The three-toed amphiuma is one of Andy West’s favorite animals. Most Missourians have never seen this secretive eel-like animal, which is North America’s largest amphibian, but West has seen several of them in their swamp habitat at Duck Creek Conservation Area near Puxico in southeastern Missouri. “They are one of the coolest animals we have, and they are so well adapted to this swamp community,” said West. “It is exciting that we have a viable breeding population of this imperiled species. For me, the amphiumas are a beacon of hope for this area.”
West, a wildlife management biologist for the Department of Conservation’s southeastern region, along with his colleagues in the Department, at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and with other conservation groups, have a formidable task before them: Restore natural hydrologic conditions to the Mingo Basin Conservation Opportunity Area (COA). “Our goal is to have healthy bottomland forest and wetland communities by reconnecting them to the water patterns that originally sustained them,” said West.
Comprised of Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, Duck Creek Conservation Area and private land, the Mingo Basin COA conserves 17,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests and cypress-tupelo swamps. This is the largest remaining tract of bottomland hardwood forest anywhere in the state, and the largest network of bottomland forest, swamps, sloughs and ox-bows in the south- eastern Missouri lowlands. This area and other remaining bottomland communities throughout the state provide important habitat for a diversity of rare and endangered plants and animals.
Since statehood, industrious Missourians have ditched, drained, cleared and plowed most of Missouri’s bottomland hardwood forests and many swamps, not just in the southeast but throughout the state, especially in the large floodplains of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They deemed the trees too valuable not to cut, and the relatively flat land too rich not to be cleared and cultivated. Bottomland hardwood timber and rich bottomland soil have contributed greatly to Missouri’s agricultural economies.
The trade-off has been a dramatic loss of our bottomland hardwood forests and swamps. Once covering an estimated 9 percent, or 4 million acres, of Missouri, we now have only 800,000 acres of bottomland forests. After prairies, swamps of southeastern Missouri are the rarest of all natural communities in the state. The only ones left are those that were too difficult to drain.
These natural communities are wealthy not only in extractable resources for people, but in biological diversity. For example, 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.
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 their lifeblood. In other areas, bottomland forests and swamps often receive more water than they can handle as runoff from urbanization and channelization of streams has created more intensive and prolonged flooding.
In both instances, the makeup of trees and other species in these bottomland communities has changed. Pollutants carried by water, such as pesticide runoff and excessive sediment, also affect the health of bottomland forests and swamp species.
For example, the western chicken turtle is a sight predator, meaning it has to see its prey. But increased sedimentation has made swamp water murky, instead of its natural clear, tannin-stained color, making it hard for this swamp reptile to feed. Populations of swamp fish such as the bantam sunfish and flier are also vulnerable because the clear, quiet, heavily vegetated water they need is rare.
In the Mingo Basin COA, Andy West and his colleagues make use of many tools to plan restoration of the area’s bottomland communities. Technology such as remote sensing is used to compare present land contours with maps of pre-drainage topography.
Flying over the area helps as well. “There is still a fingerprint on the land,” said West. “From the air, you can see differences in soil color and texture that provide clues to the original configuration of water and land.
“Eventually, we’ll use some of the same tools that were used to drain and clear the area—like bulldozers and other heavy machinery—to reshape parts of the land to favor natural water flows,” said West. Restoring natural conditions will help with other conservation efforts in the COA, like improving plant species diversity and reestablishing alligator gar.
“Our most important tools, however,” said West, “are cooperation and communication with our partners in this area, including our neighbors in agriculture. It is always easier to work with nature rather than against it, and I think by working with nature, we can find restoration solutions that benefit everyone here.”
Swales and very wet forests are often cut off from rivers and streams by natural levees created from gravel and silt deposits. Here is where the true hardwoods begin, with trees and other plants that can tolerate frequent, low-energy, backwater flooding and saturated soils. Pin, willow and overcup oaks in the canopy can reach 110 feet, and due to frequent standing water, there isn’t much of an understory or plant layer on the ground. In the southeastern lowlands, water oak, pumpkin ash and swamp privet also grow in these forests. When they are dry, wet bottomland forests are open and easy to hike through.
This is where the true giants grow. On terraces of streams and river floodplains throughout Missouri, bur, pin and swamp white oaks, pecans and shellbark hickory can grow 140 feet tall. The Nuttall oak, which grows in these forests in the southeastern lowlands, is state-imperiled due to diminishing habitat. At the base of slopes and bluffs, where flooding is rare, the understory and ground layers are developed. These forests are usually carpeted with spring wildflowers like bluebells, blue-eyed Mary and larkspur, and morel patches are often abundant. Pawpaw, spicebush, leatherwood, musclewood and Ohio buckeye are in the understory. Along the Current and Eleven Point rivers, stands of native bamboo, called canebrakes, can also be seen. They provide important habitat for the state-imperiled Swainson’s warbler. White oak, sugar maple, bitternut hickory and black walnut are some of the trees in the canopy, and in the Bootheel, sweet gum and swamp chestnut oak can be found. Mesic bottomland hardwood forests are found throughout the state, with the Ozarks having the largest remaining patches.
Closest to the water, these forests are typically made up of silver maple, sycamore, box elder and other softwood tree species. Grape vines and other plants that can handle lots of disturbance thrive here. These forests can bear—and depend on—the brunt of flooding. Floodwaters help disperse the floatable seedheads of cottonwoods and silver maples. Flooding stimulates willow and ash trees to produce new, air-filled roots. Riverfront forests often have an “untidy” appearance, with deposits of silt, sand, gravel and driftwood on the forest floor. With the construction of levees, often far inland from riverbanks, many riverfront forests have expanded, growing where bottomland hardwood forests once did.
Missouri’s swamps have always been almost completely confined to the southeastern lowlands, an area once covered by about 2.4 million acres of interconnected cypress-tupelo swamps, bottomland hardwood forests, backwater sloughs and ox-bows. The acreage of these natural communities has been greatly reduced, but what remains adds greatly to Missouri’s natural diversity and harbors many species of conservation concern. Bald cypress trees—some up to 400 years old—provide habitat for nesting bald eagles and the bald cypress katydid, which lives among its branches. The harmless and seldom-seen western mud snake hides out under logs in shallow swamps and preys upon the completely aquatic western lesser siren and three-toed amphiuma. These snakes will also eat mole salamanders, which take shelter and breed in shallow, fishless bottomland pools and swamp leaf litter. Swamp rabbits are well-adapted to their habitat by being good swimmers. They can escape predators by diving into water and paddling with all four feet. Unfortunately, despite a high reproductive rate, they, like so many other swamp species, are declining due to the rarity of their lowland habitats.
If you are a landowner with existing or historic bottomland hardwood forest or swamps on your property, there are many things you can do to conserve or restore these rare natural communities:
Visit bottomland forests and swamps such as Mingo NWF or Duck Creek CA to learn more about these lowland treasures.
New this year: Course certified by U.S. Track and Field and chip timing!
Are you ask quick as a swamp rabbit? Or do you prefer a leisurely pace, like a western chicken turtle? These animals live in bottomland forests and swamps, which is the theme of the 9th Annual Endangered Species Walk/Run Race on Oct. 13. You can help protect Missouri’s endangered animals and plants and help keep their habitats healthy by participating in this event. You can run, walk, or even push a baby stroller!
Race proceeds go toward helping endangered species in Missouri. Funds from past races have been used to study rare wetland birds and cave fish, develop techniques to propagate pallid sturgeon, Topeka shiners and rare freshwater mussels for reintroduction efforts, and to create educational materials about the decline of Indiana bats and Ozark hellbenders.
In addition to helping protect Missouri’s natural diversity, participants will receive a T-shirt featuring bottomland forests and swamps. Winners will receive medals depicting Missouri endangered species.
This event is hosted by the Missouri departments of Conservation, Natural Resources, and Health and Senior Services, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Jefferson City Parks, Recreation, and Forestry. Sponsors include ColorGraphic Printing of Springfield, Wal-mart, AmerenUE and the St. Louis zoo.
Details of the race, youth teams and postcard contest are available online.
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