What's the Difference Between a Lake and a Pond?

By: Sharise Cunningham  | 
A bird sitting on a lake surrounded by red lotus.
A bird perches in a sea of red lotus at Nong Han Lake National Park in Udon Thani, Thailand. Nong Han is the largest natural lake in northeast Thailand, covering 48 square miles (125 square kilometers). kampee patisena/Getty Images

If you ask the average person what makes a lake different from a pond, they might say a pond is just a big muddy hole with water in it, while a lake is much bigger and has moving water. This is true at the most basic level, but the real differences (and similarities) flow much deeper. The pond vs. lake debate involves a difference in depth and surface area. With this in mind, let's explore the main difference between a lake and a pond in greater detail.


Pondering the Differences

We joke about England and the United States being just "across the pond" from each other, but a real pond is nothing like the ocean that separates these two countries. While the two bodies of water are inland bodies of freshwater that contain living creatures, the website for the Lilly Center for Lakes & Streams at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, says the primary difference is the depth and surface area of each body of water.


It's a Matter of Size

Ponds are generally the smaller and shallower of the two, resulting in less surface area. They're considered lentic systems, which means they're pretty much bodies of standing water. That water also is in the photic zone, meaning it's shallow enough so sunlight reaches the bottom. The light allows plants to grow at the bottom, too, as well as on the surface. All the water in a pond tends to maintain a more uniform water temperature and has smaller — if any — waves, lending itself to a variety of flora and fauna.

A "lonely" frog you might see floating on a pond lily pad probably actually has a host of neighbors amongst the cattails, phytoplankton and "pond scum." Turtles, fish, snakes, birds, and lots of insects take up residence within a pond's different zones. So, even a pond surrounded by land in a back yard can be a healthy environment for nature.


In Deep Waters

Because lakes are deeper, sunlight typically can't reach all the way to the bottom. These deep areas are known in lakes as aphotic zones or regions of perpetual darkness beneath the photic zone. In other words, the water in an aphotic zone is so deep that plants can't grow beneath the surface because sunlight can't penetrate to the bottom.

Unlike the consistent water temperatures in a pond, lake water temps can vary widely due to the fluctuating depths and the flowing tributaries that create more wave activity. While lakes are bigger than ponds, their size isn't a reliable indicator of water quality.


The aquatic plants and animals in most lakes could live in almost any water. In addition to the frogs and insects that might be in a pond, many lakes in the world host even more life like alligators, beavers, otters, and snakes depending on the region or habitat. Lake or pond, though, both provide important habitats for wildlife and support biodiversity.