“For many of us, water simply flows from a faucet, and we think little about it beyond this point of contact. We have lost a sense of respect for the wild river, for the complex workings of a wetland, for the intricate web of life that water supports.” (Sandra Postel)… How about we start learning & caring right now?
9 Easy Squishy Rules
— To observe when exploring wetland habitats
Roaming through estuaries, marshes, swamps, bogs, or any land that qualifies as a wetland is a very special experience. Here we are giving considerations and requirements specific to these unique habitats—too often underrated but nonetheless extremely rich and fragile. Luckily, a little wetlands etiquette goes a long way in preventing damage to these amazing places. Keep in mind that the general EwA Wildness Etiquette also applies to wetland habitats and wildlife.
Knowing is Caring: Learn before you go. Explore wetlands well prepared so as to minimize your impact, and maximize safety for anyone (wildlife included) as well as for the pleasure of everyone. Enjoy!
Wetlands NOT Wasteland—Why They Need Our Protection ➔
Wetlands cover at least 6 % of the Earth’s surface. We know them by many names. Marshes, swamps, bogs, fens, moors, mangroves, everglades – all are wetlands with their unique characteristic features. There are many technical definitions, but basically, a wetland is some transitional land covered with water, either salt or freshwater or somewhere in between.
Ecologists had long identified numerous benefits of wetlands. Intact wetlands play a key role as buffers and in the hydrological cycle. They also act as sinks for organic carbon, counteracting the effects of the increase in atmospheric CO2. They host a large part of the world’s biodiversity, and they provide countless services to humankind.
They are also under tremendous human pressure on all continents, through habitat loss (e.g., from agricultural practices, urbanization), overexploitation, pollution. It is said that about 30–90 % of the world’s wetlands have already been destroyed or strongly modified in many countries with no sign of abatement [JW13].
It is now time to get to know more intimately our wetlands and protect them.
To protect the wetlands, an intergovernmental treaty for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971. The Ramsar convention was embraced by 169 countries and together they protect over 2000 designated Ramsar sites.
At an individual level, the best way to protect them is for us to go and see them while following good etiquette when exploring their many wonders, and then share our newfound knowledge with our friends…
1 | 🦀 Preparation rule: Know your wetland ➟
In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” —Baba Dioum
🌾 Wetlands are low-lying areas where the water level stays at or near the surface of the soil. This ecosystem is characterized by three main characteristics: hydric soil, water-tolerant vegetation, and water. Second to tropical forests wetlands are bestowed with the most diverse biome from tiny microbes to shy mammals.
In the US alone, 900 terrestrial animal species use wetland habitats (*) of the United States periodically throughout their lives for breeding, foraging, or other activities [NRCS]. Almost 43% of North American threatened and endangered species depend on wetlands in the early phases of their life, and for survival.
Regardless of their complex ecological functions, wetlands provide hours of recreational activities that include bird watching, canoeing, nature photography, as well as fishing and hunting. Wetlands are also excellent study sites for several ecological principles and processes as well as for ecological risk assessment.
▸ Wetlands are protected in the US by the Clean Water Act 1974 (Section 404). Wetlands are not easily identified because they are not always “WET”. You would be surprised to know how many wetlands are likely to be present nearby–there might even be some on your own property!
▸ Before visiting any wetland, do your research. Take some time to understand further why wetlands are important; how people and wildlife benefit from them; and how you can play an important role in their protection.
In the US, the National Wetland Inventory has extensive and publicly available information on wetlands and their distribution. In other countries, there are comparable resources.
2 | 🧡 Heart rule: Appreciate the habitat & the local regulations ➟
Explore lovingly, respectfully – Know what to do and not do (by heart)!
As the human population expands, we add millions of visitors every year who want to discover wetlands. It’s wonderful but it also puts tremendous pressure on these habitats that are the home for hundreds of species of animals and plants often unique to that particular area.
Known harmful impacts of tourists and visitors on wetland ecosystems include noise pollution, excessive vegetation trampling, disturbance to wild species. Let’s not be that kind of visitor [DW12]. Come with a big heart, an open and curious mind, and a very very light foot…
▸ Please visit the information center and get to know the viewing rules in place 📜 for the particular wetland that you are visiting. Each and every wetland is different from one another, and there are specific best practices to follow in order to protect the resident flora and fauna.
▸ Drive and remain on designated roads. Park your vehicle where you should.
▸ On foot, it’s important to stay on trails and designated areas to minimize the trampling of vegetation and reduce wildlife and habitat disturbance.
▸ Like in any other habitat, avoid being alone in large and wild wetlands. If you do not have any other choice, inform one other person of your expected time of return.
▸ Do not crowd any area with too many people at once. Group size matters, and the smaller usually the better in those fragile wet landscapes. Exploration activities should be limited to designated sites and in small groups. Try to stick together while moving around.
4 | 🤕 Safety & Health rule: Suit up and 'cover' up ➟
Protect both yourself and the wildlife
▸ Dress properly. Wear mud boots (no flip-flops/sandals), long-sleeved shirts and long pants, waterproof jackets with hoods or hats. Wetlands are home to a few animals and plant species that can be harmful to humans. For instance, if the majority of wetlands snakes are harmless, still there are a few that are can be dangerous. As for plants, Poison Ivy, Stinging nettle (genus Utrica), Parsnip, and Cow parsnip can harm your skin if exposed.
▸ Mosquitoes, ticks, biting flies are carriers of many diseases. When it’s safe, go for biodegradable insect repellents. If you wear DEET or have sprayed permethrin on your clothes, then avoid leaching those chemicals in shallow water habitats where it will harm sensitive wildlife (including amphibians, reptiles, and insects other than mosquitoes and ticks).
About Permethrin specifically: Permethrin is highly toxic to bees 🐝 and other beneficial insects. Permethrin is highly toxic to fish and other animals that live in either salt water or fresh water and should be kept out of all bodies of water. Permethrin is low in toxicity to birds, but some aerosol products made with permethrin may also contain other ingredients that can harm birds if they inhale it.
▸ Although rare, note that a few animals–that may not appear dangerous–can carry rabies. It’s best to observe animals at a distance and not touch them.
▸ Not usually thought about, but dress appropriately and prefer drab, muted colors. Bright and flashy colors are distracting for wildlife (taking their attention away from their activity), and for some, it might be even a true nuisance. For instance, do you know that common cranes are sensitive to colors (and sound), and may even change nesting behavior and flight patterns to avoid them?
5 | 📐 Distance rule: Respecting wildlife's private space ➟
Keep wildlife at peace – Observe at a distance…
We can’t ‘stress’ enough how stressful it is to wildlife to have parties of excited visitors right in their faces. We have become an extremely domesticated species. More than often we wrongly apprehend wildlife the same way, misled by the endless opportunities where we can see large predators inches away (in captivity and behind a window), or where we can touch anything we want really. A consequence of the pettification of the world is that we do not understand boundaries and approach distances anymore. And this, in turn, induces stress, habituation, and serious alteration of the fitness of wildlife, as well as (too often) the death of wild animals. We need to acknowledge this issue and adopt instead a loving yet ‘distant’ love…
▸ Don’t incite a reaction.Never approach an animal with the intent of making it fly, run, move.
▸ Wetlands are great habitats for many species of birds. Observe from a great distance between you and feeding grounds, mating display areas, and bird🦆 gathering location (e.g., such as parrots clay licks, and alike). Keep well back and away from nests and nesting colonies. Birds are subject to regular disruptions from the bird enthusiast before you and the ones that will come after you. So, be especially conscious of your actions around them. Under no circumstance should we disrupt nest/colony behavior.
🔭 ▸ Don’t get close, instead make good use of your binoculars, scope, and zoom lenses. Note that if you’re using a macro or a wide-angle lens you are in essence too close (even if operated remotely). Telephoto lenses of at least 500 mm are recommended.
No close contact with wildlife for your sake and theirs
Be a responsible naturalist / About Not touching, not collecting, not littering
▸ Create memories through photographs and other low-impact to no-impact means (sketching, videos). If you’re roaming at night, avoid flash photography and use red light to not stress and hurt wildlife.
▸ Do not collect. Resist the temptation to pick flowers, leaves, twigs, plants. The accumulated removal often leads to habitat disruption (when the removal is random) and degradation. For instance, in some areas, shell removal from marine shorelines has resulted in multiple habitat changes such as increased beach erosion, changes in calcium carbonate recycling, and declines in diversity and abundance of organisms, which are dependent on shell availability [KM14].
▸ Resist touching for both the sake of humans and wildlife. We can be affected by unknown pathogens. On the wildlife side🦎, too many indulge in catching, touching, handling wildlife. Besides obvious stress to wildlife for all species, there is also the issue of harming wildlife with porous, sensitive skin (such as amphibians) and potentially contaminating or spreading harmful things (e.g., fungi, pathogens) [DW12]
▸ Leave nothing behind. Carry your own drinking water and snacks and do NOT forget to carry out all your trash. You can make yourself feel good by picking up after those less considerate. A little act of kindness goes a long way.
We’re louder than we think we are. Avoid loud noises around the wildlife
It is known that human noise pollution 📢 and regular noise disturbances have serious deleterious effects on wildlife [KC02]. An environment where obtrusive human noises are limited helps protect the development of wildlife and reduces stress impact.
▸ Speak softly to each other. Turn down your cell phone and or refrain from making loud noises. Prefer your inner voice in moments of excitement, remembering that your enthusiasm may harm their peace.
Responsibility & care for both our pets and the wetland
▸ Pets and wildlife don’t mix well. Keep your dog on a leash and under control.
▸ Besides the dangers that your pet might encounter in the mud, a free-roaming dog is also a threat to the wild wetland inhabitants. They can harm nests and dens of animals who use wetlands as their breeding and nursery grounds.
▸ The “don’t take anything” rule, that we listed earlier, does not apply to our dogs. Instead, collect your dog’s waste 💩 diligently. Dogs excrements (healthy dogs included) contain nearly twice as much fecal bacteria per gram as human waste, making it an especially troublesome bacteria source for our local streams when it is left on the ground. For instance, these contaminate vernal pools and other delicate wet habitats ([WP99], [CV13]). It’s also worth noting that dog’s pheromones can confuse wildlife.
9 | 💬 Act rule: Help when you can, challenge when possible, report when necessary ➟
Involved and fearless while remaining humble and respectful…
▸ Wetlands are mysterious and misunderstood. Use your understanding of wetlands, and share your knowledge 🎓 with your friends and family. Participate in restoration and clean-up activities scheduled by local conservation groups.
▸ When you witness ‘code-breaking’ by either visitors, guides, or experts, don’t remain silent. Assess the situation, and if safe then ask why they’re behaving the way they do. Discuss the known consequences. Those consequences can result in harming amphibians, birds, and other wetlands wildlife. The problem with our silence is that the issue is then deepening, and possibly impacting directly that habitat and its residents.
▸ The best is to come prepared and discuss the rules with your party and your guide before getting on the site.
▸ In all cases, discuss respectfully with uninformed watchers, guides or experts. And if you feel you can’t (that is, if you feel unsafe or threatened), then report immediately to higher authorities as soon as you’re back to safety.
If you value wetlands, make it a point to visit them and take part in their conservation for future generations.
📚 References & Extended Bibliography
If you are planning to visit wetlands and the wildlife around, please take the time to also check our general EwA Wildness Etiquette. Help the protection and conservation of the habitats and species you enjoy. Thanks!
[DN14] How Much Wetland Has The World Lost? Long-term And Recent Trends In Global Wetland Area by Davidson, N. (2014) in Marine and Freshwater Research 65(10):936-941 – Wetland losses confirms that conversion and loss of natural wetlands have been long-term and widespread, and is continuing in all parts of the world (excluding Antarctica, for which the only record located was for peatlands and reported little change). Historical(long-term) reports indicate a loss of 54–57% of the world’s wetlands – exceeding the widely stated but unsubstantiated figure of 50% – but may have been much greater than this, with a loss of 87% of natural wetland area since the start of the 18th century.
Wondrous Wetlands by Texas Parks & Wildlife – Wetlands are an in-between place where water settles. Learn about the benefits of wetlands and about threats to their survival.
Incredible Wetlands (IMPA Award Winner) – As long as humans have walked the planet, wetlands have been a part of our lives. Some turned to these saturated lands for resources while others saw them as something fearful or undesirable. A new documentary by Water Rocks! explores the biologically productive, and diverse, nature of wetlands and the vital role they play for life on Earth.
Ramsar Sites of International Importance – Ramsar sites of International Importance are spread around the world. These wetland sites are recognized as being of significant value not only for the country or countries in which they are located but for humanity as a whole.