South Carolina’s marsh is teeming with life that changes with the seasons

08/09/2011
Field trip destination

People look out over the abundant coastal salt marshes of the east coast and tend to think of it as an unchanging landscape of marsh cordgrass and not much else. Look a little closer.

The marsh is a world of its own, teeming with life that changes and shifts throughout the year. Take the most visible plant, the marsh cordgrass (known as spartina), a wispy yet strong grass, that envelopes the majority of our coastline and bears responsibility for most of the marsh’s productivity. Cordgrass is attractive to all creatures – predators move in and out, small animals grow up, and birds pass through for a rest and meal. All of these creatures move with the rhythms of the constantly changing tide that laps the marsh.

Fall is an active season of harvest on land and the same is true in the creeks and grassy meadows of the marsh. Though few animals eat the actual plant, many animals and plants do live on it or on the marsh surface protected by its roots and stalks. Perfect for high heat and salt water, spartina has special glands to secret excess salt on a daily basis. Its stalks are thick, very tough, and well anchored by a root system. The seeds of the yellow gold-colored spartina grass drop into the mud to seed next year’s crop of grass, helping to renew the marsh and provide food for many seed eaters.

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Hundreds of small birds, like the red-winged black bird, take advantage of this food source and ‘harvest’ the seeds, as do small mice and cotton rats along the edges of the marsh. Part of the natural food chain, hawks can be seen daily circling the marsh looking for these small but tasty animals.

As water temperatures drop in the fall, some of the fish and shrimp that spent the warmer months in the food-rich nursery creeks move into our offshore waters. Small resident fish of the marsh, such as redfish and striped bass, are actively feeding to prepare for the coming winter as are their larger fish predators; and species such as the sheepshead are coming in to spawn. All of this activity makes the fall a great season for fishing --— not only for humans — but for resident and migrating waterfowl as well.


Birds such as egrets, great blue herons, and willets can be spotted gracefully swooping over the marsh year-round, feeding on shrimp and fiddler crabs. The marshes are also extremely important to migrating birds as a safe refuge and food source on their long journeys south. Paddling a canoe slowly along a salt marsh creek in the fall can be a wonder for a birdwatcher or nature lover.

For those of us lucky enough to visit the coast, fall is the perfect time to discover hidden worlds of aquatic life living right under our noses. A thriving world of its own, the marsh provides home and background alike for all animal and human residents of the low country. An irreplaceable part of Charleston, a tremendous number depend on this unique habitat for food, shelter and as a nursery area. However, salt marshes are fragile, and all coastal residents and visitors play a part in protecting them.

New this year, step into the renovated Salt marsh Aviary exhibit. An impressive 2,500-square-foot exhibit with expansive views of the Charleston Harbor, guests will feel as if they are kayaking through the salt marsh tidal creeks of the low country. Catch a glimpse of shoreline favorites such as herons, diamondback terrapins and puffer fish as well as the all new stingray exhibit with over 20 stingrays! Guests will have the opportunity to see the natural curiosities that might not be visible in the wild.


The South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston’s most visited attraction, offers valuable benefits to student groups including: standards-based curriculum, classroom activities, free on-site motor coach or bus parking, express entry, group orientation and special programs, such as the Behind-the-Scenes Tour of the Sea Turtle Hospital. The Aquarium features thousands of amazing aquatic animals from river otters and sharks to loggerhead turtles in more than 60 exhibits representing the rich biodiversity of South Carolina from the mountains to the sea. The Aquarium also features a 4-D Immersion Theater, allowing students to experience nature in way never seen, or felt, before. The Aquarium presents fabulous views of Charleston harbor and memories never forgotten by any school group.

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Issue 16.1 | Spring 2014

Southeast Education Network

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