters of the river claim this area frequently. Some animals make their homes here and depend on the changing river for their survival.

Just under the lip of a cut bank the kingfisher digs a tunnel into the soil, a temporary cavern that becomes a snug place to lay eggs and raise young. The warm sand provides a

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