Although many people think of swamps as gross, dirty, and disease-ridden places — everybody avoided Shrek and his swamp, right? — they are actually very vital to the health of the earth.
Swamps are incredibly diverse places with a lot of interesting wetland animals. Not only that, but they take up carbon at a rate unmatched by most anything else in the world. Without swamps and other wetlands, we’d be experiencing climate change at a much faster rate.
What kinds of animals have evolved to live in these unique and somewhat harsh environments? The answer might surprise you.
What Is A Swamp?
A swamp is a kind of wetland, but it is distinguished from other types of wetlands, like marshes, by its own unique characteristics. A swamp consists of both land and water, and the water is more widespread and deep than other wetland habitats.
Although swamps consist of some land, the land is completely, or almost completely filled with water. They are considered transition areas because they are not completely land or completely water.
In addition to this, swamps are usually found at very low elevations. However, it will have patches of land called “hummocks” that are elevated above the rest of the swamp land. You will notice that the water moves slowly and is often stagnant. Further, the water will generally be brown, a product of the tannins left over from decaying plant matter.
Swamps can be found in nearly every kind of climate across the globe. They are found on every continent except Antarctica.
The exact ecology of swamps can be broken down by the plants that dominate them: forested or shrub swamps. These swamps are further broken down based on which types of trees or shrubs are found within the swamp. Common swamps in the United States are conifer, cypress, hardwood, and mangrove. Swamps generally receive their names based on the trees.
Generally, though, swamps are broken down into two categories based on their water ecology: freshwater or saltwater swamps.
Freshwater swamps are usually found inland and will form around streams or lakes. The water level never stays the same because it changes with flooding and the rain. Because swamps are so waterlogged, the plants that grow there must be very water tolerant. They will grow inside the soil which permanently consists of moist conditions.
The vegetation is very unique and has adapted to less-than-hospitable conditions. Common swamps trees include cypress and tupelo trees, and moss will often hang from their branches. You will also notice shrubs growing beneath the trees. Cypress knees, or outgrowths of roots, poke up to 13 feet (4 meters) out of the water.
The animals that live within freshwater swamps have adapted to ever-changing water levels. They also take advantage of the privacy all of the shrubbery, roots, and moss produces.
Saltwater swamps are usually found close to coasts along the ocean. These swamps have not always been here. First, they started out as mud flats or flat areas of sand. During high tide, these flats would become submerged in a thin layer of sea water.
Inevitably, there would be some vegetation that is able to survive the flooding. Mangrove trees are the most popular example. They begin to grow in more abundance, taking over the area until it slowly becomes more swamp-like. Mangrove trees will dig their roots into the sand where their growth will encourage the formation of more soil.
Crabs, marine snails, and shellfish are frequently found in mangrove swamps where they feed on the dying leaves. Saltwater swamps are a wonderful place for young animals to grow because of the abundance of food and shelter. Because of this, many parents will give birth or lay their eggs within saltwater swamps.
Swamps are a rare occurrence across the globe, and the way they’re designed makes them very specialized. Their unique nature leads to them housing equally unique creatures. Many of the animals and plants that now live there were not always able to do so. Many species had to adapt to the odd and often harsh environment of swamps.
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Generally, the climate inside of swamps needs to stay consistent. The area is very humid and the temperatures are not extreme. The animals and plants native to swamp regions cannot handle a rapid change in the climate and would likely die.
Although the temperatures inside temperate swamps are never extreme, the biome manages to be both cold and warm at the same time. Generally, the air will be warmer, while the land is cold to the touch.
Also, because swamps are found all across the globe, the temperatures will vary by each swamp. Many swamps are found in tropical regions, so they will be warm year round.
Rather than the seasons being defined by temperature, they are more often defined by rainfall. Swamps will enter seasons of drought, typically winter and summer, where the swamp will be very dry. They also have a rainy season, usually spring, and fall, where the swamp will receive an excess of rain.
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Significant Swamps Around the World
There are swamps in many countries around the world including the United States, Brazil, Barbados, Indonesia, Russia, and many countries across Africa.
1. The Amazon Floodplain
The Amazon Floodplain is the largest swamp in the entire world, fed by the Amazon River. It spans about 96,525 square miles (250,000 square kilometers) and is found in Brazil.
This swamp averages about 78.7 inches (200 centimeters) of precipitation a year. The salinity only reaches up to 10 parts per million, and the water is about 76 degrees Fahrenheit (24.4 degrees Celsius).
2. The Everglades
The Everglades are one of the largest swamps in the United States. It is found in Florida from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Locals call The Everglades the “River of Glass”.
It is a freshwater swamp created from the large, slow-moving Kissimmee River. The Everglades swamp area is so large that it spans 60 miles (97 kilometers) wide and 100 miles (160 kilometers in length).
The Everglades receive an average annual precipitation of 61.8 inches (157 centimeters) a year. The Salinity varies between 0-37,000 parts per million, the large variation owing to the proximity of the ocean. The water also stays very warm, about 73 degrees Fahrenheit (22.7 degrees Celsius).
3. The Sudd
The Sudd is a large swamp located in South Sudan. It is fed from the White Nile river and spans about 11,583 square miles (30,000 square kilometers) wide. However, in the wet season, the swamp can become as large as 50,193 square miles (130,000 square kilometers).
This swamp receives about 24.8 inches (60 centimeters) of precipitation a year, and the average salinity is 50,000 parts per million. The water temperature is also quite warm — about 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius).
4. Fertile Crescent
The Fertile Crescent is a freshwater swamp region found in the middle east. The swamp resides between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
This swamp is so rich in biodiversity, that it is seen as the “birthplace” of civilization. The abundance and diversity at the crescent allowed for ancient agriculture, communication, and trade to take root. Further, the earliest piece of written language was found near this swamp as well as first use of the wheel.
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Swamp Environmental Threats & Climate Change
Unfortunately, swamps have long been seen as disease-ridden burdens on society. Centuries ago, we began working to destroy swamps and wetlands to make them into things we deemed “more useful”. But really, we need more swamps in the world because they protect our natural world and may fight against climate change.
Swamps and other wetlands are extremely efficient at pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They take the carbon dioxide and convert it into carbon-rich soil that helps new plants to grow. Research has shown that without wetlands, anthropogenically produced carbon monoxide in the world would increase by 28% every year.
Wetlands absorb more carbon than they release, turning carbon into plant tissue. When the plant dies, the carbon becomes nutrient-rich soil.
However, microbes in the soil will release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses when they break down organic matter. As the earth’s temperatures continue to increase, the microbe’s metabolism also increases, which increases the greenhouse gasses swamps are releasing into the atmosphere.
Similarly, arctic permafrost, or wetland soil that remains frozen for at least 2 years, acts as an even better carbon dioxide pull. Arctic permafrost stores twice as much carbon as the amount of carbon that is currently found in our atmosphere. Unfortunately, the permafrost is rapidly melting, causing significant releases of carbon dioxide.
Researchers believe that if arctic permafrost continues to thaw at its current rate, it will release as much carbon as all the United States sources combined. This includes carbon produced from power plants, transportation, and industry. This could all happen by the year 2100.
Further, the destruction of wetlands causes the carbon held within the soil to be released rapidly. This, of course, leads to more greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.
Still, as I said, swamps and other wetlands take up more carbon dioxide than they produce, so it’s incredibly important to protect and restore wetlands.
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Human Interactions & Impacts to Swamp Ecosystem
Swamps are one of the most important ecosystems on the planet. They help protect coastal land from natural disasters, and they provide invaluable resources.
Swamps soak up tons of water, so they act as a padding when large storms like hurricanes come along. The swamp takes most of the brunt of the storm, while the fragile coastline is protected from irreparable damage.
And of course, humans produce waste that is harmful to the natural environment around us. Miraculously, swamps help to mitigate these impacts. We produce chemical waste from factories, agriculture, water treatment plants, and our own homes, among others. The chemicals produced here runoff and leach into our environment.
When the chemicals enter a swamp, the plants will take up the harmful chemicals for their own use. Whatever chemicals are not used by the plants then sink to the bottom of the swamp and are buried by the sediment.
However, we didn’t always know this. Instead, humans saw swamps as dirty and scary places filled with disease-carrying bugs. It was very common, especially in the United States, to tear down swamps to turn them into agricultural and residential land. It wasn’t until the 1970s that protections were placed on swamps in the United States and restoration work began.
The destruction of swamps has also led to many species being threatened. Swamp biomes are very unique habitats. If swamps continue to be destroyed, we risk losing valuable species. Thankfully, laws have been passed in many countries to protect swamps from destruction or alteration.
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Mammals That Live In Swamps
1. River Otter (Lontra canadensis)
River otters are generally found in freshwater swamps. They have a ferocious appetite and groups can eat hundreds of fish in a day. The otters generally stay together in groups, living and hunting, and they will eat anything they can catch.
The otters are opportunistic and will even take over the dwellings of old beaver dens. You’re not likely to see these critters, though, because they’re nocturnal and fearful of humans.
Most people think they’re cute because they’re really playful. They will slide in the mud and snow, burrow in the snow, and play in the water together. These activities may be specifically for fun because they will use the activities to bond. Other times, the activities are used to mark their scent, or to practice their hunting.
2. African Lechwe (Kobus leche)
African Lechwe are moderately-sized antelopes that are chestnut color. It might seem odd to see these kinds of creatures living in a swamp, but their hooves have specially adapted for the terrain.
The males and females stay separated for most of the year when it is not the breeding season. The females and her young are very dependent on a source of water which is why they’re so commonly found in swamps. Males don’t need as much water, so you may find them further away from the swamp area.
Interestingly, the males are only on their own during the rut season. They will fight other males out of their area. The rest of the year, the males will congregate in what is called a “bachelor herd”.
3. Florida Panther (Puma concolor coryi)
The Florida Panther is an endangered species, but is still a resident of The Everglades. They were so endangered in 1995 that there were only 30 individuals left, and they were having trouble reproducing because of inbreeding. Then, researchers introduced 8 female Texas Cougars into the area. Today, we have about 200 Florida panthers.
Panthers are solitary animals and it is rare that you will see adults together outside of the breeding season. They are also territorial, so they will mark their home ranges with feces, urine, and piles of dirt called “scrapes”. They will use these territory markers to keep other panthers away, as well as to indicate their presence during the breeding season.
4. Marsh Rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris)
Most rabbits are not well adapted to live in environments like a swamp, but the Marsh Rabbit has evolved to live only near water. They are actually expert swimmers and will sometimes hide in the water when they feel threatened
Their main diet consists of any types of plants, both terrestrial and aquatic. Usually, they will eat things like blackberries, rhizomes, bulbs, grasses, cattails, and water hyacinths. However, in the winter when it gets too cold for vegetation to grow, they may resort to eating bark.
These rabbits are mostly solitary, but if a particular area has a lot of resources, then they may gather together. When they make their nests, they will create it out of grass, weeds, and rabbit fur.
5. Babirusa (Babyrousa babyrussa)
The Babirusa is a diurnal animal that is most active in the morning. When they are not out and about, they can be seen lying down and sleeping. They will spend about half of their lives sleeping. They will create nests made out of straw and will rest in the mu
These animals are great swimmers and runners. They will often swim across the sea to get to islands that are located offshore. To keep their tusks worn down, they will rub them against the bark of trees. They can also be heard clattering their teeth together when they’re excited.
The males generally prefer to be solitary, but the females will get together in small family groups. The groups are usually made up of the young and a few sub-adults.
6. Red-Capped Mangabey (Cercocebus torquatus)
Red-Capped Mangabey is a type of monkey. They are mostly herbivorous, feeding on things like fruit, nuts, seeds, leaves, grass and mushroom types. But, they can be seen eating small invertebrates as well.
These monkeys are social and like to live in groups of about 10-35 individuals. The groups will actually have several males, and they live peacefully for the most part.
They are very expressive with the way they behave, walking with their tail arched, the white tip of the tail held just over their head. Researchers believe that the monkeys will tap or flick their tails as a form of communication to other group members. They will also frequently open and close their bright white eyelids.
7. Duck-Billed Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)
Duck-Billed Platypuses eat mostly aquatic invertebrates, but will also eat shrimp, fish, and fish eggs. Because of their small size, they often find themselves in danger from predators like foxes, dogs, snakes, birds of prey, feral cats, and eels.
These animals are solitary, but they are not aggressive with each other. If they notice that their territory overlaps with another platypus, rather than defending their territory, they will simply change their foraging location.
The really interesting thing about platypuses is that they are only 1 of 3 mammal species that lays eggs rather than giving live birth.
8. Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus)
Fishing Cats are named as such because they can be seen “fishing” at the edges of swamps and other bodies of water. They catch their prey by scooping it out of the water. They can be playful as well because they’ve been seen playing with fish in shallow water.
These cats primarily eat fish and shellfish. Records indicate that their ancestors may have eaten dogs, sheep, and calves as well. Records even show that these cats used to take human babies for their meals.
9. Black Bear (Ursus americanus)
Black Bears are usually crepuscular, meaning that they are most active during the twilight hours. However, their breeding habits and access to food may cause them to act more diurnally during some parts of the year.
These bears are incredibly intelligent animals with lots of curiosity and a desire to explore. As with many animals that have a higher intelligence, black bears have a slow growth rate. Research shows that they learn a lot about how to best hunt and find their way around their territories.
Black bears have a great sense of smell, so they will communicate with each other and other animals through scent markings. They will also communicate using body language, facial expression, touch, and vocalizations.
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Birds That Live In Swamps
1. Snowy Egret (Egretta thula)
Snowy Egrets like to live in swamps because they hunt in water that is shallow. They catch prey like fish, invertebrates, frogs, and small snakes. To catch their prey, they will move slowly through the shallow water, kicking the mud, attempting to kick up anything hidden there.
It is important for these birds to have good hygiene routines, and they will regularly groom their wings. They will also scratch their head to remove any insects that may be lingering there, and they will give themselves baths in the water. When they’re not foraging, they will spend most of their time sleeping.
Snowy Egrets are very social and will forage with other egrets and even birds of other species. They will interact frequently with other birds in nesting areas as well, although they rightfully avoid birds of prey.
2. American Coot (Fulica americana)
American Coots, or Mud Hens, are most closely related to cranes, although they look very similarly to ducks.
They will float on the water and dive down for their food if they can’t find any on the surface of the water. They primarily eat aquatic plants, with their favorite being floating plants.
They also spend most of their time on the water because they are bad fliers. To get into the air, they must run first to give themselves a boost. While their feet aren’t great for walking on land, they are great for walking on aquatic vegetation and swimming.
3. Shoebill (Balaeniceps rex)
Shoebills are generally solitary, and will not often be seen around other birds. However, if the food supply is low, they will gather together to forage near each other. Even when the birds are breeding, the male and female will usually go their separate ways to forage, choosing to look for food on opposite sides of their breeding territory.
These birds are very docile and do not seem to mind the presence of humans. Researchers discovered that they could get within 6 feet (1.8 meters) of a Shoebill nest without the bird making any movement or form of protest. Rather than trying to run humans off, they will simply sit and stare at them.
For the most part, Shoebills are quiet birds. However, you will sometimes hear them clattering their bills. Adults most often do this to greet each other when one approaches the nest.
4. Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
You will see Great Blue Herons and and about mostly in the morning and at dusk. This is the time that is best for fishing, however, they are visual hunters, so they need daylight to catch their fish.
To fish, they will stalk through the water similar to how egrets fish. When they see a fish in the water, they will plunge in with their bill to spear the fish.
Great Blue Herons prefer to hunt alone, but they like to be in groups otherwise. When they breed, they will do so in groups called “rookeries”. They will also sleep in large flocks of over 100 herons each night.
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Insects That Live in Swamps
Unlike what you might guess, mosquitoes are actually the most deadly animal in the world. This is because they feed on the blood of animals, and ingest diseases when they bite animals. When they go to bite the next animal, the disease that they ingested will then be passed into the victim’s blood.
Malaria is the most dangerous disease contracted from mosquitoes. Other unpleasant diseases caused by mosquitoes include the West Nile virus and the Zika Virus. Most mosquito-related problems occur in less developed countries, and they are a result of 1 million human deaths every year.
However, mosquitos are going to be a problem wherever you go, even if they’re just a nuisance. For example, there are over 80 kinds of mosquitos living in The Everglades alone. If you go to visit, you’re sure to find yourself as a mosquito’s next tasty snack.
2. Linnaeus’ 17-Year Cicada (Magicicada septendecim)
The Linnaeus’ 17-Year Cicada is really interesting in how it reproduces. The insects burrow underground in groups called broods. As the name suggests, every 17 years, a single brood will emerge from underground to reproduce.
The females will lay their eggs in trees, and the eggs will hatch about the middle of summer. After hatching, the nymphs will burrow underground about 1-3 meters (3 to 9 ft). They will then remain underground for 17 years where they feed and mature.
Before emerging 17 years later, they will build tunnels to help them out of the ground. The brood will usually emerge during May. Once emerging, they will attach themselves to the bark of a tree where they will undergo their final molt within 4-5 days.
After mating, the female can lay up to 500 eggs, after which she dies. Both the male and the female will be dead by the month of July.
3. Water Striders (Gerris sp.)
Water Striders are spider-like bugs that have adapted to live at the surface of the water. Their bodies are long and bulky compared to their extremely thin and slender legs. Surface tension is formed between their feet and the surface of the water, allowing them to walk on water.
These insects don’t only use surface tension to walk on water. Their bodies are specially adapted to help them stay afloat, too. There are tiny hairs all over the insect’s legs. These hairs repel water while taking up air at the same time. This helps them to float and move more easily.
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Reptiles That Live in Swamps
1. American Alligator (Alligator mississippienses)
American alligators are native to the Southeast United States. Many people are fearful of them, but they are actually more shy around humans. That is, as long as people aren’t feeding them. Some people think it is fun to feed wildlife, but that’s never a good idea.
Otherwise, breeding season is the time where it’s most dangerous to be around alligators. The males become more territorial than they normally are, and of course, the females become protective of their nests.
Always be careful when you see alligators regardless, especially when you have children and small pets. They won’t normally attack, but they are opportunistic, so they won’t turn down a meal if it’s placed right in front of them.
2. Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
Saltwater Crocodiles are likely one of the most intelligent reptiles on the planet. They have four different calls as a way of communicating with each other. There is a distress call which is mostly used by juveniles. They make hissing or coughing sounds as their threat calls. There is a short, barking call performed by hatchlings. There is also the courtship call which sounds like a long, low growling.
They spend most of their life trying to regulate their body temperature. When they become too hot, they will go into the water where they will float with just their eyes above the surface. When cold, they will bask in the sun on a hot rock.
Saltwater Crocodiles are the largest of the crocodile species, and also the most dangerous. Males can grow up to 19.6-23 feet (6 to 7 meters) in length and weigh up to 2,600 pounds (21,200 kilograms). Unlike the American Alligator, they are known to attack humans unprovoked.
They are incredibly territorial and can become irritated very easily. It’s best to simply give these animals a wide berth and give them no reason to harm you. Just like alligators, they are opportunistic and will attack for food if you give them the opportunity, particularly around water.
3. Florida Softshell Turtle (Apalone ferox)
Florida Softshell Turtles are one of the turtles found all throughout Florida, but they most frequently inhabit lakes, rivers, ponds, and swamps.
When you see one of these turtles, you’ll notice that they don’t have a hard shell like most turtles do. Instead, their shell is covered in thick, leather-like skin. Because they are missing the hard shells that bog most turtles down, Florida Softshell Turtles are able to move somewhat fast over land.
These turtles also lay lots of eggs because most of the young will not make it to adulthood. The female turtle will lay about 10-40 eggs with each clutch, and she may lay up to 3-4 clutches a year. If a turtle does make it to adulthood, they can potentially live to be 50 years old.
4. Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)
Alligator Snapping Turtles are the most formidable turtles you’ll meet on land, although they are exceedingly rare. They are the largest land turtles in the world, and they can reach up to 200 pounds (90.7 kilograms).
These turtles hunt their prey by ambushing them. They will hide out, waiting for their prey to walk, swim, or hop past, and then the turtle will snap them up — quite literally — that’s why they’re called snapping turtles, after all.
Snapping Turtles are so good at camouflaging themselves that you might not even notice when you’ve walked past one. Often, they may just look like large rocks. They can hold their breath for up to 50 minutes which is what allows them to be so still when they’re hunting. They don’t want to give their position away.
5. Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)
The Cottonmouth, or the Water Moccasin, is one of the most feared snakes in the United States because they’re very venomous. However, these snakes are not aggressive and will not attack unless they feel threatened. Most Cottonmouth bites are caused by people stepping on them or trying to handle them.
They really do not like to bite, even if you come too close to them, and they will attempt to warn you away first. If you come too close, they will shake their tail back and forth, coil their bodies with their head held high and fangs exposed, and will make a rustling sound.
These snakes like to live on their own and won’t often leave their home range. They also will not go more than 1,640 feet (500 meters) from a source of water, although juveniles have been known to travel a bit further.
6. Green Anaconda (Eunectes murinus)
Both green and yellow Anacondas can be found in swamp environments because they’re very adaptable to changes in their habitat. They prefer to stay in the water, but during the dry season, they manage to survive. If they are unable to find a source of water, they will burrow into some mud and go dormant to prevent themselves from drying out.
They are most active during dusk and the early hours of the evening. They are fast movers, easily able to travel long distances over a short period of time.
Anacondas are able to tell when another animal is approaching by the vibrations felt in the ground. They can also taste chemicals in the air produced by other animals by tasting the air with their forked tongue.
7. Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota)
Brown Water Snakes are mostly diurnal, but they may also be seen hunting in the evening when their predators are not around. They will also change the hours that they are most active based on the seasons. For example, they become more nocturnal during the summer months.
These critters are water snakes, so they are very adept at swimming and hunting in the water. They are known to dive into the water to look for prey, and they can hold their breath for up to 30 minutes.
Brown Water Snakes are not aggressive and prefer to act passive when they’re threatened. If they are disturbed while basking, it seems as though they hold their breath to play dead until the danger passes. When threatened in a tree, they will usually drop from the branch into the water to escape. If this isn’t an option, they will attack.
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Aquatic Species That Live In Swamps
1. Pygmy Sunfish (Elassoma evergladei)
Pygmy Sunfish are found in some swamps and may be seen hiding among the roots of plants and in aquatic grass. They generally stay where the water is quite shallow, and they will hide where there is plenty of aquatic vegetation, especially floating plants.
These fish are very shy, but they can become territorial if they need to be. They will most commonly feed on worms and crustaceans.
Although these fish are called “sunfishes”, they are not true sunfish. Instead, they’re likely more closely related to sticklebacks and pipefishes.
2. Red Swamp Crayfish (Procambarus clarkii)
Red Swamp Crayfish love to burrow, and they will do so to find food, take up moisture, and to get warm. They will molt several times throughout their lifetime, and when they’re ready, they will dig into the mud to wait out their molting process.
These crayfish are quite small and are mostly prey as a result. Because of this, they are most active at night when they hunt. During the day, they will burrow into the mud, or hide in rocks or logs.
Although they are prey themselves, they are predators of smaller species. Red Swamp Crayfish are carnivores and will feed on tadpoles, insect larvae, and snails. If food is scarce, they have also been known to eat worms and carrion.
3. Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth Bass are social animals when they are young, forming schools with other juvenile bass of a similar size. When they become adults, they prefer to be solitary, although they don’t travel far from their home range.
These fish are cold-blooded, so their activity depends on their surrounding environment. They are more active when the water is warm because they are able to metabolize their food more quickly.
Largemouth Bass are not very active during the day, preferring to rest in the shade under lily pads and other aquatic vegetation. In the evening, they will swim to shallow water where they will look for food. However, they do not stay active all night. Once they have had their fill, they will go back to hiding and resting.