Littoral Zone - in Freshwater Ecosystems

In Freshwater Ecosystems

In freshwater situations, littoral zones occur on the edge of large lakes and rivers, often with extensive areas of wetland. Hence, they are sometimes referred to as fringing wetlands. Here, the effects of tides are minimal, so other definitions of "littoral" are used. For example, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources defines littoral as that portion of the lake that is less than 15 feet in depth.

The littoral zone may form a narrow or broad fringing wetland, with extensive areas of aquatic plants sorted by their tolerance to different water depths. Typically, four zones are recognized, from higher to lower on the shore: wooded wetland, wet meadow, marsh and aquatic vegetation. The relative areas of these four types depends not only on the profile of the shoreline, but upon past water levels. The area of wet meadow is particularly dependent upon past water levels; in general, the area of wet meadows along lakes and rivers increases with natural water level fluctuations. Many of the animals in lakes and rivers are dependent upon the wetlands of littoral zones, since the rooted plants provide habitat and food. Hence, a large and productive littoral zone is considered an important characteristic of a healthy lake or river.

Littoral zones are at particular risk for two reasons. First, human settlement is often attracted to shorelines, and settlement often disrupts breeding habitats for littoral zone species. For example, many turtles are killed on roads when they leave the water to lay their eggs in upland sites. Fish can be negatively affected by docks and retaining walls which remove breeding habitat in shallow water. Some shoreline communities even deliberately try to remove wetlands since they may interfere with activities like swimming. Overall, the presence of human settlement has a demonstrated negative impact upon adjoining wetlands. An equally serious problem is the tendency to stabilize lake or river levels with dams. Dams removed the spring flood which carries nutrients into littoral zones, and reduces the natural fluctuation of water levels upon which many wetland plants and animals depend. Hence, over time, dams can reduce the area of wetland from a broad littoral zone to a narrow band of vegetation. Marshes and wet meadows are at particular risk.

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