Wildlife Thrives in Georgia Coastal Wetlands
Salt marshes are one of the most ecologically important regions in the country, and Georgia has some of the largest and most pristine of these natural wonders.
Georgia has one of the shortest coastlines in the Southeast, but it is home to one-third of the salt marshes on the east coast, providing a haven for a wide variety of plant and animal life. The marshes also protect the coastline from erosion; they form a natural flood barrier that protects the coastline from incoming storms, and they provide nurseries for young fish and nesting sites for waterfowl.
Salt marshes occur along coastal estuaries where land meets sea and fresh water meets saltwater. Marshes are semi-enclosed areas that have an opening to the sea. They are fed by incoming tides or by drainage from rivers and streams flowing into the sea, depositing sediments rich in nutrients and capable of supporting an abundance of plant and animal life.
The Georgia Marsh Regions
The Georgia salt marshes exist in a band approximately four to eight miles wide between the main coastline and the barrier islands. Acreage estimates are inexact, but some put the area at over 400,000 square miles.
Originating from Pleistocene glacial melting, the marshes are categorized into zones, which rise gradually in elevation from the ocean toward the main coastline. The creek bank is the lowest elevation of the zones. From this low point, the land rises gradually through low marsh, high marsh, salt pan, marsh hammock, and marsh border community. The lowest elevations are flooded twice daily by incoming tides, giving the marshes a high salt content. In the creek bank zone, Spartina alterniflora, or smooth cordgrass, grows up to ten feet tall. As the elevation rises, the salinity and chemistry of the marsh change, the Spartina gets shorter, and additional varieties of flora and fauna become abundant.
Georgia estuaries are fed by five major rivers, including the Altamaha and the Savannah, bringing in large volumes of sediment and nutrients. One of the most important Georgia salt marsh areas is the Altamaha River Estuary in Glynn and McIntosh Counties. This region was made famous by Georgia poet Sidney Lanier in his poem “The Marshes of Glynn.”
Both plant and animal life are abundant in Georgia marshes. The rich supply of food in the marsh sediments feeds microorganisms, crabs, shrimp, and other marine species. Along with cordgrass, plankton grows abundantly, feeding a variety of clams, fiddler crabs, shrimp, and fish.
The most important plant species is Spartina alterniflora, which covers about 90 per cent of the marshes. Cordgrass grows in dense masses with heights ranging from a few inches to over ten feet. It is uniquely adapted to its salty environment and sends roots deep into the marshland. Numerous species of marine life feed directly or indirectly on the cordgrass.
Georgia salt marshes also host many species of animals, some of which are listed as endangered. Migratory and water birds, sea turtles, mud snails, diamondback tortoises, various insects, alligators, mink, raccoons, marsh rabbits, and rice rats are common in the marshes. Great blue herons, snowy egrets, and willets are also common, and three bird species nest in the marshes: clapper rails (also called marsh hens), seaside sparrows, and long-billed marsh wrens.
Protecting the Marshes
In 1970, the Georgia State Legislature passed the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, which protects marshlands, mudflats, and other intertidal regions, allowing the state to regulate the use of these lands. Marsh protection and research are ongoing in the Georgia marshes, and a number of organizations participate in these activities. Research is conducted by organizations such as the Skidaway Island Institute of Oceanography, the Coastal Ecosystem Long-Term Research Network, and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. Additional research is underway by organizations associated with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the University of Georgia, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Marshes as National Treasure
The Georgia marshes are recognized as one of the most valuable coastal resources in the nation, with great scientific, ecological, commercial, and recreational value. They are both beautiful and vital to the preservation of Georgia’s coastlines with its rich abundance of life.