Lowland Treasures

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2007

Last revision: Dec. 1, 2010

of Missouri’s 147 native tree species, 67 are associated with bottomland forests and swamps. Many of these trees are hardwoods, which provide acorns and other important food sources for wildlife. Of Missouri’s 19 summer-resident Neotropical warblers, seven use bottomland forests and swamps as their primary breeding habitat. These bottomland communities also provide important habitat for game species like white-tailed deer, turkey and waterfowl.

When we lose these communities, we lose the wild and wonderful creatures that live in them. Ten percent of Missouri’s 1,030 species of conservation concern depend on bottomlands for their survival.

These species include the alligator gar, which has impressive dual rows of large teeth along its upper jaw. Reaching up to 10 feet in length and weighing up to 300 pounds, this mammoth fish is North America’s largest gar. In Missouri, it lives in sluggish backwaters connected to the Mississippi River.

Also of concern are less-imposing animals like the semi-arboreal golden mouse, which builds its nests in bottomland forest trees, using its tail for balance as it travels along vines and branches, and the Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, which will roost in the basal hollows of tupelo trees. In addition, biologists have noted the decline of the cerulean warbler, a summer breeder whose zray-zrayzray-zray-zeeee song was once commonly heard in Ozark bottomland forests. The cerulean forages for insects and nests high in tree canopies. It inhabits vast tracts of forests with natural gaps, which rivers and streams provide.

A number of unusual lowland plants are also imperiled. They include featherfoil, an aquatic plant with feathery leaves and air-filled stems to keep it upright in water, and corkwood, a small tree forming thickets in swamps and wet bottomlands, whose wood is lighter than cork.

Sustained and Changed by Water

Occurring along rivers and streams throughout the central and southern United States, bottomland hardwood forests develop from and depend on nutrients brought by floodwaters. For southeastern swamps as well, water is the necessary ingredient of these nearly continuously flooded wetlands dominated by trees.

Once covering large portions of floodplains—from water’s edge to bluffs—vast bottomland hardwood forests helped protect water quality by capturing silt and sediment in water and slowing and absorbing floodwaters, which helped to curb erosion downstream. Swamps served as buffers between rivers and permanently dry land, trapping nutrients from water that nourished plants and animals.

Today—especially along big rivers—levees have cut off much of our remaining bottomland forest and swamps from the flooding that was

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