Frank's Guide to Wetlands

By | March 1, 2017
From Xplor: March/April 2017

Hi, I’m Frank. I study wetlands. Wetlands can be muggy and buggy. They’re often soggy and stinky. You might get stuck in the muck. But wetlands aren’t wastelands. They’re wonderful places! Pull on your rubber boots and slather on some bug spray. Let’s wade in.

Marshes, swamps, fens, and wet prairies are types of wetlands. One thing they all have in common is that they’re covered with shallow water or have soggy soils at least some part of the year. Wetlands are home to all kinds of amazing plants and animals. Let’s explore this marsh and see what we find.

Emergent Marsh


Marshes have tons of plants (literally!) but not many trees. Since soils are soggy, wetland plants need ways to get oxygen to their roots. Cattails have tiny tubes in their leaves and stems that transport oxygen downward.

Black-necked stilt

The oozy mud and mucky water in a marsh is jam-packed with insects, worms, and snails. Leggy shorebirds like this black-necked stilt wade around and use their long bills to pluck up creepy crawlies for a snack.


Uh-oh. That muskrat better watch out! A sneaky mink is slinking around hunting for something to eat. These feisty, pint-sized predators feast on frogs, fish, ducks, and anything else they can catch.


If you see a mound made of mud and cattails, that’s a muskrat’s house. Muskrats are well equipped for a watery lifestyle. They have thick, waterproof fur, their webbed feet are perfect for paddling, and they can hold their breath for more than 15 minutes.

Pied-billed grebe

You might think this is a duck, but it isn’t. It’s a pied-billed grebe. When a grebe gets spooked, it sinks underwater like a feathered submarine. Watch closely. The grebe will resurface a few moments later when it thinks the coast is clear.

If you smell something stinky, it wasn’t me. Marsh bottoms pass gas. A handful of muck contains billions of bacteria and other microscopic organisms. Some of them break down dead plants and animals. As they do, they release gases that smell like rotten eggs. Pee-yoo!

Cypress swamp

Cypress swamps are found in the southeastern corner of Missouri.


Mudsnakes eat slimy, eel-like amphibians called amphiumas and sirens. These slippery critters squirm into a ball when threatened. But they’re no match for a mudsnake, which uses its pointy tail to poke its prey, causing it to uncoil for easier eating.


Sometimes wetlands dry up. Animals that live here have figured out ways to roll with the changes. Take this bowfin for example. When oxygen in the water gets scarce, bowfins gulp air at the surface to stay alive.

Bald cypress

A bald cypress tree breathes with its knees. Bald cypresses have bumpy stumps that stick out of the water. The stumps act like snorkels to carry air down to the tree’s waterlogged roots. The knees also provide a wide base to keep the tree upright in the gooey mud.

Prothonotary warbler

Wood ducks aren’t the only birds that nest in tree cavities around wetlands. Prothonotary warblers do, too. The bright, beautiful birds hop from branch to branch, plucking insects from leaves as they go.

Alligator snapping turtle

When an alligator snapping turtle gets hungry, it simply opens its mouth and wiggles its pink, worm-shaped tongue. Hungry fish mistake the tongue for an easy meal and learn too late where the name “snapper” comes from.

Swamp rabbit

This isn’t an ordinary cottontail. To escape predators, swamp rabbits hop, skip, and dive into deep water. They are strong swimmers and often come to the surface under roots to hide out until danger has passed.

Wood duck

Mama wood ducks nest in holes high up in trees. A day after they hatch, the ducklings bail out of the nest. Geronimo! The little fluffballs can fall more than 250 feet without being injured.

Unsung Wonders

Not all wetlands look wet. Some are so full of grasses and flowers that you don’t notice the soggy soil until you step onto its squishy surface.


Fens are unique wetlands found mostly in the Ozarks. They form where springs spill across the land, keeping the soil mucky for most of the year. Hine’s emerald dragonflies love these conditions. Keep your eyes peeled for the bug-eyed predators patrolling for insects to eat.

Wet Prairies

Wet prairies overflow with grasses and wildflowers. Even under this thick green carpet animals thrive. The massasauga is a small, timid rattlesnake that hibernates in crayfish burrows.


What are you waiting for? Get out and explore one of these amazing wetlands.


  • B.K. Leach Conservation Area
  • Fountain Grove Conservation Area
  • Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area
  • Nodaway Valley Conservation Area
  • Chloe Lowry Marsh Natural Area
  • Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge


  • Mingo National Wildlife Refuge
  • Duck Creek Conservation Area
  • Otter Slough Conservation Area
  • Allred Lake Natural Area
  • Hornersville Swamp Conservation Area
  • Big Oak Tree State Park


  • Grasshopper Hollow Natural Area
  • Big Buffalo Creek Conservation Area
  • Canaan Conservation Area
  • Johnson Shut-Ins State Park

Wet Prairie

  • Douglas Branch Conservation Area
  • Ripgut Prairie Natural Area
  • Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge
  • Pershing State Park

Migration Stations

Missouri is the halfway point on the Mississippi Flyway. Think of the flyway as a highway in the air that ducks, geese, and other waterbirds follow to get from northern nesting grounds to southern wintering areas. Wetland water is a virtual “duck soup” packed with seeds, snails, worms, aquatic insects, tiny fish, and plankton. Travelweary birds rest in wetlands and feast on this soup to fuel up for long flights.

Good for people too!

From bulrushes to beavers, wetlands provide homes to thousands of plants and animals. But do wetlands do anything for people? You bet!

Wetlands slow erosion.

Because they’re fairly flat, water slows down and spreads out when it flows through a wetland. This allows soil to settle out of the water before it reaches streams and rivers.

Wetlands control floods.

Wetlands act like giant sponges, soaking up heavy rainfall and releasing the water s-l-o-w-l-y into rivers and streams. This cuts back flooding for downstream cities and farms.

Wetlands offer places to play.

Wetlands are a great place to have fun outside. Many people visit wetlands to fish, hunt, and watch wildlife.

Wetlands filter pollution.

Wetland plants and soils trap chemicals that cause water pollution. This helps to keep water clean and safe to drink.

I wish everyone knew how wonderful wetlands are. That’s where you come in. Now that you know, you can show others why wetlands must be protected.

And More...

This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White