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Aquatic and Marine Ecosystems—Lesson 2: Wetland Ecosystems: Freshwater Marshes and Swamps1

Karen Blyler and Joy Jordan 2

For the full version of this document, view the PDF here.

To access other sections and lessons of the Aquatic and Marine Ecosystems: Leader's Activity Guide, view the EDIS topic page here.

Lesson 2


To become familiar with freshwater wetland ecosystems.


Here are some learning activities and suggested ways to implement the activities in Lesson 2.

2.1 Discover the characteristics of a freshwater wetland with WHAT'S A WETLAND?

2.2 Learn the names of common plants and animals found in the freshwater wetland ecosystems of Florida with WETLAND BINGO.

2.3 Discover some of the functions of freshwater wetland areas in WETLANDS CAN STORE AND FILTER!

2.4 Identify the effects and impacts of the water cycle on wetlands using WETLAND RECHARGE.

2.5 Understand food chains and energy flow it wetlands with FOOD CONNECTIONS.

2.6 Discover that wetlands are not all the same with WETLAND TYPES.

2.7 Identify important functions of wetlands through WET AND WILD TRIVIA.


After completing the activities in this lesson, help youth reflect on what they learned with these questions.

  • Is water always present in a freshwater wetland?

No, wetland areas experience wet and dry cycles on a periodic basis. In some wetland types, water may never be visible at the surface but saturates the soil and influences the types of plants found there.

  • Describe how our freshwater wetlands affect the movement of water into the aquifer.

In addition to trapping soil and debris, freshwater wetlands also function as temporary water storage areas, slowly releasing the water into rivers, streams, and aquifers.

  • How do freshwater wetland plants help purify pollutants from the water?

Plants can absorb various nutrients and other pollutants through their roots.

  • Compare the differences and similarities between various wetland types: swamps and marshes, bayheads and hydric hammocks, etc.


  • Identify a freshwater wetland in your area. Call the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Forest Service, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and/or other agencies for more information.

  • Have youth draw a picture of the freshwater wetland they visited, including any plants and animals they observed. Ask each person to diagram a possible food chain that could be found in the freshwater wetland.

  • Learn more about some of the common and endangered species found in freshwater wetlands in your vicinity.

  • Draw a map of the freshwater wetland and its surrounding area. Identify possible sources of contaminants (pollution). Discuss how the wetlands function as a filter.

  • Discuss where this wetland is located. Is it near development? What are possible threats to this area?

  • Help youth to conduct a role-playing study of the ways classification of freshwater wetlands can affect their use and the limitations imposed by federal, state, and local regulations.

Background Basics

A wetland can be compared to a nursery, kitchen and bedroom for numerous species of plants and animals. Birds depend on our marshes, bayous, and flooded bottom lands for nesting sites, roosts, food, and shelter during all or part of the year. Raccoon, opossum, mink, muskrat, beaver, red fox, gray fox, and otter live in and around wetlands feeding on small mammals, aquatic life, birds, and their eggs. The white-tailed deer is found in the bottom lands, and when necessary it will depend on swamps and marshes to escape predators.

Figure 1. Many animals depend on wetlands for nesting sites, roosts, food, and shelter
Figure 1.  Many animals depend on wetlands for nesting sites, roosts, food, and shelter
Credit: Photos taken by 4-H members

Wetland plants create habitats for many of the animals mentioned above. Plants have developed in these special water-saturated environments, forming complex interrelated communities. Many individual species of plants have adapted in special ways to live in wetland areas. Cypress knees help support the tree in water-saturated soils. Carnivorous plants such as sundew and pitcher plants capture insects to supplement their nutrient requirements.


Wetlands include freshwater marshes, swamps, bottomland hardwood forests, bogs, and wet meadows. These areas are covered by water for all or at least part of the year. In some cases, water may never be visible at the surface but saturates the soil beneath. They can be formed in low lying areas subject to flooding, in depressions where water collects, along springs and rivers, or in areas where soil types delay the movement of water. The word wetlands means many things to different people, and the variety of wetland types have been classified in different ways. According to the definition developed at the 1975 National Wetland Classification and Inventory Workshop; a wetland is a land area where an excess of water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living at the soil surface. It spans a continuum of environments where terrestrial and aquatic systems integrate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has listed twenty different types of wetlands, eight freshwater and twelve salt water. (See Lesson 4 for descriptions of coastal wetlands.)

Basically, two major categories of freshwater wetlands exist: swamps and marshes. By definition, a swamp is a forested wetland containing woody plants (trees and shrubs) such as cypress, tupelo, buttonbush and red maple. Marshes are described as wetland areas dominated by grasses, sedges, and other non-woody species.

To read more about wetland functions, view the PDF version of the document here.

Learn More

To read more of the Background Basics section and the activities for Lesson 2, view the PDF here.

To access other sections and lessons of the Aquatic and Marine Ecosystems: Leader's Activity Guide, view the EDIS topic page here.


1. This document is 4H348, one of a series of the 4-H Youth Development Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date May 1998. Revised November 2014. Reviewed October 2017. Visit the EDIS website at
2. Karen Blyer, state 4-H science coordinator; and Joy Jordan, 4-H curriculum specialist (retired); UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611. Original version written by Jerry Cullen, Elise Cassie, Tammy Cushing, Wendy Flanagan, and Mike Harrington; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #4H348

Date: 1/25/2018

  • Critical Issue: Youth


  • Sarah Hensley