Life Is Abundant in the Marsh Ecosystem

Earth tones of green, gold, and brown pepper the salt marshes throughout Kiawah River, while herons wait patiently for small fiddler crabs, shrimp, and red drum to creep by. With over 500,000 acres of salt marsh, South Carolina has more marsh land than any other East Coast state, and while you may think of them as just the transition between land and sea, these salt marshes serve a vital role in the Lowcountry ecosystem.

Tidal salt marshes are defined by the SC Department of Natural Resources as plains that sit between land and open saltwater and are flooded twice a day. It’s this regular influx and outflow of saltwater that make the environment in the marsh, and at Kiawah River, so dynamic and unique. Chris Crolley, Captain and CEO of Coastal Expeditions, describes the marsh surrounding the community as a “collision of defined and complete ecosystems that run into each other,” where you seamlessly move from open ocean, to creeks, to spartina grass, to black needle brush, and finally to the ancient oak trees.

It’s this “dynamic edge” that makes this habitat so diverse and creates one of the most bio diversified environments in the world. The animals and plants that live in the salt marsh are hardy and are willing to tolerate constant periods of both water and drought, which means few trees make it in this salty wilderness, but lush green and gold spartina grass and herbaceous and bushy plants flourish. The long blades of spartina grass serve to hold the marsh’s unique spongey soil in place while providing nesting materials and protection for its smaller dwellers. Oysters and mussels also call this area home along with terns and osprey, sandpipers and clapper rails as well as the visiting racoon and mink.

The salt marsh serves as an estuary and an incubator for much of the ocean. Many crustaceans, fish, and birds begin their life in the calmer waters of the marsh before heading out to sea. Three quarters of what is considered seafood benefit from this habitat according to the National Park Service; even open ocean dwellers like grouper spend part of the early life here. Blue crabs, shrimp, and red drum regularly use the marsh as nursery, which makes them prime prey for herons, egrets, osprey, and ibises. Bottle nose dolphins are even known to venture inland from the ocean and harbor to the marshes for a shot at this abundant prey.