In everyday usage, the words marsh and swamp are often used interchangeably. As such, most people think that they refer to the same thing. At a superficial level, using the term swamp and marsh to describe the wetter areas of our world is correct. That is a result of both marshes and swamps being types of wetlands. However, from a scientific and ecological level, a marsh is quite different from a swamp and a bog is quite different than a fen. All have their own unique defining attributes.
The ultimate question is: what is the difference between a swamp and marsh (and for that matter bog and fen). Well, here is a detailed look at each of these types of wetlands so you can keep them straight!
A marsh is a wetland which is characterized mineral soils which are poorly drained, and plant life composed of mainly grasses. The defining characteristic of a marsh is that it is constantly flooded with water from a specific source. This source can either be a river, lake, steambed, pond or even ocean. Some marshes are fed by groundwater. However, the majority of them receive water from the sources mentioned above, or even from rain.
Marshes tend to be rich in mineral deposits. This is because the water movement slows down, depositing minerals on the marsh. This makes a marsh rich in plant and animal life. The majority of plants are in the grasses, rushes, and reeds.
Examples of marshes in the US include the Atchafalaya Marshes in Louisiana, the Bayou Sauvage Marshes in New Orleans, and the many marshes found along the Gulf Coast.
A swamp is a wetland which is characterized by waterlogged soils which are interspersed with areas of dry land. The defining characteristic of swamps is that they usually have an abundance of trees. Like marshes, swamps are often found on the edges of rivers, lakes or seas. The water which soaks up the soil comes from those rivers or lakes.
In fact, in most cases, swamps develop from marshes. As grasses and shrubs become thicker, they trap the water, preventing it from flowing back into the lake or river. In this now-stagnant water, trees which can withstand growing in water or water-logged soil without their roots rotting begin to grow.
As such, swamps are often rich in tree varieties. These include mangroves, cypress and some varieties of oak and maple. In ordinary usage, swamps are sometimes referred to as sloughs or bogs. However, bogs (as we shall see shortly) are quite different. In some parts of Canada, swamps are called muskegs (although in reality, muskegs are actually bogs).
Examples of swamps include the wetlands surrounding the famous rivers like Amazon, Mississippi, and Congo. Perhaps the most popular swamp in the US is the Everglades which is located in Southern Florida.
A bog is a wetland with a sealed clay bottom which prevents water from seeping out. The defining characteristic of bogs is that they lack nutrients and are unable to support life. A bog is typically formed over hundreds and thousands of years. It forms when plants decay in lakes and fill them up, forming peat.
Despite the fact that bogs arise from freshwater lakes, they lack nutrients because of the slow rate at which decay takes place. As a result of the lack of nutrients, the only plant life found in bogs is often composed of mosses, fungi, and small shrubs. Despite lacking plant life, bogs play a critical ecological role in storing carbon form the atmosphere.
Bogs typically go by many names. They are sometimes referred to as quagmires, mires or muskegs. Examples of bogs include Cranberry Glades in West Virginia, Massawippie Mire in New York and Burns Bog in British Columbia (which is the largest bog in North America).
A fen is a wetland which is formed when groundwater seeps into a depression. Similar to a bog, a fen often has a hard clay bottom which doesn’t let water through. However, the defining characteristic of a fen is that water from underground seeps into the depression through a crack in the clay bottom.
Fens also tend to have a lot of decaying matter and peat. However, they also have flowing water all year round. This water level typically rises and falls due to changes in the water table. The presence of fresh water means that fens often have a higher nutrient content, and thus support a wider variety of life. But then, if the decaying matter blocks the crack and water stops seeping in, a fen can easily become a bog.
Examples of fens include the Black Bay Fens in Boston, Massachusetts; Geneva Creek in Colorado, Wicked Fen in Cambridgeshire, England and Avaste Fen (an 88 square kilometer bog in Estonia).
Though the differences between marsh, swamp, bog, and fen often are often overlooked, they are actually very different things that are characterized by their locations, water attributes, and soil composition. Though all technically qualify as wetlands, perhaps you will be able to more accurately refer to these terms next time you ponder!