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Coastal Habitats 

New Jersey's barrier islands, coastal wetlands, estuaries, bays, and rivers provide essential habitats, nurseries, and refuges for a rich variety of plant and animal life.

New Jersey's coastal habitats are filled with an abundance of vegetation and wildlife, despite their proximity to some of the largest cities on the East Coast. Explore the flow of energy, probe the secrets of these living systems, and discover the diversity of species that utilize these habitats.


Ancient episodes of erosion, uplift, volcanic activity, glaciation, and faulting created the foundation for the varied landscapes of coastal New Jersey. Along the Atlantic coast of the Barnegat Bay region, a fragile ribbon of barrier beaches dominates the landscape. The Sandy Hook region includes a fragile peninsula that jutts out into Raritan Bay. The Absecon and Cape May regions lie within the outer coastal plains. Its topography varies from almost flat to rolling hills rising gradually from sea level to a maximum of 800 feet along the western edge. Rivers and streams are typically broad and slow flowing.

Mount Mitchill, the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard is subject to slump blocking, where chunks of rock slide off the highlands and down the cliff face. Learn more about this at Mount Mitchill scenic Overlook.

In general, these regions are characterized by miles and miles of sandy beaches, small coastal dunes, barrier islands and broad expanses of tidal wetlands. Each is heavily influenced by pounding ocean waves and damaging storms. The peninsula of Sandy Hook and the barrier islands  along the coast absorb most of the force of pounding ocean waves and protect developed coastal areas from the perils of storm and flood waters. The effects of longshore drift--shifting sands and changing landscapes--can be seen at Cape May Point State Park. 

Geologic features and surface materials influence soil quality, water supplies, and the flora and fauna that survive there. For example, inhabitants of the coastal dunes face multiple problemsólow soil fertility, constantly shifting sand and soil, the desiccating effects of salt laden winds, and the inability of the soil to retain moisture. Only those plants and animals adapted to tolerate these conditions will survive.


Within the New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route, three common forest types are the hardwood swamp, white cedar swamp, and pitch pine lowland forest. Most of the inter lands of these regions are characterized by pitch pine lowland forest. They contain numerous types of trees and other vegetation as well as many kinds of forest-dwelling birds, reptiles, and mammals.

Places like Belleplain State Forest and the Peaslee Wildlife Management Area provide great opportunities to explore the pitch pine forest. Coastal habitats, like those found at Double Trouble State Park. provide great opportunities to explore the pine barrens. Despite New Jersey's urbanized surroundings, the United Nations recognized a large area of the pitch pine forest, approximately 25-30 percent of the size of the state, as a unique landscape. In 1983, almost one million acres of the New Jersey Pinelands was designated as the Pinelands International Biosphere Reserve. You can explore the pine barrens habitat while driving along many of the state and county roads within the northeastern corner of the Delsea Region.

Today we can see the results of natural succession being modifies or arrested by human influences of fire, lumbering, livestock grazing, agriculture, industrialization and urbanization. Throughout the northeast, forest fragmentation is so widespread that interior woodland species are becoming increasingly rare as they compete with "edge" species for habitat.

Central and southern New Jersey's gently rolling topography, coastal plains, sluggish flowing streams and occasional clay lined depressions provide the right conditions for water containment areas where white cedar and hardwood swamps may form. Here, forest conditions are quite different from the dry sandy pine barrens and coastal dunes. Look closely in the bogs of these swamp forest for tiny. highly specialized, insectivorous plants like the pitcher plant and various sundews.

At Sandy Hook, Gateway National Recreational Area, you can discover one of the largest and oldest maritime forests in New Jersey. These trees survive the pruning of salt-laden winds and the brutality of coastal storms.


The shores of these regions are characterized by sandy beaches and offshore islands. Although these lands are subject to erosion by winds and waves, here and there, the original vegetation and its associated wildlife persist.

The plants, birds, and mammals here face problems unique to the shoreófresh water is scarce, drying winds are constant, and salt blows inland for considerable distances. The sandy soil is unstable, and ocean waves push it inland to form dunes. These plants and animals stabilize the dune community and temper the effects of erosion. Visit the Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area and The Nature Conservancy's Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge to learn more about these habitats.


Exposed coastlines, tidal salt marshes, estuaries. freshwater wetlands, peat bogs, flowing streams, and rivers form a large segment of the aquatic ecosystems of New Jersey. The sandy shore at low tide may appear barren. Although wave action, surf, tidal rips, and other water movements are typically severe, life exists beneath the wet and glistening sandówaiting for the next high tide. Corson's Inlet and Cape May Point State Parks provide opportunities to walk and explore the life buried beneath the sand.

Tidal salt marshes are among the most productive natural ecosystems in the world. They are also important economically in New Jersey as a breeding and nursery ground for many of the commercial fish species taken and processed through local plants and shipped throughout the nation. Within the Delsea region, Dennis Creek and the Egg Island wildlife Management area and the Fortescue Glades wildlife Refuge, provide opportunities to learn more about this invaluable coastal habitat. Explore Cheesequake State Park and its tidal marshlands. The Wetlands Institute, Tuckahoe Wildlife Management Area and Forsythe National wildlife Refuge have vast expanses of salt marsh to discover.


Today, we are witnessing the rapid alteration and destruction of natural environments that have fostered a wondrous diversity of organisms. The loss of habitat has generated a worldwide concern about the loss of species. This decline in biological diversity (the variety of living organisms) may limit future medical and technological advances that could have been based on extinct species.

Through public awareness efforts about the importance and preservation of biological diversity, perhaps we will be able to maintain the biological diversity of today. Explore New Jersey's diverse coastal habits and learn for yourself the pivotal role that it plays in maintaining species worldwide. A great diversity of organisms is crucial to maintain our quality of life.

Copyright © 2001- , Terry Muse 
Revised: August 15, 2001
Contact: Terry Muse
Coastal Heritage Trail

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