Small white-bellied chorus frog perched perched between two wetland reeds.
Chorus frog Wetlands are as productive as rainforests and coral reefs. © Chris Helzer

Stories in the Great Lakes

Wet and Wild: The Weird, Wondrous, and Wicked Cool Creatures in Midwest Wetlands

Wetlands support an incredible diversity of life. Yet they’re in danger, with some states having as much as 90% of their wetlands destroyed.

Wetlands—areas where water is present at or near the surface of the soil some or all of the year—truly are where the wild things are. Microorganisms thrive in the damp soil. Dragonflies glide above the muck. Salamanders and frogs hide among carnivorous plants, and herons and beavers wade in the water.

They are also among the most productive ecosystems in the world. Wetlands are, in essence, “biological supermarkets” that produce immense amounts of food and attract and sustain countless numbers of animal species.

Why are wetlands important?

In Wisconsin, 75% of the state’s wildlife depend on wetlands at some point in their life, and 40% of the threatened and endangered plants and animals in Illinois rely on wetland habitat. Isolated wetlands in Indiana harbor the federally endangered Mitchell’s satyr butterfly, which is only found in two states.

Wetlands are also key to fighting and adapting to climate change. They hold significant amounts of the world’s soil carbon, provide water storage to reduce flooding, filter pollutants from water to keep it clean, provide a refuge for species needing wetter conditions in drought prone areas, and so much more.

Despite the diversity of life they support and their outsize role in tackling climate change, wetlands are at risk. Wetlands have been—and continue to be—drained and filled in order to make way for agriculture or development. Roughly half of Michigan’s and Wisconsin’s wetland acreage has been lost—but that’s better than other Midwest states such as Ohio and Illinois, where only about 10% of historic wetlands remain.

The Power of Wetlands (1:00) You probably know that wetlands provide important habitat for native species. But did you know that wetlands are a natural solution to flooding? Or that they absorb excess nutrients before they reach rivers? Or that they provide fun recreation activities?

How is TNC protecting our Midwest wetlands?

To address the interconnected crises of rapid climate change and biodiversity loss, The Nature Conservancy is studying, protecting, restoring and spreading the word about wetlands across the Midwest.

  • Our efforts to improve habitat connectivity including linking backwater swamps, streams and lakes at our Emiquon Preserve make it the largest floodplain restoration project in the Midwest. Emiquon is home to hundreds of thousands of migratory and resident birds including American bald eagles and white pelicans, as well as mammals such as river otters, muskrats and beavers.
  • The crescent-shaped oxbow lakes along the Wabash River in southwestern Indiana provide habitat for river fish, many of which use these lakes as nurseries for their young. We are working with researchers to determine where oxbow lake protection and restoration efforts will have the greatest impact.
  • In partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, we created Wetlands by Design, an online tool to help decision-makers identify best places to protect and restore wetlands across the state.
  • In Ohio, we are sharing the importance of vernal pools with visitors to our Morgan Swamp Preserve. Vernal pools last only for a few months each year, but they provide breeding habitat for many species including rare blue-spotted and four-toed salamanders.
  • We are restoring coastal wetlands at our Erie Marsh Preserve in Michigan—which means re-engineering the land to improve habitat and to increase fish passage.

What wildlife live in wetlands?

Swamps, bogs and marshes might conjure mysterious, foggy images of stagnant water and slimy mud. But wetlands are active, dynamic and vibrant places where an incredible web of life exists in careful balance.

Black-crowned night heron perches on branch in wetland.
Black-crowned night heron perches on branch in wetland.
Can you guess this bird? This bird is common in wetlands throughout the Midwest, though its nighttime feeding habits make it seem a bit elusive. During the day, you might this this bird hiding among leaves and branches at the water’s edge.
Metallic-looking Hines emerald dragonfly clings to bare stalk.
Metallic-looking Hines emerald dragonfly clings to bare stalk.
Can you guess this insect? This is a federally-endangered insect that once flourished throughout the Midwest. Today, it can be found in isolated pockets of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri. It relies on wetlands like fens and marshes to reproduce, since eggs and larvae are aquatic.
Long, slender brown mink on ground.
Long, slender brown mink on ground.
Can you guess this mammal? This semi-aquatic carnivorous mammal can be found throughout most of North America. As predators of small mammals, fish, amphibians and insects, they thrive in wetland habitats, including near streams and beaver dams.
Long, slender northern pike.
Long, slender northern pike.
Can you guess this fish? This large carnivorous fish lives in brackish and freshwater habitats. It uses flooded areas of vegetation like those found in coastal wetlands for spawning. The warm and shallow waters of these wetlands provide ideal nursery habitat for juvenile fish to grow and develop.
Several bright green pitcher plants growing close together on ground.
Several bright green pitcher plants growing close together on ground.
Can you guess this plant? Growing primarily in sphagnum bogs, this plant is one of the few carnivorous plants found in North America. Insects and other small prey drown in rainwater collected in the plant’s pitcher-like leaves. Plant enzymes digest prey so nutrients can be absorbed, supplementing nutrients taken up via its roots.
Many bright green skunk cabbages flourishing in spring wetland.
Many bright green skunk cabbages flourishing in spring wetland.
Can you guess this plant? Thriving in wetlands and along streams, this plant is one of the earliest flowers to bloom each spring in the Midwest. The greenish-yellow flower structure called a spadix is cloaked by a reddish-brown spathe and blooms before large leaved unfurl. True to its namesake, the plant emits an unpleasant odor which it uses to attract pollinators.
Small dark spotted salamander with bright spots perched on grey rock.
Small dark spotted salamander with bright spots perched on grey rock.
Can you guess this amphibian? This creature lives in forests near stagnant water such as vernal pools. In early spring, these creatures migrate to these shallow pools where they breed and lay eggs. Once eggs hatch, larvae stay in their aquatic environment until they eventually start new lives on land where they spend their juvenile and adult stages.
A spotted turtle rests on a fallen limb next to green plants.
A spotted turtle rests on a fallen limb next to green plants.
Can you guess this creature? This reptile occupies a wide range of wetland habitats, including swamps, fens, marshes, bogs and woodland streams. Though the species was once prevalent throughout the eastern United States, it is now threatened or endangered in several states.
Small light brown spring peeper frog perched on leaf.
Small light brown spring peeper frog perched on leaf.
Can you guess this amphibian? This species of frog is prevalent throughout the eastern and midwestern United States. The small amphibian lives near ephemeral and permanent wetland habitats in woodlands. Their namesake “peeping” sound is a welcome sign of spring.
Colorful male and female wood ducks on heavy tree limb.
Colorful male and female wood ducks on heavy tree limb.
Can you guess this bird? These birds are year-round inhabitants of the Midwest. Males are ornately patterned, boasting gorgeous deep green heads and orange-ringed eyes. Females have more muted feathers with hues of grey and brown. These birds rely on healthy wetland habitats, preferring to nest near dense vegetation like trees and shrubs.

Where can I visit a wetland?

All wetlands are not created equal. Some are wet year-round, while others only hold water at specific times of year, and each type of wetland shelters uniquely adapted flora and fauna.

See for yourself by exploring a wetland near you. To help you get started, we’ve created a map showing some of the many Nature Conservancy preserves in the Midwest where you can immerse yourself in the beauty and diversity of wetlands. All you need is a little time and lots of curiosity!

Shoreline of wetlands with yellow and green wetland plants.
Emiquon
Our efforts our Emiquon Preserve to improve habitat connectivity include linking backwater swamps, streams and lakes.
Turtle with its head fully out sits on log next to wetland.
Kankakee Sands
At our Kankakee Sands preserve, low spaces created by wallowing bison hold water for a short period of time in the spring, giving turtles an ideal place to lay their eggs.
Aerial view of lake surrounded by wetlands.
McMahon Lake Preserve
Our McMahon Lake preserve on the Upper Peninsula features a shrub and herb dominant “patterned fen” ecosystem. Sandhill crane, moose, bear and many other species thrive here.
Single tree stands tall on a prairie beneath a blue cloudy sky.
Kitty Todd Nature Preserve
The distinct call of sandhill cranes is a harbinger of the changing seasons. At our Kitty Todd Nature preserve, we are restoring wet prairie habitat for numerous species.
Dark-colored dragonfly zips through the air.
Kangaroo Lake
The Hine’s Emerald dragonfly depends on wetlands to survive. TNC owns 4,700+ acres across four preserves on a peninsula on Lake Michigan, host to this endangered dragonfly.
Many tall, bare trees stand in wetland.
Morgan Swamp
Morgan Swamp is one of the largest privately-protected wetlands in Ohio. It is significant for its size, self-sustaining swamp ecosystem and the number of rare species it supports.
Hands holding slender pickerel weed in front of lush green wetland.
Holden Restoration at Fish Creek
TNC has been restoring 660+ acres in NE Indiana to increase habitat for a variety of species, including great blue herons and Blanding's turtles.
Large green leopard frog with brown spots sitting among green clover trying to blend in.
Pickerel Lake Fen Preserve
Leopard frogs are one of the many species of wildlife you can see at this preserve, which encompasses a fen, one of the rarest types of wetlands in North America.
Fallen logs float on a wetland beneath a dramatic cloudy sky.
Erie Marsh Preserve
Erie Marsh represents 11% of the remaining marshland in southeastern Michigan and is one of the largest marshes on Lake Erie.

Midwest Wetlands Visit our preserves to experience the wild wetlands of the Midwest!

But…what about MOSQUITOES?

Don’t be afraid to visit wetlands because of the bugs! Find out why from Alyssa Nyberg, TNC’s restoration ecologist in Indiana.

Wild about Wetlands?

Donate today to help us protect these weird, wonderful natural areas!

Donate Now