More than half of Assateague Island National Seashore's 48,000 acres is comprised of near-shore and estuarine waters, and the interplay between these waters and the barrier island affects nearly every aspect of life in this dynamic coastal environment.
The geography of the island itself is in a state of constant flux, continuously being reshaped by the elemental forces of wind and water. Powerful storms can dramatically alter the shoreline in a matter of hours, as waves wash over the beach and reshape the island from ocean to bay. Other forces sculpt the landscape in less obvious ways. Exposure to salt spray, lack of fresh water, and isolation from the mainland are subtle, but powerful influences on the Island's species composition. Over time, these conditions have produced a community of plants and animals uniquely suited to the extremes found at the edge of the sea.
Human activities also exert a strong influence Assateague's natural environment. Beginning in the 1600's, colonists used the Island for grazing horses and other livestock. The bands of wild horses living on Assateague today are descendents of those domesticated animals and remain a powerful force acting on the island's natural systems. At various times in its history, fishing villages, industrial sites, and even a network of lifesaving stations for stranded mariners have all left their marks.
Then as now, the dynamic nature of the island continues to manifest itself in both subtle and dramatic ways, giving Assateague its unique and special character.
While Assateague’s wild horses are perhaps the island’s best-known inhabitants, a wide variety of animal species call the island home.
From cactus to marsh grasses to loblolly pines, Assateague is home to plants that can survive the challenges of life on a barrier island.
Enjoy their beauty from a distance, and you can help make sure these extraordinary wild horses will continue to thrive on Assateague Island.
How is the horse population controlled? What are those cages on the beach? Click to find out how park resources are studied and managed.
Ocean currents, storm events, and seasonal weather patterns are constantly reshaping the island landscape.
Natural Features and Ecosystems
From beach to bay, a diversity of habitats and natural features give Assateague Island its unique character.
Last updated: February 27, 2021