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Scientific Name: Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Tidal Salt Marsh
Unique Identifier: CES203.519

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Summary: This system encompasses the mesohaline to saline intertidal marshes of the North Atlantic Coastal Plain, ranging from Chesapeake Bay north to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and sporadically to the southern Maine coast. It includes a number of different broad vegetation types including salt pannes, salt marshes, and salt shrublands. This system occurs on the bay side of barrier beaches and the outer mouth of tidal rivers where salinity is not much diluted by freshwater input. The typical salt marsh profile, from sea to land, can be summarized as follows: a low regularly flooded marsh strongly dominated by Spartina alterniflora; a higher irregularly flooded marsh dominated by Spartina patens and Distichlis spicata; low hypersaline pannes characterized by Salicornia spp.; and a salt scrub ecotone characterized by Iva frutescens, Baccharis halimifolia, and Panicum virgatum. Salt marsh "islands" of slightly higher elevation also support Juniperus virginiana. This system also includes the rare sea-level fen vegetation, which occurs at the upper reaches of the salt marsh where groundwater seepage creates a freshwater fen that differs from other poor fens in its generally higher species richness, absence of Chamaedaphne calyculata, and presence of Eleocharis rostellata and Cladium mariscoides.

Classification Approach: International Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification (ITESC)

Classification Comments: A continuous gradation in salinity presents challenges in separating salt from brackish marsh systems. This system is defined by its landscape position in saltwater bays and outer river mouths as well as actual salinity ranges. Moving up a tidal river, brackish marshes have less cover of Spartina patens and increased cover of associated species including tall graminoids such as Schoenoplectus americanus and Typha angustifolia. Further southward along the East Coast, salt and brackish marshes fall within the same system because the differences in hydrodynamics and landforms in that region produce less distinct habitats.

Similar Ecological Systems
Unique Identifier Name
CES201.578 Acadian Coastal Salt Marsh

Component Associations
Association Unique ID Association Name
CEGL003839 Morella cerifera / Spartina patens Wet Shrubland
CEGL003921 Baccharis halimifolia - Iva frutescens / Panicum virgatum Saline Shrubland
CEGL004186 Juncus roemerianus Salt Marsh
CEGL004187 Phragmites australis ssp. australis Tidal Ruderal Marsh
CEGL004192 Spartina alterniflora / (Ascophyllum nodosum) Acadian/Virginian Zone Salt Marsh
CEGL004197 Spartina patens - Distichlis spicata - (Juncus roemerianus) Salt Marsh
CEGL004308 Salicornia (depressa, bigelovii, maritima) - Spartina alterniflora Salt Marsh
CEGL006006 Spartina patens - Distichlis spicata - (Juncus gerardii) Salt Marsh
CEGL006149 Spartina patens - Thinopyrum pycnanthum Grassland
CEGL006150 Panicum virgatum - Spartina patens - Carex silicea Salt Marsh
CEGL006310 Cladium mariscoides - Drosera intermedia - Eleocharis rostellata Coastal Fen
CEGL006368 Spartina patens - Festuca rubra - (Spartina pectinata) Salt Marsh
CEGL006370 Ruppia maritima - Stuckenia pectinata Aquatic Vegetation
CEGL006398 Schoenoplectus pungens - Eleocharis parvula Salt Marsh
CEGL006586 Spartina alterniflora - Distichlis spicata Tidal Salt Marsh
CEGL006611 Eleocharis rostellata - Spartina patens Salt Marsh
CEGL006848 Iva frutescens / Spartina patens Saline Shrubland
CEGL006849 Pinus taeda / Morella cerifera / Spartina patens Tidal Woodland


Land Cover Class: Herbaceous Wetland
Spatial Pattern: Large patch
Natural/Seminatural: No
Vegetated ( > 10% vascular cover):
Upland: No
Wetland: Yes
Isolated Wetland: No

Diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier
Tidal / Estuarine  
North Atlantic Coastal Plain  

Non-diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier

At-Risk Species Reported for this Ecological System
Scientific Name
  (Common Name)
NatureServe Global Status U.S. Endangered Species Act Status
Ammospiza caudacuta
  (Saltmarsh Sparrow)
Lampropeltis getula sticticeps
  (Outer Banks Kingsnake)

Vegetation Composition (incomplete)
Species Name Rounded Global Status Growth Form Stratum Char-
Domi-nant Con-stant
Cover Class %
Baccharis halimifolia G5 Broad-leaved evergreen shrub Shrub/sapling (tall & short)    
Iva frutescens G5 Dwarf-shrub Short shrub/sapling    
Limonium carolinianum G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)    
Salicornia bigelovii G5 Succulent forb Herb (field)    
Distichlis spicata G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Juncus gerardii G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Spartina alterniflora G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    
Spartina patens G5 Graminoid Herb (field)    

Animal Species Reported for this Ecological System
Scientific Name
  (Common Name)
Global Status U.S. Endangered Species Act Status Charact-
Ammospiza caudacuta
  (Saltmarsh Sparrow)
Ammospiza maritima
  (Seaside Sparrow)
Anas rubripes
  (American Black Duck)
Egretta thula
  (Snowy Egret)
Eusarca fundaria
  (Dark-edged Eusarca Moth)
Lampropeltis getula sticticeps
  (Outer Banks Kingsnake)
Malaclemys terrapin
  (Diamond-backed Terrapin)
Papaipema duovata
  (Seaside Goldenrod Borer Moth)
Pero zalissaria
  (Straight-lined Pero Moth)
Rallus crepitans
  (Clapper Rail)
Schinia gracilenta
  (Slender Flower Moth)
Tringa semipalmata

Color legend for Distribution Map
Nation: United States
United States Distribution: CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY, RI, VA
Global Range: This system is found from the southern Maine coast south to the Chesapeake Bay.

Biogeographic Divisions
Division Code and Name Primary Occurrence Status
202-Central Interior and Appalachian C: Confident or certain
203-Gulf and Atlantic Coastal Plain C: Confident or certain

The Nature Conservancy's Conservation Ecoregions
Code Name Occurrence Status
58 Chesapeake Bay Lowlands Confident or certain
62 North Atlantic Coast Confident or certain

MRLC 2000 Mapzones
Code Name Occurrence Status
60 Chesapeake Bay Confident or certain
61 Northern Appalachia Never was there
65 Connecticut River Basin and Highlands Confident or certain
66 The North Woods Confident or certain

National Mapping
ESLF Code (Ecological System Lifeform): 9282

West Landfire Legend: No
East Landfire Legend: No

Element Description Edition Date: 14Jan2014
Element Description Author(s): R. Evans, S.C. Gawler and L.A. Sneddon

Ecological data developed by NatureServe and its network of natural heritage programs (see Local Programs) and other contributors and cooperators (see Sources).

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  • Edinger, G. J., D. J. Evans, S. Gebauer, T. G. Howard, D. M. Hunt, and A. M. Olivero, editors. 2014a. Ecological communities of New York state. Second edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke's ecological communities of New York state. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY.

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  • Gawler, S. C., and A. Cutko. 2010. Natural landscapes of Maine: A classification of vegetated natural communities and ecosystems. Maine Natural Areas Program, Department of Conservation, Augusta.

  • Kennish, M. J. 2001. Coastal salt marsh systems in the U.S.: A review of anthropogenic impacts. Journal of Coastal Research 17(3):731-748.

  • Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and the National Wildlife Federation. 2012. The vulnerabilities of northeastern fish and wildlife habitats to sea level rise. A report to the Northeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative Manomet, Plymouth, MA.

  • Sallenger, A. H., K. S. Doran, and P. A. Howd. 2012. Hotspot of accelerated sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast of North America. [online]. Nature Climate Change DOI:10.1038/NCLIMATE1597.

  • Sperduto, D. D., and W. F. Nichols. 2004. Natural communities of New Hampshire: A guide and classification. New Hampshire Natural Heritage Bureau, DRED Division of Forests and Lands, Concord. 242 pp.

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Data last updated: March 2019