11 Wild Wetland Animals

herd of water buffalo, in Sukhothai province (Thailand)
jean-claude soboul / Getty Images

A wetland is an area of land saturated with freshwater, saltwater, or a brackish mixture of the two. Marshes, estuaries, mangroves, bogs, and swamps are just a few examples of wetland ecosystems, which can often be found at transitional areas between bodies of water and land. Not all wetlands are wet year-round, while others endure as the sole source of water in otherwise parched desert landscapes.

Wetlands are important because they provide critical ecosystem services, from removing pollutants and mitigating flooding to sequestering carbon. They are dynamic places that change with the seasons, water levels, and species interactions. Most contain a multitude of animals, birds, and insects that form part of wetland food webs, supported by a great diversity of plant life. Read on to discover 11 amazing wetland creatures. 

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Jaguaress running in the water
Picture by Tambako the Jaguar / Getty Images

These beautiful spotted cats are the largest in the Americas and the apex predator of the Neotropics. Due to poaching and habitat loss, jaguars have disappeared from more than half their range. Today, the greatest concentrations of jaguars are in the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater wetland, which face threats from agricultural expansion and deforestation. The elusive, stealthy hunters prefer to be near water; they are excellent swimmers with jaws strong enough to grab hold of a caiman, although they’ll prey on everything from deer to lizards.

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yawning Hippo (Hippoptamus amphibius)
Buena Vista Images / Getty Images

One of the largest animals in the world, the common hippopotamus is an amphibious mammal found across sub-Saharan Africa. It submerges itself in shallow lakes, marshlands, and placid stretches of river during the day to keep its massive body cool and protect its skin from the hot sun. At night, hippos leave the water to feed on grasses. Although often described as an excellent swimmer, the heavy hippo doesn’t actually swim. Instead, hippos do a kind of galloping motion, pushing off from the bottom with their legs to propel through the water before surfacing to breathe.

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Indian Bullfrog

Indian Bull Frog
Susheel Shrestha / Getty Images

Typically a dull brownish-green, the male Indian bullfrog turns bright yellow during mating season, making for a striking contrast with its deep blue vocal sacks. It can escape predators by diving into deep water, but this voracious eater prefers thick vegetation where it can easily hide. The 6-inch frog consumes not only insects but worms, snakes, small rodents, and even birds. Its range includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. But it has also invaded Madagascar, the Maldives, and the Andaman Islands, where its carnivorous tadpoles consume the tadpoles of native frogs, threatening several endemic species.

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Asian Water Buffalo

High Angle View Of Crocodile Swimming In Lake, Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Mansour Obaidi / 500px / Getty Images

The Asian water buffalo originated in an area spanning from central India to Southeast Asia, but has been domesticated for thousands of years and is today found on five continents. Like hippos, wild water buffalo spend their days in water, where they forage for aquatic plants before emerging onto land at night to feed on grasses. Their specially shaped hooves help them move through swampy areas without getting stuck in mud, which is particularly important when fleeing formidable hunters like tigers. The water buffalo’s large, crescent-shaped horns also help defend against predators.

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Pygmy Three-Toed Sloth

Pygmy three-toed sloth

Bernal Saborio / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Thirteen million years ago, giant ground sloths inhabited an enormous wetland in northwestern South America. Today, sloths are nocturnal tree dwellers that move slowly through the canopies of neotropical rainforests, mangroves, and swamps. Sloths have an extremely slow metabolic rate and spend their days snoozing in trees and dining on leaves. Despite their reputation for, well, sloth, some are adept swimmers — none more so than the pygmy three-toed sloth on the Panamanian island of Escudo de Veraguas. To get around the mangrove forest, these little sloths simply plop into the water and paddle methodically with their head held above the surface. 

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Lesser Flamingo

Lesser Flamingo, Phoeniconaias Minor, Walvis Bay, Namibia
Luca Nichetti / EyeEm / Getty Images

While all flamingos are adapted to extreme environments, the smallest species takes the prize. In East Africa, lesser flamingos survive in wetlands inhospitable to most life. Lake Bogoria in Kenya and Lake Natron in Tanzania in particular are so salty and alkaline that they would burn the skin of most animals. But lesser flamingos gather at these lakes in the millions to nest and to feed on toxic blue-green algae calledcyanobacteria that would kill other animals. If they can’t find fresh water, the birds use special glands to extract salt and flush it out through their noses. 

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Devils Hole Pupfish

Devils Hole pupfish

USFWS Pacific Southwest Region / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Another species well-adapted to an extreme environment is the tiny Devils Hole pupfish, which has evolved to survive in a single spring in Death Valley National Park. The one-inch long pupfish lives in the top 80 feet of water, where the temperature is a constant 92 degrees F — hot enough to kill most other fish. Its population began to decline precipitously two decades ago and it remains extremely endangered. Climate change may push up water temperatures beyond the limit of the pupfish’s ability to survive, and researchers are racing to support its resilience.

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West Indian Manatees
James R.D. Scott / Getty Images

These gentle, solitary creatures inhabit rivers, estuaries, swamps, and marshes of the Caribbean, Florida, the Amazon, and West Africa. Manatees feed primarily on sea grasses and aquatic plants and, like their close relative the elephant, they have a split upper lip that helps them convey food to the mouth. Two of the three species, the West Indian manatee and African manatee, move between freshwater and saltwater, while the Amazon manatee lives exclusively in freshwater. All three are vulnerable to extinction. In addition to habitat loss, boat collisions, and climate change, manatees suffer from pollution, including pesticides and harmful algal blooms.

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American Beaver

Beaver, American Beaver, Castor canadensis,
Stan Tekiela Author / Naturalist / Wildlife Photographer / Getty Images

The industrious beaver doesn’t just live in wetlands, it creates them. By building dams of branches, twigs, and mud on rivers and streams, the thick-furred rodents create deep pools that protect from predators. Their engineering feats benefit many other species, too: Beaver dams often flood the land next to streams, providing numerous ecosystem services that support biodiversity. But that’s not all: Beaver dams improve water quality, recharge groundwater aquifers, sequester carbon, and even play a role in protecting riparian habitat against wildfires

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Capybaras With Baby
Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

Closely related to guinea pigs, capybaras are the largest rodents on Earth. These chubby, long-haired creatures inhabit ponds, marshes, forested wetlands, and seasonally flooded grasslands in South America. Partially webbed feet help them swim skillfully — which is important to their survival since they have many predators, including jaguars, boa constrictors, and caiman. Capybaras also eat their own feces. This is because their diet consists of tough grasses and aquatic plants, which become easier to digest the second time around.

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Painted River Terrapin

PAINTED BATAGUR TERRAPIN : Callagur borneoensis
Arun Roisri / Getty Images

This turtle, native to Southeast Asia, tends to live in river estuaries and mangroves. Its name comes from the fact that its unremarkable grey-brown coloring transforms dramatically during mating season. Male terrapins turn white with dark stripes and develop a strip of red from the top of its head to its nose, while females can develop reddish heads. Painted terrapins are critically endangered due to habitat destruction, the exotic pet trade, and the sale of their eggs for human consumption.