Endangered Species Handbook

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Aquatic Ecosystems

Introduction

The marshes, lakes and seas of the world are host to a great diversity of life. In Asian wetlands, brightly colored storks step through reeds while scanning the shallow water for tiny fish. Marsh deer leap gracefully on their wide hooves through mud and spongy vegetation in Brazil's Pantanal. Great flocks of sandhill cranes darken the skies over North American rivers and bogs, emitting their haunting, hoarse cries as they circle to land. Otters, native to all continents except Australia, cavort on river banks, squealing to one another as they leap into the water. Eurasian and American beavers dam rivers, creating ponds where dragonflies, fish, frogs and aquatic mammals thrive. Papyrus swamps line many great rivers in Africa, home to strange shoebill storks, lechwe antelope, crocodiles and hippopotamuses. These aquatic habitats are a lifeline to hundreds more species of birds and mammals who come to drink and bathe. Freshwater ecosystems occupy a tiny fraction of the Earth's surface, unlike saltwater habitats, which cover three-fourths of the planet. Along tropical coasts, mangroves shelter tiny shrimp, crabs and fish. Manatees glide slowly in these quiet waters. A dazzling array of coral grows in fantastic shapes in tropical waters, inhabited by fish, anemones and starfish in every imaginable color, pattern and shape. Throughout the world's seas, whales, dolphins and seals leap above the waves and communicate with one another in complex musical sounds. Bizarre, deep-sea creatures inhabit sulphur-spewing hot vents or lightless sea floors. Wondrous habitats and their wildlife have undergone massive degradation caused by human activity. Many have disappeared altogether over the past few centuries and an even greater number are being destroyed or are losing many native species.


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