Mississippi River Wildlife, Size, Activities, and More

Written by Rebecca Mathews
Updated: September 9, 2023
© Sam Wagner/Shutterstock.com
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The mighty Mississippi River runs through 10 U.S. states. It’s an important migration route for wildlife and a critical commercial waterway for business. The river runs south for 2,340 miles from north Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, feeding numerous tributaries along the way. It’s not an exaggeration to say the Mississippi River has shaped American history and continues to exert incredible influence today. Let’s discover the Mississippi River’s wildlife, size, activities, and more.

Mississippi River Source

Most experts agree the Mississippi River’s source is Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota. Debate surrounds the exact source because rivers to the north of the Mississippi flow into its waters.

The Mississippi River rises in Lake Itasca, and it bisects the U.S. It passes through or touches the borders of 10 states. They are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Its mouth (where it drains into the ocean) is located in the Gulf of Mexico.

The mighty Mississippi River drains 32 states. Its drainage basin is over 1,000,000 square miles, so it carries more water than any other American river. This means it’s prone to widespread floods despite the high volume of flood defense work carried out by the U.S. Army Corps.

The Mississippi River drains 32 states. Its drainage basin is over 1,000,000 square miles, so it carries more water than any other American river.

©Photo Image/Shutterstock.com

Mississippi River Size

From start to finish, the Mississippi River is 2,340 miles long. It’s the second-longest American river.

As it travels almost the entire length of the United States, the Mississippi River widens and narrows. Its source, Lake Itasca, owns its narrowest stretch. It’s approximately 20-30 feet wide there. Lake Winnibigoshish in Minnesota hosts its widest point of 11 miles. The widest navigable point is two-mile-wide Lake Pepin, also in Minnesota.

In terms of water discharge, the mighty Mississippi River expels 593,003 cubic feet of water into the Gulf of Mexico every second. Its massive discharge rate makes the Mississippi River the 15th largest in the world. It actually takes three months for water rising in Lake Itasca to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

For comparison, the largest river by discharge is the Amazon River. The indefatigable Amazon discharges 7,380,765 cubic feet per second. That’s because the Amazon River drains wet rainforests.

The river moves at six cubic feet per second at Lake Itasca and speeds up to 12,000 cubic feet per second when it reaches Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam in Minneapolis. By the time it reaches New Orleans, the last city on its list, the Mississippi River is flowing at 600,000 cubic feet per second.

Mississippi River Depth

The Mississippi River is a naturally formed river with human modifications. Its depth varies greatly, but the deepest point experts know of is 200 feet near Algiers Point in New Orleans, Louisiana.

On average, the Mississippi River is between 9 and 12 feet deep.

Beneath its waters lie silt and mud that stretch even deeper down. Wrecks found at the Mississippi River’s bottom are often entirely sunken into its deep silt. Mussels, crayfish, and phytoplankton take advantage of the river bottom’s rich nutrients, forming the basis of an enormous and varied ecosystem.  

History

Native Americans, including the Choctaw, Sioux, and Ojibwes, found clean water, food, and transportation at the Mississippi River. Evidence indicates humans have been using its resources since at least the 4th century BCE. It was Native Americans who named it Michi Sepe, meaning great river or father of waters.

The very earliest explorers used its waterways to move into the country’s heartlands. Garrisons, fur trapping stations, and traders set up along its shores. When European settlers arrived in the States, land bordering the rich river was valuable and coveted to the extent that Britain, Spain, and France all fought for ownership.

After the establishment of the United States, the Mississippi River became essential to its growth and economy. Nothing else could transport goods so far or with such speed. Not only did it provide clean drinking water, fish, and mussels to inhabitants, it played an integral part in the industrial revolution. After a devastating flood in 1927, the Mississippi River was subject to federal dredging, diking, and levees to control floods and create navigable waterways.

It’s not been plain sailing. Altering the course of this massive river has isolated over 2,000 miles of watershed, which has led to flooding and the detriment of wildlife.  

Drone view of the Mississippi River flowing past the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station
The very earliest explorers used its waterways to move into the country’s heartlands.

©Justin Wilkens/Shutterstock.com

Fish

The Mississippi River is home to over 160 species of fish. Over 25% of all native species live here, from bull sharks (yes, really!) and weird-looking paddlefish to sports fish such as bass, crappie, bluegill, American eels, walleye, and perch.

The Mississippi River is home to some incredible fish and some of the best sport fishing found in the whole of the U.S., but it’s also the escape route for non-native species to spread across the country. According to the National Parks Service, invasive carp like silver carp, common carp, and Asian carp make their way along the river to the detriment of native species who are outcompeted. Several of the river’s dams and locks are closed to prevent invasive fish species from spreading.

There’s no limit to the number of fish that anglers can catch on the Mississippi River as long as they are freshwater fish and not a protected species like alligator gar. However, pollution levels mean experts recommend certain species are eaten in moderation due to mercury and other pollutant risks.

Geology

The last Ice Age’s Laurentide ice sheet created the Mississippi River basin. Gliding glaciers eroded rock, and their frozen ice melted to form a vast river. Scientists first thought the Mississippi River was 20 million years old. Still, the discovery of zircon fragments from the river in Illinois enabled scientists to safely date the Mississippi River to 70 million years old.

Although the Mississippi River formed naturally, humans have extensively modified it to create safe shipping lanes and prevent catastrophic floods. Modifications like dredging the river floor and building dams and locks have altered its natural flow. Alternations have profited humans, but they have not aided wildlife in its water or animals making use of the silt-rich riverbanks and flood plains.

What Activities Are There on the Mississippi River?

The river’s wildlife, size, and activities provide employment to over 35,000 people, and it’s one of the chief powers of the Midwest economy. Each year, 175 million tons of freight travel the upper Mississippi, navigating its way through 29 locks and dams.

Aside from economic fortunes, Old Blue is a center for recreation. Twelve million people visit the river for fun each year, from pleasure boaters, canoeists, and kayakers to anglers, campers, and day trip picnickers. Did you know that water skiing was invented on this mighty river? In 1922, Ralph Samuelson took a board and washing line out onto Lake Pepin, and water skiing took off.

Park rangers warn against swimming here. The mighty Mississippi might look calm, but its powerful currents can sweep people away. Water quality is also a potential issue. Because farmland spill-off, sewage, and industrial waste all enter the water, rangers recommend no one swallows the water. Despite this, Martin Strel, a Slovenian long-distance swimmer, managed to swim the Mississippi River’s length in 2002. It took him 68 days to complete his epic journey.

Hunters and wildlife watchers find many animals drinking and feeding from the river. 40-60% of the U.S.’s migratory waterfowl utilize the water corridor in spring and fall. That’s around 320 bird species.

Some of the amazing animals living near the Mississippi River include:

What wildlife watchers and hunters see near the river depends on their state. Because it runs through 10 U.S. states, the Mississippi River is a vast beast that provides sustenance to almost all Midwestern species.

alligator
Hunters and wildlife watchers find a rich array of animals drinking and feeding from the river, including alligators.

©Sorbis/Shutterstock.com

Mississippi River’s Wildlife, Size, Activities, and More

Old Blue, The Big Muddy, Old Man River, whatever you choose to call the Mississippi River, it’s an incredible body of water. Its vast size, ancient history, breadth of wildlife, and plentiful activities mean it touches millions of lives.


The Featured Image

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A Fisheye View of a Dramatic Spring Sunset over the Mississippi River and Rural Red Wing, Minnesota
© Sam Wagner/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Rebecca is a professional researcher from England's south coast with special interests in the environment, particularly archaeology and plant species. She spends a lot of time rehabilitating injured wildlife and visiting Greek islands to enjoy the company of cats.

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