Types of Wetlands.
What's the difference between a "swamp" and a "bog"? Or a "marsh"? There really are different, specific meanings to these terms, and it's not just an arbitrary choice to use one word or the other.
(Use your browser's "back" button to go back to wherever you came from. I'll figure out how to map that later.)
A "swamp" is a low wetland where water from streams or rivers collects in a shallow flat area before flowing out in another stream or river. A swamp is usually muddy, and frequently supports trees, either water-tolerant trees like mangrove and cypress, or "land trees" on islands within the swamp.
Since the water in a swamp flowed in from a stream, it may be rich in oxygen and nutrients. Therefore, a swamp may support fish and other aquatic animals.
The best example of a swamp in my usual hiking areas is the swamp across U.S. Route 302 from Elephant Head. It receives water from a stream that flows off Mount Willard, and it discharges into the Saco River. Most of the area of the swamp is muddy stands of reeds and rushes, but there are distinct channels of open water within it. Classic swamp.
The swamp across the road from Elephant Head is a classic swamp.
Perhaps the best-known example of a classic swamp in North America is the bayou country of the Mississippi Delta. It receives water from the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya, and other rivers, and discharges into the Gulf of Mexico through several distinct channels. (Maybe it merges into marsh at many places along its fringe, but it's mostly swamp.)
Maybe you thought of Okefenokee or the Everglades? I consider each of them ambiguous. Read on.
Characteristics of a swamp:
There is some disagreement in the scientific community about the definition of a "swamp," but it often depends on vegetation. At least in North America, a "swamp" is a wetland that is covered with trees and that is not a "bog." My definition is different, as I think it should depend more on geology than on biology. So, "most scientists" would probably call the wetland across from Elephant Head a "marsh," but I call it a swamp. I am a little ambiguous myself, as my definition should call the mangrove areas of the Florida Keys a "marsh," but I usually call it a swamp. Even by my definition, the mangrove "swamps" along the fringes of the Everglades are fairly unambiguously a "swamp."
A "bog" is a wetland, often higher than the surrounding land, which holds water by virtue of the absorbency of its thick layer of peat. This peat is the main distinguishing characteristic of a bog, and it may be composed of sphagnum, lichen, or any other accumulated vegetation. A bog receives water only via precipitation, and releases water pretty much in all directions via general seepage.
Because it receives water only as precipitation, a bog is usually poor in oxygen, as well as in nitrogen and other nutrients. Furthermore, the slow decay of peat renders it somewhat acidic. As a result of all this, a bog usually supports few if any fish, and the plants often have special adaptations to obtain nitrogen from other sources. Many bog plants are able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, and most insectivorous plants - which obtain nitrogen from the insects they "eat" - are found in bogs.
The best example of a bog in my stomping grounds (I crack myself up) are the two bogs on the northern side of Mount Jackson. No stream flows into them, and only a few small seeps flow out of them in spring and summer. They support no trees, and there is no open water within them. The land trembles when you stomp on it, just as in Okefenokee (try jumping on the trail bridges and see what happens). While the peat here is more lichen than sphagnum, these are nevertheless classic bogs.
There are few well-known bogs in North America. I'll have to cite the peat bogs of the British Isles and northwestern Europe.
Okefenokee Swamp is technically a bog. It receives water only from precipitation, and that water is poor in oxygen and nutrients, but it does have distinct discharge into the Suwannee and St. Mary's Rivers. Also, un-boglike, it supports trees and some fish, and it has areas of open water. Still, it is a vast peat sponge higher than the surrounding land, so it is more of a bog than a swamp.
Characteristics of a bog:
My definition of "bog" agrees pretty well with that used by "most scientists."
A "marsh" is a wetland on the fringes of a body of water. The water may be nearly stationary, exchanging with main body of water only via wave action or convection, or it may flow into and out of the main body if there is a tide. A marsh may also occur in an estuary, where a river spreads out into a shallow, grassy area before emptying into the sea or a lake. A marsh may be separated from the main body of water by sandbars or barrier islands, but water is usually exchanged through large channels which can't really be called rivers.
A marsh may be fresh or saline, depending on the nature of the main body of water, or it may be brackish if it is an estuary where a river meets the sea. It usually has the same properties of dissolved nutrients as the main body of water, but it may be poorer in oxygen if the water exchange is poor. Marshes often serve as breeding grounds for fish that live in the more open water.
Many of the muddy areas along the Nashua River in Mine Falls Park are marshes. Maybe one or two of the reedy places on the fringe of the Mill Pond in Mine Falls Park could also be called marshes.
The fringes of the Everglades, where it meets the Gulf of Mexico, are more like a marsh than a swamp. Perhaps a better example is the vast salt marsh areas behind the barrier islands of the Mid-Atlantic, such as the shallow stretches of Pamlico Sound and the phragmites thickets of Virginia's Tidewater region.
Characteristics of a marsh:
My definition of "marsh" is a bit different from the definition used in the scientific community. In North America, a "marsh" is a wetland that is covered with grasses, sedges, and similar vegetation and that is not a "bog." I think the definition should depend more on geology than on biology. So, "most scientists" would probably call the wetland across from Elephant Head a "marsh," but I call it a swamp.
Other terms for wetlands tend to be regional or archaic and not generally used. Their meanings can be vague or ambiguous, so I stick with the three terms defined above, which are ambiguous enough.
Examples of some of these terms are "fen," "slough," and a whole slough of others.
Here are a few references elsewhere on the Web that might confuse you further: