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The Flint River in North Alabama near Huntsville

The shorelines of lakes, ponds, and rivers are valuable real estate to both people and wildlife. However, the qualities that make them attractive to wildlife may differ from what makes them attractive to people. While people enjoy these bodies of water for recreation and relaxation, they have significant importance as wildlife habitats. When undisturbed by manmade structures and recreational activity, shorelines with mature forests are naturally high-quality habitats. Unfortunately, as these shorelines are developed for residential use and various recreational activities, the woody debris is often removed to make way for swimming or easy access to the water. This seemingly harmless act greatly affects the ecosystem below the water’s surface.

Aquatic Ecosystems

When trees and limbs are blown into the water, the woody debris becomes important to aquatic ecosystems. What makes recreational swimming more difficult for people, fish and other aquatic life see as a potential habitat. The wood plays an important role to several aquatic creatures. Fish will often use the large wood for spawning, feeding, and cover. The fine material of sunken trees protects small fish and the coarse material provides ambush sites for predators. The algae that grows on the wood provides habitat for the tiny aquatic organisms that many fish feed on. Water insects will also graze on the algae that grows on the decomposing wood. These areas also provide nesting and feeding grounds for many waterfowl species, such as geese.

Preserving and Creating Habitats

It is important that people make strides to help preserve and create habitats for aquatic ecosystems, as they provide enormous benefits at little cost. They improve water quality by filtering out sediment and toxins, and they act as natural sponges by absorbing flood waters. They also produce a rich variety of natural products such as fish, shellfish, ducks, geese, and timber.

Humans have been able to mimic habitat conditions by submerging Christmas trees, treetops, wooden pallets, piles of riprap, and other construction debris. There are also commercially available habitats made of plastic or recycled materials that work equally well. These provide structure and habitat to ponds, allowing baitfish to congregate when they would typically be scattered. They also provide refuge, so that fish remain active and do not suspend over deep water. This cover also has tremendous surface area where algae, bacteria, and fungi can grow, providing food to insects and other animals. These aquatic ecosystems and their toppled trees benefit people too. We fish around fallen trees because we know that is where we are most likely to catch them. Easily locating the fish makes harvesting easier for pond management. All these actions support the entire food chain.

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