Oxbow Lake: Definition & Formation

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  • 0:00 What is an Oxbow?
  • 0:30 What is a Meandering River?
  • 1:35 When a Meander Grows…
  • 2:15 What is an Oxbow Lake Like?
  • 2:50 Oxbow Fun Facts
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mary Ellen Ellis
An oxbow lake is a special kind of lake that only forms next to meandering rivers. It is shaped like a crescent or a horseshoe and presents a unique ecosystem separate from the river. Learn the details of how it forms, then take a quiz.

What Is an Oxbow?

An oxbow is a part of the yoke for a team of oxen that is shaped like a crescent or the letter U. This piece of the yoke is called a bow. The reference may be a little dated, and most of us have never seen a team of oxen in real life, but in geography, the name sticks. An oxbow lake is a crescent-shaped lake (yes, it looks like the bow of an oxen yoke) that forms to the side of a meandering river.

What Is a Meandering River?

Rivers rarely flow in a straight line, and many meander. This means they swing back and forth, creating loops as they flow through the river valley to a sea, lake, ocean, or larger river. A meander is also a name for one loop in a meandering river. Rivers are simply bodies of water flowing downhill due to gravity; given the opportunity, they would flow down in a straight line. Roadblocks in the landscape and the patterns of erosion of the water as it flows prevent this from happening.

Meanders form as the river erodes sediments on the outside of a curve in the river's path. Water in the outside of a curve flows faster than the water in the inside of a curve and is therefore able to erode the outside bank. The river deposits the eroded sediments on the inside of the curve where the water is flowing more slowly. With time, this action creates a proper meander, and the loops and curls of the meandering river get bigger and wider as the river continues flowing downstream.

When a Meander Grows Really Big. . .

When a meander gets big enough, it will start to pinch off from the river. When the final pinch occurs, you have an oxbow lake, a body of water completely detached from the river. The river finds a new, shorter, and more efficient path downhill after ejecting the meander in the form of the oxbow lake.

When a meander is mature, it has just a little bit of land connecting the two sides of its curving loop. The river continually erodes this chunk of land until it can final go through a channel and take a new, quicker path downhill, with the oxbow lake cut off, just to the side of the river.

What Is an Oxbow Lake Like?

An oxbow lake is a unique type of lake. It contains the ecosystem of the river, but then it gets cut off from the river. The stillness of the water in the lake, as compared to the river, provides a different habitat for animals and plants from the river ecosystem. For example, oxbow lakes of the Amazon River in South America are often used by giant river otters for fishing. In some cases, an oxbow lake will turn into a marshy area; while in others, it dries up entirely and leaves a dry lakebed behind.

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