What are tributaries?

Some tributaries are little more than a trickle.

Tributaries are the branches of a river, starting at the top of a watershed and slowly descending to join other tributaries and eventually the main river, which empties into the sea. Tributaries come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and the study of tributaries is a topic of interest to some biologists because it is possible to use tributaries to track pollution and various living organisms as exotic invaders back to their origins. You can see the tributaries on a map; look for the characteristic opening of a river in the sea and then trace it inland. All the small branches that appear are tributaries.

The word “tributary” comes from the same root as “tribute”. Both words come from the Latin tribuere, when it means “to distribute or distribute”. In a sense, tributaries can be said to be bringing tribute from the confines of a watershed to the river.

As tributaries meet, they become larger.

Rivers are designed to drain watersheds, areas of land that are surrounded by hills and mountains, creating a basin. Watersheds are also called “drainage basins”. The network of tributaries that combine to form a river is linked to numerous sources of water in a watershed, from areas that flood in winter to glaciers that melt in summer. Without tributaries and rivers, watersheds would slowly flood.

Some tributaries are little more than drips on the land, while others are sizable rivers and streams. They all drain water, along with any substances that may have dissolved in the water, such as sludge, decaying organic matter, and pollution from places like farms, sewage treatment plants, and businesses built along the tributary’s banks.

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As the tributaries meet, they become progressively larger, until they reach the main trunk of the river. Along the way, sediments come out of the water, leaving behind a rich fertile layer of silt, along with any other materials the tributary may have collected. Eventually, the water reaches the ocean, where it will flow along with global currents, evaporate, and eventually start the cycle all over again.

Many nations have faced serious water pollution as a result of growing industrialization and human populations. Biologists often use tributaries to identify sources of pollution; for example, if a river experiences an algal bloom, biologists may try to isolate the section of the river where the bloom is occurring before testing the tributaries in that section to try to find the source of nutrients that is causing the bloom. Traveling along the tributary can reveal something like a manure leak on a pig farm or fertilizer runoff from a farm.

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