Whether it’s a muddy marsh, woodland swamp, or temporary springtime pool—each is an important wetland found in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. What is a wetland exactly? It’s any place where water soaks or covers the soil enough to support aquatic plants, or plants adapted to water-soaked soil. Regular flooding by the Cuyahoga River and its tributaries (as well as beavers) create tree-filled wooded swamp habitat. Marshes are wetlands filled with aquatic plants like cattails that grow up and out of the water. The wetland ecosystems of CVNP provide habitat for all kinds of aquatic creatures, too, from dragonflies to muskrats.
Wetland ecosystems also affect their surrounding environment by filtering water. Wetland plants and soil help trap and clean out pollutants. Cuyahoga Valley wetlands improve the water quality of the area. How? The wetlands clean the water that flows into streams and the Cuyahoga River. Wetlands are a precious resource. Only about 10% of Ohio’s original wetlands remain. Settlers drained and filled in the soggy lands to make farm fields, towns, and roads. Thanks to habitat restoration in the park—and help from returning beavers—CVNP now has more than a thousand different wetlands covering about 1,700 acres.
Full-Time and Part-Time Wetlands
One commonly found wetland in CVNP is only wet part of the year. They are temporary shallow pools, called vernal pools. (The word “vernal” means springtime. The vernal equinox is the first day of spring.) Melting snow and winter rains fill these pools. When spring arrives, they make perfect amphibian nurseries. Frogs, toads, and salamanders can lay their eggs in the shallow water without fish (which need year-round water) preying on the amphibian eggs. Once they hatch out, the tadpoles eat aquatic plants while the larval salamanders eat small aquatic animals. The young amphibians stay in the water until they sprout legs and head out—hopefully before the pool dries up.
One CVNP wetland that stays wet year round is the Beaver Marsh. Believe it or not, the marsh was once a junkyard full of old cars and trash. Now it’s an amazing wetland ecosystem of water-loving plants and animals—from willow trees and water lilies to muskrats and dragonflies. Just after local Sierra Club volunteers cleaned up the junk in 1984, beavers made the marsh. Their dam building flooded the area before it could be developed into a parking lot, creating habitat for themselves and the foods they eat—as well as the other members of the marsh ecosystem.
Cattails and Turtle Nests
Many marsh plants provide both food and shelter to a wide variety of animals in their ecosystem. Cattails are a good example. Muskrats eat cattails and also build their mini-lodges out of the tall, stiff plants. Red-winged blackbirds perch on cattails calling to their mates. Then they build a nest among the thick blade-like leaves, lining them with fuzzy brown cattail flowerheads. The creeping roots of cattails create a thick maze both perfect for hiding prey, or hunting predators. Newts and frogs will lay eggs near the underwater roots, which also make good hiding and nesting places for fish.
An aquatic marsh resident that must leave the water to lay its eggs is the painted turtle. In the summer a female painted turtle climbs onto the shore and digs a hole nearby. She lays her inch-long eggs in the hole, covers it up with soil, and then goes back to water. Turtle parents don’t care for their young. When the baby turtles hatch out the following spring they’ll be on their own. As crazy as it sounds, the sex of the turtle hatchlings depends on temperature. The warmer the nest, the more females will be born. Often eggs at the warmer top of a nest hatch out as females, while eggs at the cooler bottom become male painted turtles. This aquatic reptile gets its name from the bright red and black patches along the underside of its top shell. Like most of the marsh’s turtles, painted turtles crowd onto logs to sunbathe. It’s just one of the many great sights to see at the Beaver Marsh.