Volume 18 - March 22, 2004
A recent shot of the Atchafalaya Basin at sunset shows its outstanding scenic beauty. Flat Lake, Louisiana.

Remarkable Rivers

A view of the leveed Mississippi River running through Plaquemine Parish.

Louisiana has many extraordinary river systems. The state's larger rivers are the Mississippi, Atchafalaya, Red, Black, Sabine, Ouachita, Mermentau, and Calcasieu. These streams support amazingly diverse fish populations and hold great scenic value. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has a program called the BIG RIVER PROGRAM whereby scientists are collecting data on the different species of fish in these varied waterway habitats. Did you know that 84 different species of fish were collected by biologists in just a few weeks time in the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers alone? Since Bald Eagles like to feast on fish, it is no wonder CC and I have recently seen that bird every few miles the last three weeks!

The Mississippi and the Atchafalaya rivers are wide, muddy, and oh, so busy with traffic. Cruising on these waterways is an awesome experience. We are presently near the Atchafalaya River in the Morgan City area. The last place we parked the Wetland Wanderer was on Bayou Teche. The wide high ground on both sides of the Teche is a reminder of the extraordinary land creating ability of the Mississippi River. We parked at a home, which backed up to this now lazy bayou that used to be the raging Mississippi River. 

The Mississippi River system is one of the most studied and monitored in the world. Our planet is about 4.65 billion years old, and over the eons natural forces have constantly changed its surface. The processes that created all of our coastal wetlands east of Lafayette took only about 7,000 years--an extremely short period compared to the billions of years of geologic time. The story of the formation of the Mississippi River deltas east of Lafayette is one of dynamic action! The 2,340-mile long, sediment carrying Mississippi River creates a delta by sediment deposition when it slows down as it approaches its final destination, the Gulf of Mexico. A good comparison is a dirt-water mixture in an electric blender. When the blender blades spin very fast, all of the dirt particles stay suspended, and none of them settle out to the bottom. If you reduce the water turbulence by switching to the slowest spin speed of the blades, some of the larger dirt particles will soon settle out to the bottom. The same thing happens to the sediment that is carried by a river that is slowed down.  

The river prefers the easiest and shortest route into the Gulf. Over time, water flow in a river channel is slowed by sediment deposits in the waterway that create sandbars and islands which resist the flow of water.  Eventually, a channel becomes so troublesome that the river spills over one bank or the other and starts to seek a new shorter and less hindered route to its destination. The river leaves behind deposited sediment of the previous channel. This deposited sand, silt, and clay make a new strip of high and well drained land many miles wide. As these abandoned old river channels age, they become much narrower; that happened to Bayou Teche.  It was once the main channel of the Mississippi, it is now a peaceful, lazy bayou with homes and camps along its edges.

Over the past several thousands of years, a series of deltas were created. The Mississippi changed channels five to seven times trying to reach the Gulf in a hurry. Listed below are the names of five important deltas.

Cocodrie- 2600 B.C. to 1800 B.C.
Teche- 1900 B.C. to 700 B.C.
St. Bernard- 600 B.C. to 300 B.C.
Lafourche- A.D. 65- A.D. 1300
Modern- A. D. 900- present

These deltas originally extended from 15 to 50 miles out into the Gulf! For example, the Chandeleur Island chain off eastern coastal Louisiana is all that remains of the outer rim of the original St. Bernard delta.

The forces of nature that create mountains, great rivers, and canyons are indeed dramatic. Floods have created some of the world's most extensive and fertile farmland by depositing rich layers of sediment on wide floodplains. The Nile River delta of Africa is a classic example. The Mississippi deltas have Louisiana's most fertile soils. Therefore, many people settled in a delta region to raise fast growing crops and live. Naturally occurring floods are as harmful to humans as levees and canals are to a river system. As towns and cities sprang up, early settlers understandably began trying to control the river's flooding to stop damage to crops and homes. The first levee was built in New Orleans in 1718.

Modern levees reduce the hazard of flooding and make the delta high ground more livable. However, without the normal spring flooding and sediment deposits of the river the wetlands ecosystem is completely altered. Modern levees have turned the meandering Mississippi into a fast flowing water chute. If you have ever been on a water slide you can understand. Your body gets going really fast when you are surrounded by close barriers on two sides, and you have only a narrow path to travel. The sediment in the river goes fast too, and like you speeding into the deep pool at the slide's end, the sediment winds up way offshore and settles in the deeper Gulf waters. Marshes and barrier islands that protect the coastline from hurricane wave damage are no longer being built up by the river. Freshwater marshes are no longer being nourished by river fresh water and nutrient rich sediment.

Flood control levees, shipping canals, oil and gas canals all benefit human society but they stop the river's natural ability to build and protect land. As you see, what makes solving the problem of Louisiana's wetland loss so complicated is trying to find the balance between control of a mighty river for property and safety and letting mother nature do her work!

Toward the middle of the 1900s the almost 1,000 year old channel of the Mississippi River below the Atchafalaya River became quite curvy and long. The Atchafalaya River, with its straight and relatively short route to the Gulf, is the course that many think the Mississippi River would have changed to a few decades ago had it not been for man's building a water control structure at the junction of the two rivers. 

We are now in the Atchafalaya Basin. As a distributary, the Atchafalaya River is allowed to take up to 1/3 of the Mississippi's flow and sediment load to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the alarming rate of Louisiana's coastal wetland loss, the delta being created at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River is the fastest growing delta in the world! A very bright spot in the overall bleak outlook for out state's wetlands. In the short distance C.C. and I have traveled we have become increasingly aware of the great diversity of wetland habitats and how complicated maintaining those environments will be.

Goo Goo, Gaa Gaa Gators

Can you see the newly hatched baby American alligator? Great camouflage helps baby alligators to survive in the wild.

Dear Annie,

Last June my Mommy built a nest with marsh vegetation. She laid 42 eggs.  The heat created by the decaying vegetation which she piled into a big mound, or nest, helped incubate my clutch. We were curled like the swirl of a cinnamon roll in a two inch long egg for about 60 days! Did you know that our sex is determined by the temperature of our nest? Egg temperatures above 86 degrees become males and below 86 degrees are females! We think this is one of the reasons we survived and dinosaurs did not. Lower global temperatures that occurred back then just created more female alligators and nesting increased. So we had a better chance to survive.

Before we were out of our eggs we called to our Mom, "Umph, umph, umph." She came and dug open the top of our nest to help us out. We developed an egg tooth at the end of our snout to help us slit open the egg. This helpful tool will be reabsorbed by our bodies in about three weeks.   Some of my sisters and brothers were stuck in their eggs and Mom gently helped them by breaking the eggs with her big jaws! After being curled up for a time, we were born ready to rumble!

Most of us made it out of our eggs and our nest and we started to swim, snap, and chirp immediately. Like most baby animals we are really camouflaged. Our scales are normally black with yellow stripes around our bodies. We are kind of flashy in your hand, but at the edge of a marsh or swamp we blend in like chocolate pudding in a mud pile!

Our camouflage helps protect us from the egrets, herons, raccoons, large mouth bass, and other larger alligators that enjoy us for dinner. We are called hatchlings, but maybe they should call us "snaplings" since we hatch out and begin snapping up insects as soon as we can! Next, we move on to eating minnows, then frogs, birds, mammals, and finally anything that cannot eat us first! It is a "dog eat dog" world in our swamp and marsh habitats. (Excuse the pun, Annie!) We will stay close to Mom for this reason.  All of us will stay in Mom's "guard yard" for six months. Then most of us will hang out with Mom for a couple of more years. She is pretty nice to us and come cold weather we hear she digs a cool underground hole where we all can just "chill out" for a time.

If we are lucky enough to survive, we will keep our camouflage patterns for about three years. By then we will be about three feet long and our scales will become blackish- brown. As we age, our hides will get tougher and thicker and our scutes will begin to grow taller, like bony plates. Our bellies will remain off white and smooth. People seem to really like our alligator hides.

It is sad for me to realize that in my natural habitat only about 10-20% of all hatchlings will survive to become breeders at 6 to 8 feet. The rest of us will be victims of other predators. I am a female and if I am a lucky one, I will grow up to a foot a year till I am 6 to 9 feet long. A male alligator will grow to 10 feet or more.

That is all I know for now, Annie. Thanks for asking me to help you teach human children about my kind! Come and visit us again soon, preferably when Mom is not at home and hungry!

Your Friend,
Allie  Gator

- In the past several thousand years the dynamic Mississippi River has changed course five to seven times and created the coastal land of south Louisiana east of Lafayette.
- The Mississippi River levee system was built to protect human life and property from flooding. However, flood waters of the Mississippi have built up wetlands and barrier islands, enriched our soil, and created new fertile land for agriculture and human habitation.
Find the meanings of cool words like tributary, sediment, or amphibian and many more...
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1. Consider all that Annie has told you about alligators in volume 17 and 18. Write the 5 most interesting facts you have learned about this reptile in your journal.

Students and teachers check out all the activities and units of study. Go to education them explore! This is a great site by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Click here to find sources of more great information!
la·gniappe    (ln-yp, lnyp)
2. An extra or unexpected gift or benefit

Get painting & photo tips and much more, click here!
Audubon Elementary asks:
Explain the early (relatively warm) temperature change, and the negative or positive influence it may have on some animals?
CC answers:  It feels like it has been a cold winter to us living out on the houseboat.  I have noticed the bald cypress turning green earlier than usual in the Atchafalaya.  Nothing serious will happen to any of the animals unless there is a more major change.
L.J. Alleman Middle School asks:
When you start catching crawfish, what type of net will you use and do you have to use bait?
CC answers:  I will use crawfish wire traps and bait with fish carcasses.  Did you know that Purina makes Crawfish bait; it looks like giant pieces of dog food.
L.J. Alleman Middle School asks:
What do you feel are the three most endangered or threatened species in our wetlands?
CC answers:  1. Human Beings are number one. If we don't take care of these habitats, life will be a lot less enjoyable.  2. All marsh plants are locally endangered because we are losing them as the marsh erodes.  3. The Red Wolf is not only endangered but gone from Louisiana.  It was a creature of the hardwood bottomlands.  One of my favorite animals.
Phoenix Magnet Elementary asks:
How many babies can an alligator have at one time?  How do the babies nurse or feed whenever they are newborns?
CC answers:  Take a look at and you will see that baby alligators hatch from eggs like all reptiles do.  The mother American alligator lays an average of 38 eggs.  They hatch in about 63 days and can immediately eat insects and small minnows.  They do not nurse like mammals do.
St. Mary's Nativity School asks:
Is there a limit on the number of alligators per day for a hunter or the number of tags issued?
CC answers:  Alligator season usually lasts for amost of the month of September.  Land owners get tags in relation to the type of habitat they have.  I don't have the exact figures out here on the house boat, bu twill try to get it for you in the next few days.
St. Mary's Nativity School asks:
What is the price range per foot of alligator skin?

CC answers:  It varies each year due to market conditions.  It has ranged about from about $10 per foot to $50.00 per foot.  Recently it has been more to the low end.

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