Michigan is well-known as the “Great Lakes State” but there is much more to the state’s freshwater ecosystem than the massive inland freshwater seas that garner all the attention. There is a true “underdog” in Michigan’s freshwater systems—groundwater.
In honor of National Groundwater Awareness Week (March 5-11, 2023), the Michigan Nature Association is proud to explore a vital component of Michigan’s groundwater system, fens, written by MNA volunteer Zoë Goodrow.
What is a fen?
When the final glaciers in Michigan retreated north about 8,000-12,000 years ago, they shaped landforms that eventually became the wetlands we see today. Fens are among the rarest types of wetlands – more specifically, peatlands – found in Michigan. What differentiates fens from other wetlands is their hydrology.
Fens are fed by a continuous flow of groundwater that filters through nutrient-rich layers of sediment, like limestone, resulting in an ecosystem rich in calcium and magnesium. The steady supply of groundwater into fens means that fen soils remain saturated throughout the year. This causes a reduced abundance of bacteria that break down plant materials (compared to other wetlands), resulting in a buildup of decayed plant debris – also known as peat.
Rare species in fens
Fens have 500 times more rare plant and animal species than the average acre of land in Michigan. They support nearly 60 rare species and are the Michigan equivalent of rainforests in terms of relative biodiversity. Typical plant species that are unique to fens across Michigan include sphagnum mosses, white lady slipper, fringed gentian, edible valerian, and carnivorous plants including sundews and pitcher plants. Rare animals that habituate fens include the yellow rail, Mitchell’s satyr, and eastern massasauga rattlesnake. Fens are extremely fragile and sensitive systems that are already being impacted by climate change, which does not bode well for the rare species that are endemic to fen ecosystems. Because of this, and their significance to Michigan’s biodiversity, it is important to know the guidelines for minimizing disturbance before you visit one.
Types of Michigan fens
Michigan is home to many types of fens, including the northern, prairie, patterned, and coastal fens. These different fens are characterized by the natural processes that formed them and the climatic conditions of the regions they reside in.
Northern fens are found in the Upper Peninsula and the northern half of the Lower Peninsula. They occur where a glacial outwash meets a more textured glacial feature like a kettle lake or an end moraine.
Prairie fens, located in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, occur in former oak-savanna prairies. As their name suggests, they are dominated by a mix of prairie and wetland sedges, grasses, and forbs. These fens were formed via the same glacial processes as northern fens.
Patterned fens, also known as string bogs, also occur in the Upper Peninsula. What differentiates these fens from northern fens is that they are a series of alternating ridges and hollows, oriented parallel to the contours of the land. The natural processes responsible for forming these unique systems are still unknown. While there are several proposed hypotheses – researchers agree that an essential factor is the direction of water movement, as the ridges and hollows are consistently oriented perpendicular to the flow of groundwater. (See more on patterned fens with MNA’s Fox River Wetlands in the video linked below)
Coastal fens occur along Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula. The natural processes that formed them are inextricably linked to those of the Great Lakes. The water tables that influence these systems are subjected to seasonal and multi-year lake level fluctuations, so vegetation in coastal fens changes quickly when water levels change.
To experience a fen habitat first-hand, consider visiting MNA’s Lefglen Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County. The sanctuary is home to a prairie fen and a natural flowing well visible from the south trail. Visit our online sanctuary map for directions and more information.