Freshwater is defined as having a low salt concentrationusually less than 1%. Plants and animals in freshwater regions are adjusted to the low salt content and would not be able to survive in areas of high salt concentration (i.e, ocean). There are different types of freshwater regions: ponds and lakes, streams and rivers, and wetlands. The following sections describe the characteristics of these three freshwater zones.
Ponds and Lakes
These regions range in size from just a few square meters to thousands of square kilometers. Scattered throughout the earth, several are remnants from the Pleistocene glaciation. Many ponds are seasonal, lasting just a couple of months (such as sessile pools) while lakes may exist for hundreds of years or more. Ponds and lakes may have limited species diversity since they are often isolated from one another and from other water sources like rivers and oceans. Lakes and ponds are divided into three different “zones” which are usually determined by depth and distance from the shoreline.
The topmost zone near the shore of a lake or pond is the littoral zone. This zone is the warmest since it is shallow and can absorb more of the Suns heat. It sustains a fairly diverse community, which can include several species of algae (like diatoms), rooted and floating aquatic plants, grazing snails, clams, insects, crustaceans, fishes, and amphibians. In the case of the insects, such as dragonflies and midges, only the egg and larvae stages are found in this zone. The vegetation and animals living in the littoral zone are food for other creatures such as turtles, snakes, and ducks.
The near-surface open water surrounded by the littoral zone is the limnetic zone. The limnetic zone is well-lighted (like the littoral zone) and is dominated by plankton, both phytoplankton and zooplankton. Plankton are small organisms that play a crucial role in the food chain. Without aquatic plankton, there would be few living organisms in the world, and certainly no humans. A variety of freshwater fish also occupy this zone.
Plankton have short life spanswhen they die, they fall into the deep-water part of the lake/pond, the profundal zone. This zone is much colder and denser than the other two. Little light penetrates all the way through the limnetic zone into the profundal zone. The fauna are heterotrophs, meaning that they eat dead organisms and use oxygen for cellular respiration.
Temperature varies in ponds and lakes seasonally. During the summer, the temperature can range from 4 C near the bottom to 22 C at the top. During the winter, the temperature at the bottom can be 4 C while the top is 0 C (ice). In between the two layers, there is a narrow zone called the thermocline where the temperature of the water changes rapidly. During the spring and fall seasons, there is a mixing of the top and bottom layers, usually due to winds, which results in a uniform water temperature of around 4 C. This mixing also circulates oxygen throughout the lake. Of course there are many lakes and ponds that do not freeze during the winter, thus the top layer would be a little warmer.
Streams and Rivers
These are bodies of flowing water moving in one direction. Streams and rivers can be found everywherethey get their starts at headwaters, which may be springs, snowmelt or even lakes, and then travel all the way to their mouths, usually another water channel or the ocean. The characteristics of a river or stream change during the journey from the source to the mouth. The temperature is cooler at the source than it is at the mouth. The water is also clearer, has higher oxygen levels, and freshwater fish such as trout and heterotrophs can be found there. Towards the middle part of the stream/river, the width increases, as does species diversitynumerous aquatic green plants and algae can be found. Toward the mouth of the river/stream, the water becomes murky from all the sediments that it has picked up upstream, decreasing the amount of light that can penetrate through the water. Since there is less light, there is less diversity of flora, and because of the lower oxygen levels, fish that require less oxygen, such as catfish and carp, can be found.
Wetlands are areas of standing water that support aquatic plants. Marshes, swamps, and bogs are all considered wetlands. Plant species adapted to the very moist and humid conditions are called hydrophytes. These include pond lilies, cattails, sedges, tamarack, and black spruce. Marsh flora also include such species as cypress and gum. Wetlands have the highest species diversity of all ecosystems. Many species of amphibians, reptiles, birds (such as ducks and waders), and furbearers can be found in the wetlands. Wetlands are not considered freshwater ecosystems as there are some, such as salt marshes, that have high salt concentrationsthese support different species of animals, such as shrimp, shellfish, and various grasses.
Marine regions cover about three-fourths of the Earths surface and include oceans, coral reefs, and estuaries. Marine algae supply much of the worlds oxygen supply and take in a huge amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The evaporation of the seawater provides rainwater for the land.
The largest of all the ecosystems, oceans are very large bodies of water that dominate the Earths surface. Like ponds and lakes, the ocean regions are separated into separate zones: intertidal, pelagic, abyssal, and benthic. All four zones have a great diversity of species. Some say that the ocean contains the richest diversity of species even though it contains fewer species than there are on land.
The intertidal zone is where the ocean meets the landsometimes it is submerged and at other times exposed, as waves and tides come in and out. Because of this, the communities are constantly changing. On rocky coasts, the zone is stratified vertically. Where only the highest tides reach, there are only a few species of algae and mollusks. In those areas usually submerged during high tide, there is a more diverse array of algae and small animals, such as herbivorous snails, crabs, sea stars, and small fishes. At the bottom of the intertidal zone, which is only exposed during the lowest tides, many invertebrates, fishes, and seaweed can be found. The intertidal zone on sandier shores is not as stratified as in the rocky areas. Waves keep mud and sand constantly moving, thus very few algae and plants can establish themselvesthe fauna include worms, clams, predatory crustaceans, crabs, and shorebirds.
The pelagic zone includes those waters further from the land, basically the open ocean. The pelagic zone is generally cold though it is hard to give a general temperature range since, just like ponds and lakes, there is thermal stratification with a constant mixing of warm and cold ocean currents. The flora in the pelagic zone include surface seaweeds. The fauna include many species of fish and some mammals, such as whales and dolphins. Many feed on the abundant plankton.
The benthic zone is the area below the pelagic zone, but does not include the very deepest parts of the ocean (see abyssal zone below). The bottom of the zone consists of sand, slit, and/or dead organisms. Here temperature decreases as depth increases toward the abyssal zone, since light cannot penetrate through the deeper water. Flora are represented primarily by seaweed while the fauna, since it is very nutrient-rich, include all sorts of bacteria, fungi, sponges, sea anemones, worms, sea stars, and fishes.
The deep ocean is the abyssal zone. The water in this region is very cold (around 3 C), highly pressured, high in oxygen content, but low in nutritional content. The abyssal zone supports many species of invertebrates and fishes. Mid-ocean ridges (spreading zones between tectonic plates), often with hydrothermal vents, are found in the abyssal zones along the ocean floors. Chemosynthetic bacteria thrive near these vents because of the large amounts of hydrogen sulfide and other minerals they emit. These bacteria are thus the start of the food web as they are eaten by invertebrates and fishes.
Coral reefs are widely distributed in warm shallow waters. They can be found as barriers along continents (e.g., the Great Barrier Reef off Australia), fringing islands, and atolls. Naturally, the dominant organisms in coral reefs are corals. Corals are interesting since they consist of both algae (zooanthellae) and tissues of animal polyp. Since reef waters tend to be nutritionally poor, corals obtain nutrients through the algae via photosynthesis and also by extending tentacles to obtain plankton from the water. Besides corals, the fauna include several species of microorganisms, invertebrates, fishes, sea urchins, octopuses, and sea stars.
Estuaries are areas where freshwater streams or rivers merge with the ocean. This mixing of waters with such different salt concentrations creates a very interesting and unique ecosystem. Microflora like algae, and macroflora, such as seaweeds, marsh grasses, and mangrove trees (only in the tropics), can be found here. Estuaries support a diverse fauna, including a variety of worms, oysters, crabs, and waterfowl.