The phrase “drain the swamp” goes back many decades in reference to changing bureaucracy—and it implies that swamps are stagnant, undesirable places.
In reality, swamps are wildly productive. The swamps in the Middle East’s were a boon to agriculture and human society, and the area is considered the birthplace of civilization.
Only five percent of the continental U.S. consists of wetlands, “yet they are home to nearly one-third of all of our plant species,” and to over a third of rare and endangered plant and animal species, says Mike Hardig, a biologist at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, via email.
So what exactly is a swamp? What kinds of animals live in them, and how do they make the world a better place?
What is a swamp?
Swamps are a type of wetland “characterized by a woody vegetation including trees or shrubs,” says Elliot White, Jr., a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida’s Watershed Ecology Lab who studies coastal swamps across the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Older swamps that were never logged or converted to cropland sometimes have “a cathedral feel because the trees are very tall,” he says, and are separated by wide spaces “like columns in a large church.”
Inside swamps in Manatee Springs State Park in Florida, for example, it’s cool and dark even on the sunniest days, White says.
Darkness, “creepy crawlies,” and inaccessibility likely contributed to swamps not getting credit for all the good they do.
The swamps “gave them a place where they could roam freely without having to having to cross a road or interact with people in a way that would be dangerous,” White says.
Similarly, deer and ducks will often hang out in swamps because hunters won’t.
“Swamp microbes improve water quality,” says conservation ecologist Christine Angelini of the University of Florida via email. They do this by removing excess nitrogen from the water, she says.
What’s more, Spanish moss, commonly found in swamps, makes our air cleaner by removing airborne particles. It also harbors animals such as bats and spiders that control populations of disease-carrying mosquitos and cockroaches, Angelini says.
Plus, swamps are home to many turtle species that clean up carrion as part of their diet, like the spotted turtle of the East Coast and Great Lakes regions of the U.S.
Also, many larger filter-feeding invertebrates such as mussels live on the bottom of swamps, “cleaning the water of suspended organic remains,” Hardig says.
Alabama’s Ebenezer Swamp is dependent on beavers, “whose dams create backwater areas where many other organisms can live,” says Hardig, who heads the Ebenezer Swamp Wetlands Research and Interpretive Program.
By damming up rivers, beavers create ponds. That creates “an open water component,” which is especially important in places like Texas that have experienced recent extreme droughts, White says.
These ponds “become the watering hole for local wildlife.” (Related: Stunning Pictures — Inside Africa’s Last Wetland Wilderness)
Insects that require water to lay their eggs in, such as dragonflies and the mosquitos they eat, provide food for birds, fish, amphibians, bats, and other bugs. (Watch: The Secret World of Dragonflies)
And far from being ugly or foreboding, wetlands “provide an abundance of natural beauty that is capable of soothing the ragged psyche of typical modernite,” Hardig says.
No one ever said anything so nice about politics. We’re voting for the swamps.