A tributary is a river or stream flowing into a larger river. A distributary is a river branch diverging from a main river, often forming a delta.

TL;DR Tributary Vs. Distributary

Tributaries play a vital role in shaping landscapes by eroding sediment, transporting nutrients, and providing habitats for various species. They contribute their waters to major rivers, increasing their volume and eventually reaching the ocean. Examples of notable tributaries include the Missouri River in North America, which feeds into the Mississippi River, as well as the Ganges River in South Asia, with its many tributaries flowing through India.

Distributaries have an equally important purpose as they divert water away from a main river channel. This branching pattern helps distribute sediments across deltas and creates new landforms over time. One famous example is the Nile River’s Rosetta Branch in Egypt or even Louisiana’s Atchafalaya River Delta.

What is a tributary?

picture of Bhuri river a tributary of Wakal River in Kotra tehsil udaipur district, Rajasthan

A tributary is a smaller stream or river that flows into a larger main river. Picture it like this: if the main river is the king, then the tributaries are its loyal subjects, bringing their waters to join the majestic flow. These tributaries can be found all over the world and play a crucial role in shaping and nourishing our planet’s landscapes.

Tributaries can vary in size and shape, with some being mere trickles of water while others boast impressive volumes. They come together at confluences, where their waters merge with those of the main river. This convergence creates a dynamic exchange of sediment and nutrients, contributing to the overall health of both the tributary and its parent river.

One interesting thing about tributaries is that they often have unique names that reflect their local history or geography. For instance, you may come across names like “North Fork,” “East Branch,” or even “Little River.” These labels not only indicate their position within a complex river system but also add a touch of charm to these natural marvels.

What is a distributary?

picture of Distributary of Ota River

A distributary is a type of river channel that branches off from the main river and flows away from it. It is essentially the opposite of a tributary, which joins the main river and flows towards it. Distributaries are formed when there is excess water in a river system, causing it to split into multiple channels.

These smaller channels can often be found near the mouth of a river, where it meets an ocean or another body of water. As the main river reaches its final destination, such as a delta or an estuary, it begins to divide into several smaller streams called distributaries.

Distributaries play an important role in shaping landscapes and ecosystems. They help distribute sediment and nutrients across vast areas, creating fertile deltas and wetlands. This makes them valuable habitats for various plant and animal species.

While tributaries bring additional water to rivers, distributaries carry water away from them towards other bodies of water. These branching channels not only shape landscapes but also support diverse ecosystems around the world

Tributary Vs. Distributary – Key differences

Flow DirectionFlows into a larger river or main watercourse.Branches off from a main river, diverging flow.
Size RelationshipSmaller in size compared to the main river.Can be smaller or comparable to the main river.
FormationForms from smaller rivers or streams converging.Forms as a branch of a main river, diverging flow.
Typical LocationFound upstream, contributing to the main river.Typically found downstream, near river deltas.
Role in DrainageContributes water to the main river's drainage.Distributes water away from the main river channel.
Delta FormationDoes not contribute directly to delta formation.Plays a crucial role in forming river deltas.
ExampleThe Missouri River is a tributary of the Mississippi River.The Atchafalaya River is a distributary of the Mississippi River.

Examples of major tributaries in the world

Amazon River:

  • Tributaries: Rio Negro, Madeira River, Purus River, Xingu River.

Nile River:

  • Tributaries: Blue Nile, White Nile, Atbara River.

Mississippi River:

  • Tributaries: Missouri River, Ohio River, Arkansas River.

Yangtze River:

  • Tributaries: Han River, Jialing River, Min River.

Danube River:

  • Tributaries: Inn River, Drava River, Tisza River.

Volga River:

  • Tributaries: Oka River, Kama River, Sura River.

Ganges River:

  • Tributaries: Yamuna River, Son River, Gandak River.

Mekong River:

  • Tributaries: Tonle Sap River, Bassac River, Sesan River.

Yukon River:

  • Tributaries: Tanana River, Porcupine River, Koyukuk River.

Río de la Plata (Paraná River):

  • Tributaries: Paraguay River, Salado River, Pilcomayo River.

Examples of major distributaries in the world

Nile River:

  • Distributaries: Rosetta Branch, Damietta Branch.

Mississippi River:

  • Distributaries: Atchafalaya River, Plaquemines-Balize Delta.

Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta:

  • Distributaries: Hooghly River, Padma River, Meghna River.

Mekong River:

  • Distributaries: Bassac River, Hậu River, Cổ Chiên River.

Amazon River:

  • Distributaries: Marañón River, Ucayali River.

Yangtze River:

  • Distributaries: Qiantang River, Huangpu River.

Rhine River:

  • Distributaries: Waal River, Nederrijn River, Lek River.

Indus River:

  • Distributaries: Hakra River, Nara River.

Tigris-Euphrates Delta:

  • Distributaries: Shatt al-Arab, Al-Musharrah.

Volga River:

  • Distributaries: Akhtuba River, Buzan River, Bakhtemir River.


Image Credits

Featured Image By – Peter in s, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 1 By – Deccantrap, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2 By – Copyright © National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

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