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Scientific Name: Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Dune and Swale
Unique Identifier: CES203.264
Classification Confidence: 1 - Strong
Image 21953
© Robert E. Zaremba
Summary: This system consists of vegetation of barrier islands and other coastal areas, ranging from northernmost North Carolina northward to southern Maine (where extensive sandy coastlines are replaced by rocky coasts). A range of plant communities may be present, but natural vegetation is predominately herbaceous, with Ammophila breviligulata diagnostic. Shrublands resulting from succession from grasslands may occur in limited areas. Both dune uplands and non-flooded wetland vegetation of interdunal swales are included in this system. In the northern portion of the range, these swales are often characterized by Vaccinium macrocarpon, while south of New Jersey, swales are characterized by a variety of graminoids and forbs, usually including Schoenoplectus pungens, Fimbristylis castanea, Fimbristylis caroliniana, Juncus spp. and others. Small patches of natural woodland may also be present in limited areas, especially in the northern range of this system. Dominant ecological processes are those associated with the maritime environment, including frequent salt spray, saltwater overwash, and sand movement.

Classification Approach: International Terrestrial Ecological Systems Classification (ITESC)

Classification Comments: This system was separated from Southern Atlantic Coastal Plain Dune and Maritime Grassland (CES203.273) to parallel broad-scale biogeographic and climatic differences believed to be important in this environment. This system occupies the northern part of this broad transition which was labeled by Cowardin et al. (1979) as the Virginian Province, although the demarcated boundary differs somewhat from that used here. A useful vegetation indicator of this transition is the shift in herbaceous dominance on the dunes from Uniola paniculata in the south to Ammophila breviligulata in the north. Although the location of this shift itself is somewhat imprecise because of widespread planting of both species on artificially enhanced dunes, this boundary appears to be well approximated by Omernik Ecoregion 63g vs. 63d (EPA 2004). There is extensive south-to-north turnover of associations in TNC Ecoregion 58 with very little overlap southward. Quercus virginiana is only occasional in this system at its extreme southern end (southern Virginia) and should not be thought of as characteristic.

This system is distinguished from Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Maritime Forest (CES203.302) by the lack of dominant woody vegetation. This distinction becomes blurred where dunes have been artificially enhanced and an unnatural succession to woody vegetation is occurring. The boundary at the northern end is the end of extensive sandy coastlines and the beginning of rocky coasts.

Southeastern Coastal Plain Interdunal Wetland (CES203.258) may occur with this system in northern North Carolina and southern Virginia. Where the ranges overlap, Southeastern Coastal Plain Interdunal Wetland (CES203.258) is distinguished from this system by the presence of standing water for a significant part of the growing season. This corresponds to a break between open-water and tall-graminoid marsh vegetation in the ponds and low-graminoid- or forb-dominated vegetation in the grasslands. North of Virginia, interdunal wetlands are smaller and more integrated into the dune systems and are included in this system.

Similar Ecological Systems
Unique Identifier Name
CES203.258 Southeastern Coastal Plain Interdunal Wetland
CES203.273 Southern Atlantic Coastal Plain Dune and Maritime Grassland
CES203.301 Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Sandy Beach
CES203.302 Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Maritime Forest
CES203.895 Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain Heathland and Grassland

Component Associations
Association Unique ID Association Name
CEGL003839 Morella cerifera / Spartina patens Wet Shrubland
CEGL003840 Morella cerifera / Hydrocotyle verticillata Wet Shrubland
CEGL003881 Morella pensylvanica / Diodia teres Shrubland
CEGL003886 Smilax glauca - Toxicodendron radicans Vine-Shrubland
CEGL003906 Morella (cerifera, pensylvanica) - Vaccinium corymbosum Wet Shrubland
CEGL003950 Hudsonia tomentosa / Panicum amarum var. amarulum Dwarf-shrubland
CEGL004043 Ammophila breviligulata - Panicum amarum var. amarum Grassland
CEGL004097 Spartina patens - Schoenoplectus pungens - Solidago sempervirens Grassland
CEGL004111 Juncus (dichotomus, scirpoides) - Drosera intermedia Wet Meadow
CEGL004117 Schoenoplectus pungens - Fimbristylis (castanea, caroliniana) Marsh
CEGL004129 (Morella cerifera) / Panicum virgatum - Spartina patens Wet Meadow
CEGL004240 Morella (pensylvanica, cerifera) / Schizachyrium littorale - Eupatorium hyssopifolium Shrub Grassland
CEGL004397 Vitis rotundifolia / Triplasis purpurea - Panicum amarum - Schizachyrium littorale Mid-Atlantic Coastal Medaņo Sparse Vegetation
CEGL006052 Pinus taeda / Hudsonia tomentosa Woodland
CEGL006067 Morella pensylvanica / Schizachyrium littorale - Danthonia spicata Shrub Grassland
CEGL006117 Pinus rigida / Hudsonia tomentosa Woodland
CEGL006127 Pinus rigida / Vaccinium macrocarpon Swamp Woodland
CEGL006141 Cladium mariscoides / Vaccinium macrocarpon - Morella pensylvanica Wet Dwarf-shrubland
CEGL006143 Hudsonia tomentosa - Arctostaphylos uva-ursi Dwarf-shrubland
CEGL006149 Spartina patens - Thinopyrum pycnanthum Grassland
CEGL006161 (Morella pensylvanica) / Schizachyrium littorale - Aristida tuberculosa Shrub Grassland
CEGL006212 Juniperus virginiana / Morella pensylvanica Woodland
CEGL006274 Ammophila breviligulata - Lathyrus japonicus Grassland
CEGL006295 Morella pensylvanica - Prunus maritima Shrubland
CEGL006319 Prunus serotina / Morella cerifera / Smilax rotundifolia Scrub Forest
CEGL006339 Myrica gale - Morella pensylvanica Wet Shrubland
CEGL006342 Spartina patens - Eleocharis parvula Marsh
CEGL006348 Salix nigra / Polygonum punctatum - Boehmeria cylindrica Forest
CEGL006350 Bacopa monnieri - Eleocharis albida Marsh
CEGL006371 Vaccinium corymbosum - Rhododendron viscosum - Clethra alnifolia Acidic Peatland
CEGL006444 Morella pensylvanica - Toxicodendron radicans / Typha latifolia Wet Shrubland
CEGL006621 Deschampsia flexuosa Grassland
CEGL006935 Schoenoplectus pungens var. pungens - Juncus canadensis Marsh


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

Diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier
Beach (Substrate)  
North Atlantic Coastal Plain  

Non-diagnostic Classifiers
Primary Classifier Secondary Classifier
Isolated Wetland Partially Isolated

At-Risk Species Reported for this Ecological System
Scientific Name
  (Common Name)
NatureServe Global Status U.S. Endangered Species Act Status
Schizaea pusilla
  (Curly-grass Fern)

Vegetation Composition (incomplete)
Species Name Rounded Global Status Growth Form Stratum Char-
Domi-nant Con-stant
Cover Class %
Prunus maritima G4 Broad-leaved deciduous shrub Shrub/sapling (tall & short)    
Morella pensylvanica G5 Broad-leaved evergreen shrub Shrub/sapling (tall & short)    
Hudsonia tomentosa G5 Broad-leaved evergreen shrub Short shrub/sapling    
Cakile edentula G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)    
Chamaesyce polygonifolia G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)    
Polygonella articulata G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)    
Solidago sempervirens G5 Flowering forb Herb (field)    
Ammophila breviligulata 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-
Apamea lintneri
  (Sand Wainscot Moth)
Drasteria graphica atlantica
  (Atlantic Graphic Moth)
Malaclemys terrapin
  (Diamond-backed Terrapin)
Microtus pennsylvanicus
  (Meadow Vole)
Schinia spinosae
  (Spinose Flower Moth)
Sylvilagus floridanus
  (Eastern Cottontail)
Sympistis riparia
  (Dune Noctuid Moth)
Trimerotropis maritima
  (Seaside Grasshopper)

Color legend for Distribution Map
Nation: United States
United States Distribution: CT, DE, MA, MD, ME, NC, NH, NJ, NY, RI, VA
Global Range: This system ranges from northernmost North Carolina (EPA ecoregion 63d) and southeastern Virginia to southern Maine. The southern portion is a transition zone from around Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to the Virginia-North Carolina border. The northern limit is Merrymeeting Bay, Maine.

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

The Nature Conservancy's Conservation Ecoregions
Code Name Occurrence Status
57 Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain Confident or certain
58 Chesapeake Bay Lowlands Confident or certain
62 North Atlantic Coast Confident or certain
63 Northern Appalachian-Boreal Forest Confident or certain

MRLC 2000 Mapzones
Code Name Occurrence Status
58 Eastern Coastal Plain Never was there
60 Chesapeake Bay Confident or certain
61 Northern Appalachia Never was there
64 Northeastern Highlands 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): 7149
ESP Code (Environmental Site Potential): 1436
EVT Code (Existing Vegetation Type): 2436

West Landfire Legend: No
East Landfire Legend: Yes

Element Description Edition Date: 21May2014
Element Description Author(s): R. Evans, M. Pyne, 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).

  • Comer, P., D. Faber-Langendoen, R. Evans, S. Gawler, C. Josse, G. Kittel, S. Menard, C. Nordman, M. Pyne, M. Reid, M. Russo, K. Schulz, K. Snow, J. Teague, and R. White. 2003-present. Ecological systems of the United States: A working classification of U.S. terrestrial systems. NatureServe, Arlington, VA.

  • Cowardin, L. M., V. Carter, F. C. Golet, and E. T. LaRoe. 1979. Classification of wetlands and deepwater habitats of the United States. FWS/OBS-79/31. USDI Fish & Wildlife Service, Office of Biological Services, Washington, DC. 103 pp.

  • Defeo, O., A. McLachlan, D. S. Schoeman, T. A. Schlacher, J. Dugan, A. Jones, M. Lastra, and F. Scapini. 2009. Threats to sandy beach ecosystems: A review. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 81:1-12.

  • EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]. 2004. Level III and IV Ecoregions of EPA Region 4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, Western Ecology Division, Corvallis, OR. Scale 1:2,000,000.

  • 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.

  • Eyre, F. H., editor. 1980. Forest cover types of the United States and Canada. Society of American Foresters, Washington, DC. 148 pp.

  • 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.

  • Massachusetts Barrier Beach Task Force. 1994. Guidelines for barrier beach management in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Barrier Beach Task Force, Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management. []

  • NYNHP [New York Natural Heritage Program]. 2013e. Online conservation guide for Maritime Dunes. New York Natural Heritage Program, Albany, NY. [] (accessed September 25, 2013).

  • Schafale, M. P. 2012. Classification of the natural communities of North Carolina, 4th Approximation. North Carolina Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation, Natural Heritage Program, Raleigh.

  • Schafale, Mike P. Personal communication. Ecologist, North Carolina Department of Environment, Health, and Natural Resources, Division of Parks and Recreation, Natural Heritage Program, Raleigh.

  • 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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