A tributary is a small stream connecting a water source to a much larger body of water, like a lake or river. It carries vital minerals, nutrients, and chemicals that different species of vegetation and animals in the water and on the banks need to survive. They also manage watersheds in their path, carrying the contents of surrounding drainage basins, such as rain and snow. Most rivers form from a nearby tributary that’s gathered more water and expanded in size on its path.

What does a tributary do?

While you’ll know by now that tributaries are mainly responsible for transporting water from the initial source to the larger mainstream body of water, there are other vital aspects to a tributary’s role.

One especially important part of tributaries are the habitats they provide for various species. These include plants, semi-aquatic and non-aquatic mammals, fish, and birds. The fast pace, cold streams often found in tributaries offer the ideal living environment for many of these animals and freshwater plants. The water from the branch also helps the soil on the banks to grow.

Tributaries are also very important when it comes to the surrounding watersheds. This is because they carry the runoff from This excess water is important for the river cycle as it ensures that large bodies of water stay full and impacts the erosion of the banks.

Where can you find a tributary?

You’ll find a tributary partway between a primary water source, such as a spring up in the mountains, and a mainstream, such as a river or a reservoir. Tributaries transport water downhill between these different bodies of water, so they’re often found on high ground levels.

Often, multiple tributaries join together from different places before meeting and reaching the confluence, where they make contact with the mainstream body of water. These are also known as ‘forks’ and are referred to as either North, South, East, or West. The direction of the current can also identify what they’re carrying in, either to the left or right when looking downstream, known as the ‘Left Bank’ or the ‘Right Bank.’

So, where tributaries are found is important when identifying which fork is which and exactly which mainstream body they will connect to.

Famous Tributaries Around The World

Wherever there is a river system, you can be sure there will be tributaries nearby. So here are some of the most famous arms in the world that you might be interested in.

  • The Missouri River
  • Piney River
  • Gunnison River
  • Blue River
  • Plateau Creek
  • Eagle River
  • Roaring Fork River
  • Fraser River
  • Indus River
  • Jhelum River

Fun Facts About Tributaries

Now that you know the key facts and general information about tributaries, you might like to find some more random interesting bits of knowledge about this topic! Take a look at the list of fun facts about arms below.

  • The opposite of a tributary is a distributary. They are similar to branches but continue off on their path instead of leading to a larger body of water. They’re also referred to by the term ‘delta.’
  • Tributaries can vary greatly in size. Some are tiny little streams that could easily go unnoticed, while others are on the scale of large rivers.
  • Another term for tributaries is ‘affluent.’ This is also similar to the word ‘confluent’ we use to describe the arms meeting with a large body of water.
  • The ‘Madeira River’ is the largest tributary in the whole world, with a record-breaking volume of 1,100,1000 cu ft/s. However, while this tributary wins for the book, the longest tributary known is The Irtysh.
  • The Amazon River has the most tributaries, with 1,100 to date.
  • Much like the entire river cycle, tributaries are built up from water sources that flow into them. As the flow of water escalates and two small water streams collide and join, a branch is formed at some point.
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