Mississippi Lowland Streams

Photo of bald cypress trees and lowland habitat at Allred Lake

The landscape of southeastern Missouri’s Bootheel has changed drastically, as cropland was made from the regions’ original swampland. The lowland rivers and streams have been altered, too.

The Mississippi Lowland Aquatic Faunal Region is quite distinct from other Missouri habitats. As with all other aquatic habitats, in order to grasp the characteristics of waterways, it helps to understand the lay of the land.

The Mississippi Lowland region of southeast Missouri is a broad, low plain of alluvial soils (soils composed of clay, sand, and gravel deposited by the river). Much of these lowlands is less than 300 feet above sea level; this contrasts greatly with the nearby Ozark highlands, which can be 1,400 or more feet above sea level. The lowland region is separated from the Ozarks by an abrupt change of elevation from 50 to 250 feet.

The general flatness of these lowlands is broken only by the Benton Hills and Crowley’s Ridge, which extend in a curved line from the Mississippi River in northeastern Scott County southwestward to the St. Francis River in Dunklin County.

Bedrock is visible at the surface only along the Ozark edge and in a few places on Crowley’s Ridge; otherwise, the land is covered by hundreds of feet of alluvial soil deposited over millennia by the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In some places, the deposits are at least 2,700 feet deep.

Swampland Became Cropland

To understand the waterways of southeast Missouri, we need to look at the transformation of that region from swampland to cropland. Though it is still sometimes called “Swampeast Missouri,” not much is left of the Bootheel’s swampy presettlement landscape. Vast, sunny fields of cotton and other row crops now dominate the Bootheel.

Before settlement, the lowlands of Missouri’s Bootheel were covered by bald cypress swamps and sloughs interspersed with low, sandy ridges. The region was drained by streams that entered from the Ozarks to the north. Two of these, the Castor and Whitewater rivers, joined to form the Little River, which drained much of the interior of the lowlands. To the west, the lowlands were drained by the lower St. Francis, Black, and Little Black rivers.

In the past, almost all of the lowlands were covered by water during the wet seasons. Mississippi River floodwaters sometimes swept as far west as the St. Francis River.

But in the early 1900s, people began to clear and drain the swamps, and now the lowlands are one of the most intensively cultivated regions of Missouri.

  • The Headwater Diversion Channel was built, which shunts the flow of the upper Castor and Whitewater rivers east into the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau. This disrupted the flow of the Little River.
  • A complex network of ditches now drain the former swamplands of the Little River valley; these flow south into Big Lake, Arkansas.
  • Many other drainage projects were implemented throughout the lowlands, and today only remnants of the once-extensive swamplands remain.

Aquatic Habitats in the Lowlands Today

The only extensive areas of natural swampland remaining in the lowlands are publicly owned: Mingo Swamp, Otter Slough, Duck Creek, and Big Oak Tree State Park. Here, water levels fluctuate drastically on a seasonal basis, and current is absent. During low-water periods, the water is clear and is usually stained by tannins (organic materials that color the water brownish, like tea). The substrate is silt, often covered by leaves, sticks, and other organic debris. Woody plants include buttonbush, bald cypress, and swamp tupelo.

The principal, essentially natural streams remaining in this region are the lower St. Francis, Black, and Little Black rivers. Water clarity varies from low to moderate, and substrates are usually silt or sand, and occasionally small gravel. Riffles are few or lacking; the stream channel is basically large pools with little or no current. There is generally little aquatic vegetation, though the banks are usually tree lined.

Much of the remaining stream habitat in the region consists of the approximately 1,200 miles of drainage ditches. These ditches vary greatly in size, water clarity, current velocity, substrate type, and amount of aquatic vegetation. The ditches have well-sustained base flows because the deep sands and gravels underlying the region can store vast quantities of groundwater.

  • The biggest ditches amount to small rivers, with nearly uniform depth and considerable current; there is little plant cover, though water willow often lines the shores.
  • Some of the smaller ditches have no perceptible current, with silt and organic debris at the bottom, while others are fairly swift, with sand and small gravel on the bottom. The smaller ditches typically contain submerged aquatic plants, especially coontail, water milfoil, and various pondweeds. In the shallowest, slowest ditches, water primrose (Ludwigia sp.) is characteristic.

Plants and Animals

Compared to the flora and fauna in other parts of Missouri, those in the Bootheel are quite different. There are some 23 Missouri fish species that either confined to the lowlands or occur only occasionally elsewhere in Missouri. Many fishes of the Gulf Coastal Plain reach the northern limit of their range in the lowlands of southeastern Missouri.

 

 

The Mississippi Lowlands natural division includes the Bootheel and adjacent lowlands of southeastern Missouri, including all of Stoddard, Scott, Mississippi, New Madrid, Dunklin, and Pemiscot counties, and parts of Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Wayne, Butler, and Ripley counties.

Media
Illustration of buttonbush leaves, flowers, fruits.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Cephalanthus occidentalis
Description
White flowers clustered in round balls give buttonbush its name. It's always found near water, and thickets of buttonbush help protect lakeshores from wave action. This shrub is also planted as an ornamental.
Media
Illustration of bald cypress leaves and cones.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Taxodium distichum
Description
Bald cypress is an “evergreen” tree that is not evergreen! Like the leaves of hardwoods, its needles turn yellow in the fall and are shed. A tree associated with dark, mysterious swamps, its impressive form also graces many public landscapes.
Media
Photo of coontail aquatic plant with penny for scale
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ceratophyllum demersum
Description
Coontail, a common submerged aquatic plant, got its name from the crowded upper leaves, which make the stem tip appear bushy like the tail of a raccoon.
Media
Photo of water milfoil plants along the shore of a pond
Species Types
Scientific Name
Myriophyllum spp.
Description
Water milfoils are feathery aquatic plants that grow rooted in shallow water. Their tips emerge above the waterline and bear bladelike, toothed leaves.
Media
Photo of American pondweed leaves floating on water surface
Species Types
Scientific Name
Potamogeton spp.
Description
Pondweeds are rooted aquatic plants with underwater leaves on long, flexible, jointed stems. Some have floating leaves, too, that are differently shaped. Missouri has about 10 species in the pondweed genus.
Media
Photo of water primrose plant showing typical roots, leaves, stems, and a flower
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ludwigia peploides
Description
Water primrose is a common shoreline plant with bright yellow flowers and long, trailing stems. It grows in dense mats in the shallow areas of ponds, lakes, and streams.
Media
Gray, speckled, translucent gelatinous blob cut in half to show structure
Species Types
Scientific Name
Freshwater species in the phylum Bryozoa
Description
Bryozoans are tiny, filter-feeding invertebrates. They create colonies that can be mossy, branching, or round and jellylike.
Media
Photo of a pink planarian on a rock.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Dugesia, Planaria, and other genera
Description
Unlike their parasitic cousins in the flatworm group, turbellarians, or planarians, are tiny carnivores or detritus-eaters that glide smoothly across submerged leaves and other objects.
Media
Photo of a leech
Species Types
Scientific Name
Various species in the subclass Hirudinea
Description
Who isn't repulsed by leeches! Yet once you get past the fact that many species are parasitic bloodsuckers, you will discover that they are fascinating creatures.
Media
Photo of a horsehair worm in an aquarium
Species Types
Scientific Name
About 350 species scientifically described.
Description
Adult horsehair worms can be nearly 3 feet long and live in water. They are practically featureless, smooth, aquatic worms that writhe into knots and curls.
Media
Photo of an aquatic tubificid worm among rocks in an aquarium.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Tubifex spp. and other aquatic tubificid annelids
Description
Tubificid worms, as a group, include the tubifex worms that aquarists feed to their pet fish. These segmented worms are related to earthworms and like them are detritus eaters.
Media
pond mussel
Species Types
Scientific Name
Bivalve molluscs in order Unionoida
Description
Secretive and seldom seen, freshwater mussels are extraordinarily diverse in Missouri. We have nearly 70 species within our borders. Many are declining, and several are endangered.
Media
Bluefer
Species Types
Scientific Name
Potamilus purpuratus
Description
Like the pink heelsplitter and fragile and pink papershells, the bluefer uses freshwater drum as a host.
Media
fragile papershell
Species Types
Scientific Name
Leptodea fragilis
Description
A widespread mussel that relies on freshwater drum as host fish for the developing young.
Media
lilliput
Species Types
Scientific Name
Toxolasma parvus
Description
These diminutive mollusks are the smallest of Missouri’s freshwater mussels.
Media
wartyback
Species Types
Scientific Name
Quadrula nodulata
Description
This favored habitat of this vulnerable species is large streams or rivers in firm sand and mud. The bumps on the shell may help to anchor it in the river bottom.
Media
Photo of crane fly larva
Species Types
Scientific Name
There are over 500 species of crane flies in North America.
Description
Crane fly larvae are tan or gray grubs that live in aquatic habitats or in moist places on the ground. The harmless adults resemble huge mosquitoes.
Media
Photo of a damselfly nymph on rocks in an aquarium.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Species in the suborder Zygoptera
Description
Damselfly larvae are narrow-bodied aquatic insects with large eyes, six thin legs, and three paddle-shaped, tail-like gills at the hind end.
Media
Photo of a dragonfly larva resting on a stone.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Species in the suborder Anisoptera
Description
Dragonfly larvae are aquatic insects with large eyes, six legs, and an oval or rounded segmented abdomen. The lower jaws are scooplike and cover much of the lower part of the head.
Media
Photo of a mayfly naiad crawling on rock underwater
Species Types
Scientific Name
There are hundreds of species in North America.
Description
Mayfly larvae, or nymphs, live from months to years under water, breathing through gills, and the adults fly around in the air, mating, living for only a day or two.
Media
Photograph of several mosquito larvae resting at water surface
Species Types
Scientific Name
There are about 50 species of mosquitoes in our state.
Description
The larvae of mosquitoes, often called “wrigglers,” have a large head and thorax and a narrow, wormlike abdomen; they typically hang just below the water surface. When disturbed, they wriggle downward.
Media
Photo of a giant water bug
Species Types
Scientific Name
Species in the genera Abedus, Belostoma, and Lethocerus
Description
Giant water bugs are huge aquatic insects that frequently fly around electric lights at night. They are infamous for the painful bite they can deliver, but fish, birds — and some people — find them tasty!
Media
Photo of backswimmer, side view
Species Types
Scientific Name
About 32 North American species in the family Notonectidae
Description
Sometimes called “water bees” or “water wasps,” backswimmers are predaceous and can deliver a painful bite if mishandled. True to their name, they swim belly-up, and their backs are keeled like a boat, which makes back-swimming easier.
Media
Photo of a whirligig beetle viewed from above
Species Types
Scientific Name
Species in the beetle family Gyrinidae
Description
Groups of whirligig beetles swim on the water surface in quick, random patterns, searching for food. They have two pairs of eyes — one pair above water, one pair below — to help them quickly and accurately capture their prey.
Media
Photo of a gravid Mississippi grass shrimp in an aquarium.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Palaemonetes kadiakensis
Description
Of Missouri’s two species of freshwater shrimp, the Mississippi grass shrimp is by far the most common and widespread.
Media
Photo of a spothanded crayfish viewed from above on white background.
Species Types
Scientific Name
About 36 species in Missouri
Description
Crayfish are freshwater aquatic invertebrates that look a lot like small lobsters, to which they are related. There are about 36 species of crayfish in Missouri.
Media
Pirate perch female, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Aphredoderus sayanus
Description
The pirate perch is a small, grayish fish that is heavily speckled with black, with only one dorsal fin. It occurs in Missouri's southeastern lowlands, nearby parts of the Ozarks, and in a few locations along the Mississippi River.
Media
Longnose gar side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lepisosteus osseus
Description
The longnose gar has a longer, narrower snout than our other three gars and is the most widely distributed gar in Missouri.
Media
Bowfin side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Amia calva
Description
The bowfin is a stout-bodied, nearly cylindrical fish. It is most abundant in the Mississippi Lowlands, though it occurs along the entire length of the Mississippi River.
Media
Common carp side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Cyprinus carpio
Description
The common carp is a "whopper" member of the minnow family. Originally from Asia, it was actively stocked in America in the 1800s and was firmly established in Missouri by 1895.
Media
Black crappie, male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Pomoxis nigromaculatus
Description
The black crappie is a popular panfish. It is deep bodied and slab sided. The sides are silver with an irregular pattern of dark speckles. The upper jaw is long, reaching past the middle of the eye.
Media
Largemouth bass side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Micropterous salmoides
Description
The largemouth bass is a popular game fish that occurs statewide. It thrives in warm, moderately clear waters with little or no current: lakes, permanent pools of streams, and quiet backwaters of large rivers.
Media
Longear sunfish, spawning male, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lepomis megalotis
Description
The longear sunfish is deep-bodied, slab-sided, with a moderate-sized mouth, the upper jaw nearly reaching the front of the eye. It is by far the most abundant and generally distributed sunfish over the southern half of Missouri.
Media
Smallmouth bass side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Micropterus dolomieu
Description
The smallmouth bass is a popular gamefish mostly found in cool, clear Ozark streams and large reservoirs in the Ozarks. It's less common in the upper Mississippi River and its principal prairie tributaries that have clear water and permanent flow.
Media
Warmouth male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lepomis gulosus
Description
The warmouth is a thick-bodied, large-mouthed sunfish that occurs widely over the southern and eastern parts of Missouri. Note the 4 or 5 reddish-brown streaks radiating from the red eye across the side of the head.
Media
A black salamander with dark silver bands on its tail walks on a concrete pad.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ambystoma opacum
Description
Unlike many of its close relatives, this salamander breeds in the autumn instead of early spring, and on land instead of in water. Females lay their eggs near a pond, curl protectively around them, then wait until rains make the pond water high enough to cover the eggs.
Media
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ambystoma talpoideum
Description
The large-headed, dull gray or brown mole salamander is rarely seen because it spends almost all its time below ground. In Missouri, it is restricted to the lowlands of our southeastern counties.
Media
Photo of a three-toed amphiuma in an aquarium.
Species Types
Scientific Name
Amphiuma tridactylum
Description
The three-toed amphiuma is an eel-like, completely aquatic salamander. It has very small fore- and hind limbs, each with three very small toes. In Missouri it’s found only in the Bootheel region.
Media
Image of an eastern spadefoot
Species Types
Scientific Name
Scaphiopus holbrookii
Description
The eastern spadefoot is a stout, toadlike amphibian with large, protruding eyes, vertically elliptical pupils, short legs, and large feet. In Missouri, it occurs in eastern counties along the Mississippi River and in the Bootheel.
Media
Image of an eastern narrow-mouthed toad
Species Types
Scientific Name
Gastrophryne carolinensis
Description
The eastern narrow-mouthed toad is an unusual, plump little amphibian that is seldom seen. There is a fold of skin behind its narrow, pointed head. It occurs in the southern half of the state.
Media
Image of a green treefrog
Species Types
Scientific Name
Hyla cinerea
Description
The bright green treefrog hides perfectly among cattail leaves, where it rests ;until evening. Then it begins hunting for insects.
Media
Image of an illinois chorus frog
Species Types
Scientific Name
Pseudacris illinoensis
Description
With its stout body and thick forearms, the rare Illinois chorus frog may at first appear more like a toad. It lives in open, sandy areas that were formerly sand prairie grasslands and wetlands of southeastern Missouri.
Media
Image of alligator snapping turtle
Species Types
Scientific Name
Macrochelys temminckii
Description
In Missouri, alligator snapping turtles are protected, and it is illegal to harvest them.
Media
Eastern musk turtle (stinkpot)
Species Types
Scientific Name
Sternotherus odoratus
Description
The eastern musk turtle is one of the world’s smallest turtles. It has a dark, domed upper shell and reduced lower shell. It occurs along our Mississippi River counties and in the southern two-thirds of the state.
Media
Image of an eastern river cooter (turtle)
Species Types
Scientific Name
Pseudemys concinna concinna
Description
The eastern river cooter is a broad-shelled aquatic turtle with a seemingly small head. It is most abundant in the rivers and sloughs of southern Missouri but also has taken up residence in some of our large reservoirs.
Media
Eastern Spiny Softshell
Species Types
Scientific Name
Apalone spinifera spinifera
Description
The eastern spiny softshell is a medium to large softshell turtle with small bumps or spines on the front edge of the upper shell. There are dark spots on the fore- and hind limbs. ;
Media
Image of a false map turtle
Species Types
Scientific Name
Graptemys pseudogeographica pseudogeographica
Description
The false map turtle is a medium-sized aquatic species with a low ridge along the center of the upper shell. A thick yellow line behind each eye forms a backward L shape. It occurs in large rivers and reservoirs in central, northeastern, northwestern, and southeastern Missouri.
Media
Species Types
Scientific Name
Kinosternon subrubrum hippocrepis
Description
Although well equipped for an aquatic existence, the Mississippi mud turtle spends as much time wandering about on land as it does in water. Look for it in the Mississippi Lowlands of Missouri’s Bootheel.
Media
painted turtle
Species Types
Scientific Name
Chrysemys picta bellii
Description
The western painted turtle is a small semiaquatic turtle. It has a smooth upper shell with a red-orange outer edge. The lower shell is red-orange with a prominent pattern of brown markings. It is found nearly everywhere in the state except the southeast region.
Media
Image of a western mudsnake
Species Types
Scientific Name
Farancia abacura reinwardtii
Description
The western mudsnake is a harmless swamp dweller of Missouri's Bootheel lowlands. It is burdened with misinformation and imaginative folklore. But ;it turns out that fact is more interesting than fiction.
Media
Image of a broad-banded watersnake
Species Types
Scientific Name
Nerodia fasciata confluens
Description
The broad-banded watersnake is a beautiful semiaquatic snake with broad, irregularly shaped bands that can be brown, red-brown, or black and are separated by yellow and gray. This nonvenomous species is restricted to the southeastern corner of the state.
Media
Image of a Mississippi green watersnake
Species Types
Scientific Name
Nerodia cyclopion
Description
The Mississippi green watersnake is a medium-sized, heavy-bodied, dark-colored semiaquatic snake that was once somewhat common in southeastern Missouri. It probably no longer occurs in our state at all.
Media
Image of a yellow-bellied watersnake
Species Types
Scientific Name
Nerodia erythrogaster
Description
The plaiin-bellied watersnake is a medium-sized, heavy-bodied, dark-colored, semiaquatic snake with a plain yellow belly. It is found throughout southeastern Missouri and north along the Mississippi River floodplain.
Media
Diamond-Backed Watersnake
Species Types
Scientific Name
Nerodia rhombifer
Description
The diamond-backed watersnake is our largest watersnake. It has light-colored, diamond-shaped markings along the back. It's ;common in the southeastern corner and over northern and western Missouri, but it ;doesn’t occur in the Ozarks or in our extreme northern counties.
Media
Image of a northern cottonmouth
Species Types
Scientific Name
Agkistrodon piscivorus
Description
The cottonmouth is named for the cotton-white lining of its mouth, which it opens wildely when alarmed. This dangerously venomous, semiaquatic snake occurs in the southeastern corner of Missouri, with a spotty distribution in the Ozark Region.
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