Importance of Cattails in Wetlands

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Cattail (Typha) is an iconic emergent wetland plant found worldwide. By producing an abundance of wind-dispersed seeds, cattail can colonize wetlands across great distances, and its rapid growth rate, large size, and aggressive expansion results in dense stands in a variety of aquatic ecosystems such as marshes, ponds, lakes, and riparian areas. These dense stands impact local plant and animal life, biogeochemical cycling, and wetland hydrology, which in turn alter wetland functions. Over recent decades, the distribution and abundance of cattail in North America has increased as a result of human disturbances to natural water cycles and increased nutrient loads. In addition, highly competitive nonnative and hybrid taxa have worsened the rapid spread of cattail. Because cattail invasion and expansion often change wetlands in undesirable ways, wetland managers often respond with widespread management efforts, though these efforts may have short-lived or weak effects. Despite the negative impacts, cattail provides beneficial ecosystem services including the reduction of pollution through bioremediation and the production of biofuel material. A diverse team of researchers produced a paper that details the spread and management of cattail throughout North America (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13157-019-01174-7). This video highlights the primary topics covered in the paper.

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Date Taken:

Length: 00:03:35

Location Taken: ND, US

Video Credits

Video production by SciAni.
Voiceover: Errin Mixon

Transcript

00:00:10

Cattails are a common sight in waterways around the world as a normal, healthy part of wetland ecosystems. But as their population grows, so does their potential for negative impacts.

00:00:22

Researchers from public and private institutions study problematic species like overgrown cattail in North American wetlands, particularly the Florida Everglades, the Laurentian Great Lakes, and the Prairie Pothole Region.

00:00:35

Typha is the scientific name for cattail. These tall, reed-like plants grow rapidly in waterlogged areas, particularly areas disturbed by human activity.

00:00:45

Cattail multiplies quickly from wind-transported seeds, or genetically identical copies grown from existing roots.

00:00:53

It is well adapted to watery environments. Plants can grow in waters up to six feet deep, and a special air-ventilation system transports oxygen to the submerged roots and rhizomes.

00:01:05

Wetlands support a diverse ecosystem and further help society by purifying and storing freshwater and by driving global nutrient cycling. But human activity and cattails impact wetland health.

00:01:17

Millions of wetlands have been drained to build infrastructure or convert land for farming. Activities upstream have significant consequences on downstream wetlands.

00:01:28

When human activity disrupts a wetland, either by adding nutrients from agricultural-runoff or by changing natural water-cycles, it is easier for cattail to take hold. It displaces other plant species, reducing biodiversity. Cattail alters the breeding habitat and food supply for birds. Fish and insect populations decline as natural plant cover is displaced.

00:01:51

Cattail generates much dead plant material, storing carbon and reducing the amount released in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. However, extra carbon in water-soaked soil is a perfect home for microbes that emit methane, an even stronger greenhouse gas. Maintaining healthy wetlands is vital for regulating climate.

00:02:11

Cattail catches sediment, which raises soil nutrient levels. Too much phosphorus can lead to harmful algal blooms. To help remove phosphorous from aquatic systems, managers can harvest nutrient-rich leaves. The leaves are so carbon-rich they can be then be pelletized and used for biofuel. Indigenous peoples also harvest cattails for food and materials.

00:02:34

Cattail’s effects on wetland ecosystems are complex, and therefore management strategies must be too. Using just one herbicide or physical control technique has only temporary effects as cattail can quickly regrow and re-establish dominance

00:02:49

Using a combination of strategies, such as flooding, herbicides, and burning, managers can control cattail populations, but they also need information on positive and negative effects of these practices.

00:03:01

Interdisciplinary science is vital for effective research into cattail’s impacts and management. Studies that use ecology, genetics, computer modelling, and biogeochemistry are all essential for understanding complex wetland ecosystems in their entirety.