Generally, wetlands are lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface (Cowardin, December 1979). Wetlands vary widely because of regional and local differences in soils, topography, climate, hydrology, water chemistry, vegetation, and other factors, including human disturbance. Indeed, wetlands are found from the tundra to the tropics and on every continent exceptAntarctica. Two general categories of wetlands are recognized: coastal or tidal wetlands and inland or non-tidal wetlands.
Tidal (coastal) marshes occur along coastlines and are influenced by tides and often by freshwater from runoff, rivers, orgroundwater. Salt marshes are the most prevalent types of tidal marshes and are characterized by salttolerant plants such as smooth cordgrass, saltgrass, and glasswort. Salt marshes have one of the highest rates of primary productivity associated with wetland ecosystems because of the inflow of nutrients and organics from surface and/or tidal water. Tidal freshwater marshes are located upstream of estuaries. Tides influence water levels but the water is fresh. The lack of salt stress allows a greater diversity of plants to thrive. Cattail, wild rice, pickerelweed, and arrowhead are common and help support a large and diverse range of bird and fish species, among other wildlife.
Tidal marshes serve many important functions. They buffer stormy seas, slow shoreline erosion, and are able to absorb excess nutrients before they reach the oceans and estuaries. High concentrations of nutrients can cause oxygen levels low enough to harm wildlife, such as the "Dead Zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Tidal marshes also provide vital food and habitat for clams, crabs, and juvenile fish, as well as offering shelter and nesting sites for several species of migratory waterfowl.
Inland wetlands are most common on floodplains along rivers and streams (riparian wetlands), in isolated depressions surrounded by dry land (e.g., playas, basins, and "potholes"), along the margins of lakes and ponds, and in other low-lying areas where the groundwater intercepts thesoilsurface or where precipitation sufficiently saturates the soil (e.g., vernal pools and bogs). Inland wetlands include marshes and wet meadows dominated by herbaceous plants, swamps dominated by shrubs, andwooded swampsdominated by trees.
Many of these wetlands are seasonal (they are dry one or more seasons every year), and, particularly in the arid and semiarid western United States, may be wet only periodically. The quantity of water present and the timing of its presence in part determine the functions of a wetland and its role in the environment. Even wetlands that appear dry at times for significant parts of the year—such as vernal pools—often provide criticalhabitatfor wildlife adapted to breeding exclusively in these areas.