Swamps and marshes are unique ecosystems on Planet Earth. Whilst the terms can be used interchangeably, there are some subtle differences between the two systems.
A swamp, for example, is a wetland habitat that is at least partially covered in deep, standing water. Marshes, on the other hand, have rich, waterlogged soils that can support a wide range of plant life.
So, what are some animals that live in swamps and marshes?
Swamps and marshes can be found on each continent on our planet and support a rich diversity of life. Predators, such as turtles, snakes, and panthers hunt prey in and around the water. Additionally, herbivorous mammals, such as antelope and capybara, are attracted to the diversity of aquatic vegetation.
Some animals can be found exclusively in swamps and marshes. Others find themselves following seasonal weather patterns.
Here are 25 animals that can be found in swamps and marshes.
Let’s begin by exploring the species that are found in North American swamps and marshes.
Alligator Snapping Turtle
With their spikey, algae-covered armor and powerful jaws, the alligator snapping turtle looks as if it has come straight from the world of Pokémon.
Thought to be the largest freshwater turtle species in North America, weighing up to 90kg, the alligator snapping turtle can be found in swamps, marshes, and other sources of freshwater.
They are silent assassins, remaining submerged and motionless. Their only giveaway is their lure-like tongue, which somewhat resembles a wiggling, aquatic invertebrate – at least to curious fish.
With a bite force of over 1,000 lbs, the alligator snapping turtle can tear through the flesh and bone of almost any prey species.
Banded Water Snake
A semi-aquatic serpent, the banded water snake can be found in the vast Everglades of Florida, where they bask on logs or branches above water. However, they can also be found in swamps, marshes, and wetlands across Southeastern USA.
They are expert swimmers, effortlessly gliding through the water in search of fish or amphibians, such as frogs.
They can grow up to a meter in length and show ruddy coloration with darker color bands.
Banded water snakes are non-venomous, but will not hesitate to defend themselves against potential predators by delivering a painful bite. Like skunks, they will also release a foul-smelling odor to deter predators.
Living up to its name, the small body of the black-necked stilt sits upon two incredibly long, thin legs.
This bird uses these long legs to wade through shallow stretches of water. This water can be either fresh or saltwater, but the black-necked stilt seems to have a preference for marches with a high abundance of invertebrate species.
Being ground-nesting birds, chicks are susceptible to predation from both terrestrial predators, such as raccoons, and aerial predators, such as gulls. To minimize predation risks, the adults will feign an injury away from their nest. But this is also a deceitful show to distract predators from their vulnerable fledglings.
Growing to lengths of over 8 inches, the bullfrog is the largest frog species in North America.
And they have a voice to match.
Their deep, guttural call resonates through swamps and marshlands, from Nova Scotia all the way down to Mexico. The mating sound of the males is so deep, it is comparable to that of a bull.
Bullfrogs are nocturnal hunters, patiently waiting for prey to come within striking distance. They will consume just about anything they can fit in their mouths. Insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and other amphibians are all on the menu.
Females are slightly bigger than males and can lay up to 20,000 eggs in a single clutch!
Stealthy and elusive, the Florida panther is one of the most endangered species in the world. It is estimated that just 200 remain in the wild.
Although 200 doesn’t sound like many (and it really isn’t), the Florida Panther has been deemed somewhat of a conservation success story as, back in the 1970s, just 20 individuals remained.
These large felines are a subspecies of the mountain lion and can be found in the swamps and marshlands of Southern Florida, such as the Everglades and Big Cypress National Reserve.
Despite the conservation comeback, the Florida Panther has a plethora of threats still threatening their survival. A low genetic diversity means they are susceptible to a range of diseases. Hunting and persecution, habitat loss, car accidents, and pollution also put the Florida panther at greater risk.
Like all felines, the Florida panther is a strict carnivore. They predominantly prey upon mammals such as white-tailed deer, feral hogs, and raccoons. However, they will also consume reptiles and birds.
The diversity of South American swamps and marshes is also incredible, so let’s take a look!
Halfway between a flamingo and a cooking utensil, the spoonbill is a wading bird with a clever adaptation.
Their large, spoon-shaped bill isn’t evolution gone wrong.
On the contrary.
Spoonbills can be found throughout swamps and marshes of Central and South America. They use their bills to search the shallow, often murky water, for small invertebrates, mollusks, and crustaceans. The large surface area of the bill helps identify and pick up more prey through touch alone, meaning they do not need to rely as heavily on their other senses.
Like flamingos, the spoonbill gets its coloration from the carotenoids found within their crustacean prey. They also have been observed sleeping on one leg.
Weighing up to 80kg, the capybara is the largest living rodent species anywhere on Earth.
They can be found in swamps, wetlands, rivers, and forests across South America. The Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland system, houses one of the strongest capybara populations, with some 500,000 strong.
Capybaras look like overgrown guinea pigs, with short, dense hair, stubby legs, and small ears. Unfortunately for them, capybaras are the main food source for a wide range of species across South America – from reptiles, such as caimans and anacondas, to mammals such as the jaguar.
To evade predators, capybaras dive into a nearby water source. They are excellent swimmers and can even dive underwater to escape predators.
Big-Headed Pantanal Swamp Turtle
Well, this one really does what it says on the tin.
This semi-aquatic turtle has a big head and can be found in the swampy habitat of the Pantanal. Do I need to go any further?
The big-headed Pantanal swamp turtle is a medium-sized, freshwater turtle. As well as the Pantanal, it has also been observed in Bolivia and Paraguay.
However, due to the illusive behavior, and often inaccessible habitat, not much information is known about this reptile.
Scientists speculate that reproduction occurs between April and May – the dry season – where up to 8 hard-shelled eggs are laid within a small, terrestrial nest. Incubation is thought to be as long as 6 months, perhaps to coincide with the wet season, when prey availability increases.
The big-headed Pantanal swamp turtle preys on snails and other small mollusks.
Close to 1.5 meters tall, and nearly 2 meters in length, the marsh deer is the largest deer species in South America.
Due to human hunting pressures and habitat loss, marsh deer have been restricted to the swampy marshlands of the Pantanal and Chaco regions. However, fragmented populations exist throughout Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay.
They are adept swimmers, with a special membrane between their hooves, which acts like webbing to propel themselves through the water. They use the water to forage and escape predators.
Marsh deer are seasonal migrators. This means they follow the water levels of the dry and wet seasons.
Named after the famous British naturalist, Charles Darwin, the Darwin’s frog is a small, triangular-headed amphibian native to the swampy forests of Chile and Argentina.
Being small, no longer than 3cm, they are at risk of predation from a range of species. To avoid detection, the Darwin’s frog relies on its cryptic coloration. It camouflages itself with the surrounding leaf litter and gives off the appearance of a dead leaf.
One of the most unusual behaviors observed in this species is their method of raising young.
Like other amphibian species, the Darwin’s frog lays eggs. After a month or so, when the developing embryos begin to move, the male Darwin’s frog ingests the eggs!
No, he’s not after an easy snack.
Instead, the male Darwin’s frog stores his offspring in his vocal sac, where the embryos will develop for a further 3 days. The now tadpoles will remain within the male’s vocal sac, feeding off their egg yolk, until they are ready to metamorphize – at about 6 weeks of age. After this head start, the young frogs are on their own.
Let’s check out the critters that live in European swamps and marshes.
In a fleeting flash of metallic blue and vibrant orange, the common kingfisher is a sight to behold as it whizzes low and fast down the waterways of Europe.
When not in flight, the common kingfisher can be seen perching on branches overhanging a water source. Kingfishers can be found in most freshwater bodies, as long as they are clean and unpolluted.
A kingfisher needs to consume its own body weight in fish every day to survive. This is about 30 – 50 grams per day. The favorite prey of the kingfisher includes minnows and sticklebacks but, if these aren’t readily available, they will also consume aquatic invertebrates.
The kingfisher hunts by launching itself into a body of water below, striking its prey beak first. Underwater, the kingfisher protects its eyes with a third eyelid.
Eurasian Water Shrew
Found almost exclusively in swamps, marshes, and wetland habitats across much of Europe, the water shrew is one of the largest shrew species.
The water shrew hunts invertebrates, either on the banks of a water source or within the water (when hunting aquatic insects, such as caddisfly and dragonfly larvae). They are good swimmers, despite not having webbed feet. Instead, stiff hairs on their back feet act like flippers and propel them through the water.
Like the platypus, found in the rivers and lakes of Australia, the water shrew is venomous – one of the only venomous mammals in the world. They possess a mild toxin, found in the saliva, that enables them to stun prey. They also use this venom as an anti-predator defense strategy.
This striking black and yellow European amphibian is advertising to the world that it is incredibly toxic and should not be messed with. The use of these warning colorations is known as aposematism.
Not only does the skin of the fire salamander contain glands that release toxins, but it also has the ability to squirt a poisonous substance from a gland found between its eyes. The toxins are strong enough to seriously harm, sometimes even kill, animals that get too close.
Fire salamanders can be found in forests and swamps across Central Europe. Like all amphibians, fire salamanders need a water source to reproduce and lay their eggs. However, the fire salamander is referred to as lecithotrophic viviparity. This means the larvae hatch as soon as the eggs are laid.
Like some species of lizards and geckos, fire salamanders have the amazing ability to heal themselves. If threatened or attacked, they can detach an appendage, such as their toe, tail, or even whole legs. Known as caudal autotomy, fire salamanders can regenerate lost limbs.
From one amphibian to another. This time, we’re sticking with Anura – or frogs.
The marsh frog is the largest frog species in Europe, growing up to 15 cm. They are often mottled green and can be found in open areas of wetlands and marshes, where sunlight can easily penetrate the water below.
During the breeding season, typically late spring into early summer, male marsh frogs advertise their willingness to mate by emitting loud, laugh-like croaks. Two vocal sacs, found on either side of their mouth, fill with air and amplify the calls. The croaking call can be heard from hundreds of meters away.
Males not only croak to attract a mate but also to make other males aware of their presence. The only downside is that other males in the vicinity have the same idea. As a result, an entire wetland ecosystem comes alive with the sound of males croaking.
The grass snake is widely distributed around Europe, ranging from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean.
Not only is it the longest snake in the UK, growing lengths of up to 1.5 meters, but it is also the only egg-laying snake.
Grass snakes can be found in a variety of habitats, such as grasslands and gardens; however, they are often found close to a water source, especially in marshy areas and swamps. They will often be seen swimming through a water source, hunting for a range of prey species, including fish and amphibians.
Although they are non-venomous and do not bite when threatened, they have a clever defense strategy. Like opossums, grass snakes play dead. If threatened, they will roll on their back and close their eyes. If that strategy doesn’t work, they excrete a foul-smelling substance out of their anal glands. Tasty.
It’s time to explore the incredible swamp and marsh animals of the African continent!
Allen’s Swamp Monkey
Native to the lowland forests of Central Africa, the Allen’s swamp monkey can be found in groups of up to 40 individuals.
They spend much of their time around water, especially swamps, where they forage for fruits, seeds, insects, fish, and crustaceans. Although they are mainly arboreal, they will wade into shallow waters to look for aquatic prey.
The Allen’s swamp monkey leads a fission-fusion society. This means that, whilst there can be as many as 40 individuals in a group, especially in communal sleeping areas, small groups break off to forage independently. When together, they practice social grooming to strengthen bonds.
Although the Allen’s swamp monkey is not currently endangered, they are hunted for bushmeat and killed in retaliation for crop raids. They are also readily taken from the wild to fuel the exotic pet trade.
Also referred to as the marshbuck, the sitatunga is a species of antelope that can be found in swamps and marshes across East and South Africa.
They are well adapted to the soft, swampy terrain. They have elongated wide-splayed hooves. This enables the sitatunga to spread its weight evenly over a larger surface area to prevent it from sinking into the mud.
Males are often a chocolate-brown coloration with white banding around the body. Males will also develop ivory-coated, spiraling horns, which can be used for territorial displays with other males.
If seriously alarmed, the sitatunga can dive into deeper water. They can stay near fully emerged, only their nostrils can be seen poking above the water. Their strong legs power them through the water
Spiny Throated Reed Frog
In our over-exploited world, it seems unimaginable that there are still species yet to be described by science.
Yet, a group of scientists has recently discovered a new species of spiny-throated reed frog in the Ukuguru mountains of Central Tanzania.
There are currently 7 recorded species of spiny-throated reed frogs. However, this new discovery is only found in a small swampy region of Eastern Africa. As the name suggests, they have small spikes along their gular patches or throats.
Now, what’s exciting about this swamp-going frog is its inability to make a noise. Unlike other frog species, which rely on vocalizations to communicate and find mates, the newly discovered spiny-throated reed frog is one of the few animals that are quiet.
This has led scientists to speculate that this small frog, no bigger than a couple of centimeters, may rely on its throat spikes to release pheromones to communicate with conspecifics.
No, this isn’t an abstract way of referring to a leech.
The lechwe is a species of antelope that can be found around the floodplains bordering swamps and marshes from Central to Southern Africa.
Second, only to the Nyala, another species of African antelope, the lechwe is one of the most aquatic antelope species in Africa. They have managed to exploit an ecological niche few other grazing mammals have been able to: aquatic vegetation. Grass, exposed to receding flood water, makes an ideal food source for the lechwe.
Similarly to the sitatunga, lechwe have elongated hooves that prevent them from sinking into the swampy ground. They also have a waterproof, chestnut-colored coat, that allows them to run in deep(ish) water to evade predators.
The lechwe also displays a somewhat unusual mating style for mammals. Males can be found clustered together, occupying their own small, yet individual, territory in a larger spatial area where females congregate to mate. This behavior is referred to as lekking and is most often observed in birds.
African Pygmy Goose
The African pygmy goose is an imposter. Despite its name, it is not a goose. Rather, it is a species of perching duck.
However, one part of its name is correct: pygmy. The African pygmy goose is the smallest waterfowl species in the world, with a wingspan no larger than 6.5 inches.
This small duck species has a large geographical range, ranging from the Atlantic coast of West Africa to the island of Madagascar in the East.
They have bright, metallic-green plumage with ruddy flanks and a white head. Their small, yet conspicuous, yellow beak is stubby and goose-like which helps them forage and feed on seeds from aquatic vegetation.
They can be found in a monogamous pair, mostly in freshwater swamps and marshes. Whilst they tend to spend most of their time on or around a water source, the African pygmy goose can effortlessly perch on overhang branches, and even nest within tree cavities.
Finally, we have Oceania!
Australian Swamp Rat
Unflattering though their name may be, it does describe this rodent perfectly.
The swamp rat is endemic to the coastline of South and East Australia. Unlike their urban-dwelling cousins, though they do look somewhat similar to brown rats, they tend to stay around heavily vegetated areas near water sources, such as swamps and marshes, and avoid areas with a high urban presence.
Whilst dense thickets of swampy vegetation are the swamp rat’s habitat of choice, they can also be found in coastal heath and dune scrub.
They are mostly omnivorous, feeding on a variety of seeds, aquatic grasses, and fungi. However, in the summer months, they will start preying on insects for added protein ahead of the mating season.
Otherwise known as a Jacana on steroids…
Just kidding. However, jacana’s and Pukeko’s do look remarkably similar, despite living halfway across the world from each other. This is a form of convergent evolution, where two unrelated species have evolved similar traits to allow them to survive in a certain environment.
In the case of the Pukeko, which can be found in Australia and New Zealand, they have long, slim toes that help them walk across aquatic vegetation in their swampy habitats. Even their coloration is similar, with deep violet head, breast and throat, and bright red bill.
The pukeko is a cooperative breeder. Both the developing eggs and chicks receive care from both their own parents, as well as additional group members – also known as “helpers”. The idea behind cooperative breeding has caused quite a stir in the scientific world. After all, the reproductive success of the helpers is greatly reduced as they’re not rearing their own offspring.
However, hypotheses suggest that kin selection plays a role. This relies on individual pukeko’s being related to one another.
Another theory suggests that larger group size, through the addition of helpers, increases the overall survival rate of individuals. In other words, safety in numbers.
Endemic to Eastern Australia, the swamp wallaby is a small macropod marsupial. Or, in other words, a large-footed, pouched mammal (think kangaroo).
Living up to its name, the swamp wallaby lives in swamps and other areas close to water. When threatened, they head into the water and, using their powerful tails and webbed feet, swim to safety. This is an unusual trait in macropods.
A mother wallaby will give birth to just a single baby, or Joey, at any one time. The Joey, no bigger than a jelly bean, will migrate to its mother’s pouch, where it will latch onto a nipple and gorge on its mother’s milk. The joey will stay in the pouch for up to 36 weeks, and continue to rely on its mother’s milk until about 15 months of age.
Of course, there has to be a snake thrown into the list.
And this is a snake you certainly would not want to mess with. Because, well, Australia…
The tiger snake is a large, highly venomous species of snake found across Southern Australia and Tasmania. They have distinctive black and yellow bandings, resembling that of a tiger.
Tiger snakes can be found in coastal areas close to freshwater, including marshes and creeks. Here, they prey on semi-aquatic animals, such as frogs, birds, and mammals.
The venom of the tiger snake is incredibly toxic and has proven fatal in humans. A cocktail of blood-clotting agents and nerve paralysis can cause cardiac arrest if anti-venom is not administered immediately.
Certainly one not to mess with.
Long and serpentine, the short-finned eel is common in still-water swamps and lagoons of Victoria, Australia.
However, it doesn’t spend all its life in Australian freshwater.
Life for a short-finned eel starts over 3,000km away, somewhere South-east of New Guinea in the Coral Sea. As far as scientists are aware, this is the only spawning site known for all short-finned eels.
Once hatched, the short-finned eel starts life as a small and transparent larvae. Propelled by ocean currents, they are carried southwards towards Australia, picking off microscopic, planktonic prey along the way.
They undergo a series of changes or metamorphosizes. The first is a leaf-shaped stage known as leptocephali. The next stage is the glass-eel stage. In this stage, they become more eel-like and actively move towards freshwater.
Eventually, the short-finned eel settles in swamps and marshes, where it leads a mainly carnivorous lifestyle, feeding on small fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and worms.
Swamps and marshes provide valuable resources to a wide range of animal species – both carnivorous hunters and herbivorous grazers.
Some animals, such as the African lechwe, have unlocked an underutilized niche, allowing them to thrive on the riches here.
Other animals, such as the swamp wallaby, have evolved adaptations such as webbed feet, to allow them to thrive in this wet, muddy world.
However, across the globe, these valuable and life-giving systems are under threat. Habitat loss, from urban sprawl, damming, and draining, are causing dire consequences.
Without our help, the fate of animals found in marshes and swamps may be doomed.