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Life in the salt marsh

Much of HiltonHead Islandand Bluffton isbordered by saltmarsh. Marshforms when saltwater-tolerant plantscolonize muddy flats of silt depositedby nearby rivers that drain themainland.

The prairie of tall grass is filledwith salty water brought by tidestwice a day. High and low tides mayvary as much as 11 feet. The waterthat fills the salt marsh nourishesthousands of animals, large andsmall.

At high tide, water flows up thecreeks, covering the tall grass andstirring up the thick, gray marshmud and mats of decaying grass.Oysters, clams and mussels feed onthe tiny suspended particles. In thedeeper waters, small fish feeding ondebris are pursued by larger oceanicfish and bottlenosed dolphin. Aboutsix and a half hours later, the ebbingtide pulls dissolved plants and swimminganimals out to sea.

Now is the time to watch for raccoons,otters, mink and water birds.As the tide ebbs, they head to creekbanks and mudflats to hunt crabs,snails, fish and insects stranded inthe grass and glistening muck.

If you peer down at the marshmud, you will notice bustlingarmies of fiddler crabs. They arenamed for the male's one largefront claw, which is used to attracta female, and also for defense.Fiddlers burrow underground andleave rolled-up pellets by their circular"front door."

When tides are rising, watch saltmarsh snails climb up the stalks ofmarsh plants. These air-breathingsnails would drown if covered bywater for more than one hour. Forbirds, the shallow creeks and mudflatsat low tide are a breadbasket oflife. Herons, egrets, ibises, willets,gulls, terns, sandpipers, oystercatchersand others feast there.

And then there's that distinct"marsh smell" - not pollutionor sewage, as many newcomersmay think, but hydrogen sulfidereleased by anaerobic bacteria workingto break down matter on thebottom of the marsh.

Source: The Beaufort CountyLibrary staff.