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Wetlands vs. Quicksand: Do You Know The Difference?

In your quest to better understand our environment and the global ecosystem, you may have learned about swamps, marshes, bogs, and other types of wetlands. But what about quicksand? What’s the difference between a wetland and quicksand? We have the definitive answer.

Wetlands are distinct ecosystems that are either permanently or seasonally flooded by water, resulting in wet, spongey land that plays host to a broad range of diverse plants and wildlife. Quicksand is a wet, liquified form of sand that things easily sink into, typically found near rivers or coasts.

The difference between a wetland and quicksand is pretty easy to distinguish. Still, once you explore the concept, you’ll realize that wetlands are a critical part of our environment, playing host to thousands of species and therefore in desperate need of protection.

Are Wetlands and Quicksand The Same?

Nobody can blame you for mistaking a wetland for quicksand, or the other way, considering that they both look the same to the untrained eye.

Wetlands are bodies of land that are flooded, with many plants and wildlife calling them home. These lands are also not suitable for any form of agriculture due to the oxygen-free processes that the species in wetlands have adapted themselves to. 

On the other hand, Quicksand is a mixture of granular materials like sand, silt, and clay, with water. When loose or saturated sand is mixed with water, it creates an inescapable, liquified soil that cannot sustain any weight and lacks any tensile strength.

TIP: To distinguish between the two, size is probably the easiest way to delineate them. Quicksand is typically spread across a small, demarcated piece of land, while wetlands stretch over vast distances, such as the Atchafalaya Basin swamp in Louisiana.

Furthermore, if you spot weird-looking floras, insects, and other wildlife, you’re probably in a wetland. Natural organisms in wetlands have adapted and evolved to survive and thrive within wetlands and the unique anoxic (oxygen-free) hydraulic soils.

The Difference Between Wetlands and Quicksand

When undisturbed, quicksand takes on a solid, gel-like form. But, any disturbance whatsoever – even a 1% change in stress – leads to a decrease in its viscosity (the measure of a fluid’s resistance to deformation, or simply “thickness”). 

Wetlands are not mere patches of water that you see after a rainstorm. They’re distinguished from other landforms and water bodies because they have specific water levels (a water table that stands near or at the land surface) and their biodiversity.

They are the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems. Over 100,000 different species are dependent on wetlands to survive, including animals such as newts, alligators, mosquitoes, dragonflies, birds such as grouse, herons, and storks. 

In other words, quicksand is unable to support any form of life, plants, and animals. At the same time, wetlands provide a unique, never-ending catalog of weird and wonderful species that would not exist without them.

The Different Types of Wetlands

Now that you’re familiar with what wetlands are, you’re going to get even more confused by the nuances of the English language. What is the difference between bogs, mires, marshes, swamps, and peatlands?

Water in wetlands is either freshwater, saltwater, or brack water (higher salinity than freshwater, lower than saltwater). The different types of wetlands are classified based on the water source and the species that live there.

  • Marshes have plant species dominated by herbaceous plants (no wood above their stems) rather than woody plants. They’re normally found at the edges of streams and lakes, serving as transitional land between the main water body and terrestrial land.

    They provide habitats for countless invertebrates, fish, waterfowl, aquatic mammals, and amphibians. Marshes are distinguished from swamps, bogs, and mires due to their lack of acidic peat deposits (decayed vegetation).
  • A swamp, on the other hand, will have either saltwater, freshwater, or brack water. Swamps, like marshes, contain rich, hydric soils, but their plant species are typically more woody plants such as shrubs, bushes, and trees. The waters in swamps are typically undisturbed and slow-moving.
  • Bogs and fens are two types of mires – wetlands dominated by peat-forming plants, woody plants and other plants derived from biological processes, rather than physical processes, resulting in some very strange-looking plants.

    A bog is always acidic and nutrient-deprived, but fens (which often lie on flat slopes) rely on fresh groundwater to support the various species that habitat them.
  • Peatland is merely the term used for wetlands areas dominated by peat-forming plants or decayed vegetation and plant matter. They are the most efficient carbon sinks on the planet.
The less common wetlands include mangrove forests, pocosins, floodplains, vernal pools, and countless others.

Each type of wetland has unique, defining characteristics based on their plant types and water sources, but they are all very similar in concept. 

What Wildlife Do Wetlands Support?

Wetlands provide essential habitats where several wildlife species can use their high rates of plant productivity for sustenance.

Animals can use the vegetation to feed themselves and for shelter. Wetlands’ vegetation often provides a secure place for nests, allowing migratory birds to lay their eggs in the trees and shrubs.

Let’s look at the migratory bird habitat that the wetlands provide and how they can also support mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Migratory Birds

A wetland can support breeding pairs of waterfowl, providing a place to rest, feed, stage, or roost. By supporting a nest site, wetlands provide a buffer for the nest site or simply accommodating wading birds such as the Green, Great Blue, and Black-Crowned Night Herons, and Snowy and Cattle Egrets.

Because these birds require habitats to breed and wetlands are pitstops in their migratory patterns, those creatures would have to find another place to protect their eggs and hatchlings. And, wherever they go, nothing is going to serve them quite as well as a wetland.

Mammals

Mammals in colder parts of the world that do not hibernate, such as white-tailed deer, black bears, bobcats, and moose, tend to use wetlands in the winters for food and shelter.

Wetlands also provide unique worlds for otters, muskrats, and minks who need the elements provided by wetlands to survive and thrive.

Beavers, for example, can use wetlands to construct their dams and beaver lodges. Some mammals will spend as much as two years living in a given wetland.

Reptiles & Amphibians

Amphibian species such as salamanders, toads, and frogs can live and breed in wetlands due to t the headwater seeps, springs, and streams that provide the right conditions to support their diets and habits and other specific needs.

FUN FACT: In Vermont, rare reptilian species, such as the Eastern musk turtle, spotted, and Spiny softshell turtles, are unique to wetlands and would cease to exist without them.

Plants That Grow In Wetlands

For these unique animal species to survive in their wetland environment, they rely on the unique fauna, flora, and algae that do not grow in other water bodies and on terrestrial land.

Different kinds of wetlands support different plant life. It’s determined by whether the water is fresh, salty, or brackish and whether the wetlands are permanently dry or transition between dry and wet seasonally.

Underground drainage, the water’s surface, soil composition, rainfall, temperature, and the region’s topography are other factors that influence what kind of plants will grow in wetlands.

  • Inland wetlands can be broadly categorized into ephemeral wetlands (periodic flooding and long dry periods), semi-permanent wetlands (usually flooded on an annual basis), and permanent wetlands (always or nearly always flooded).
  • Ephemeral wetlands typically yield vegetation such as lignum, river red gum, black box, coolabah, and other plants that thrive in dry areas.
  • Semi-permanent wetlands are dominated by sedges, rushes, spike-rushes, water couches, common reeds, and herbs and forbs such as water primrose and nardoo.
  • Finally, you’re most likely to see ribbon weed, marshwort, and other aquatic plants in permanent wetlands.
  • Coastal and marine wetlands, however, support very different species of plants. The plants in these wetlands have managed to adapt better to water with high levels of saline. She-oak, shrubs, tea trees, and ferns dominate these wetland areas, while seagrass such as paddle weed thrives.

Why Wetlands Are Important For The Environment

Wetlands have several functions that are beneficial to people, plants, and animals.

Wetlands contribute towards:

  • Water purification
  • Groundwater replenishment
  • Flood control
  • Carbon processing
  • The stabilization of shoreline
  • Storm protection
  • Supporting a vast range of wildlife

However, wetlands have a huge role to play in climate change migration and adaptation, and the United Nations has declared wetland ecosystems to be under more threat than any other when it comes to the predicted effects of global warming.

So exactly what makes wetlands so special, and why can’t we afford to lose them?

Chemical Processes

A good place to start is by looking at the biological and chemical processes in wetlands.

Due to their regional differences, topography, vegetation, and hydrology, wetlands can perform different functions to varying degrees. Still, several processes could occur at any given time in any given wetland, depending on the conditions.

One such process is hydrology, which concerns the chemical makeup of surface and groundwater. The sources of the hydrologic inflows are typically rainwater or groundwater, while outflows include evaporation, surface runoff, and other outflows. 

The characteristics of this hydrology determine the chemical processes that frequently lead to high levels of CO2  or nitrogen being released, both of which are determined by temperature and air pressure.

Furthermore, the PH level, salinity, nutrients, soil composition, and several other factors contribute to the hydrochemical reactions.

Due to these processes, wetlands can support certain types of wildlife and play a unique role in determining the concentration of gasses in our atmosphere.

What Critical Role Of Wetlands in The Preservation of Ecosystems

1. Flood prevention

Wetlands are typically associated with streams, rivers, and other bodies of water that can slow down floodwater and act as giant, shallow pans.

When water flows into the pans, it loses speed and spreads out; therefore playing an important role as a “sponge” that holds back uncontrollable floodwaters, saving lives and homes in the process.

2. Water filtering

The natural filters and sediments in wetlands are capable of improving water quality.

Even pathogenic bacteria from wetlands can filter our water, making it cleaner and safer for consumption.

The biological processes can even filter out pollutants, heavy metals, and pesticides that may otherwise be present in our water. So, the outgoing water from wetlands is far cleaner than the water that flows in.

3. Biodiversity

Due to wetlands’ ability to accumulate natural sediments and nutrients, many plants, like bulrushes, grasses, reeds, and trees, depending on the unique conditions that wetlands provide. At the same time, thousands of species are dependent on those plants.

Hectare for hectare, wetlands support more life than any other landform. Some species may live and depend on wetlands for their entire lives, while others may simply spend parts of their lives in wetlands.

For example, the wattled crane is only reliant on wetlands when it’s mating season. In the southern hemisphere, wetlands are of even greater importance since they are a destination for countless migratory bird species.

4. Commerce

Wetlands have been a part of industries for centuries.

  • We have used them for grazing stock.
  • We’ve used their reeds for thatching, basket weaving, and to insulate our homes.
  • We’ve also used wetlands wildlife as a food source, particularly for fishing.

Furthermore, there is a lot of educational value in wetlands, and they are a hotbed for biological research. While we’re all stressing over whether we can save wetlands and what effect it will have on our environment as a whole, some innovators are trying to construct artificial wetlands to restore some equilibrium to the ecosystem.

DID YOU KNOW? The Dubai Mangrove Forest has 500 fully developed mangroves and plans to plant a million seedlings this year and increase that yield to three million over four to five years.

Towards Wetland Conservation

Because wetlands are so incredibly unique as a natural environment for so many species of plants and animals, it should come as no surprise that many environmental activists have dedicated their lives to conservation efforts and preserving wetland habitats.

Historically, wetlands have been seen more as wastelands, fit for dumping industrial waste. They are considered to be damp and dirty and disease-ridden. Countless people have been slowly challenging that stereotype for decades, and we’ve now reached a point where awareness of the importance of wetlands is on the rise.

And, even though it could certainly be better, some significant progress has been made.

For example, the conservation of wetlands has been identified as critical in sustainable development around the world after the UN adopted securing wetland environments as one of its millennium development goals.

Over and above this, the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty designed to address the loss and degradation of wetlands, has been signed by hundreds of countries worldwide, including Brazil, Australia, China, Mexico, Indonesia, Norway, Spain, South Africa, and countless others.

It is the oldest conservation convention to deal with one habitat or ecosystem type and came into force in December 1975.

We have successfully recognized our dependence on wetlands and how important they are and will continue to be for sustainable development throughout the world. And it doesn’t even stop there.

Countless restoration ecologists have been putting efforts not only to reclaim wetlands and restore natural equilibrium but to “build” new wetlands!

Conservation efforts such as building wetlands like the mangrove forests in Dubai, as well as forest management (which I also wrote about here) can help us find a solution to many of the issues that have been presented as a consequence of climate change.

NOTE: Keeping our air and water clean and, far more importantly, providing sanctuary for thousands of the animals we share the earth with are just a couple of countless reasons we need to preserve them and stay informed.

Quicksand And Wetlands Are Not The Same Thing

If you’ve been trying to figure out what distinguishes quicksand from wetlands, you can tell that they are absolutely nothing alike!

Quicksand is merely liquified sand that cannot support any weight. Wetlands are the environments that give life to thousands of species that all form part of our inter-connected global ecosystem.

And, somewhat ironically, if we do not make our best effort to preserve our wetlands, it could feel like we’re in quicksand, watching everything cave in around us as we struggle in a futile battle for survival!

There has never been a more important time to learn about wetlands, what they do, the life they support, and to get involved in the global effort to keep them alive and thriving.