Maritime Forests

Green trees on the left and blue water on the right. Blue sky and green trees in the background. White sand in the foreground.
Maritime forests are essential for storm protection and help prevent erosion.

NPS Photo/Owens

Maritime forests are a dynamic ecosystem found within Gulf Islands National Seashore. They contain a variety of salt-resistant plants and host an abundance of wildlife such as reptiles, mammals, and dozens of species of birds. Threatened by both human activity and their ever-changing environment, these forests are as fragile as they are resilient. This combination has led to a reduction in the amount of land they cover. Although sparse, sections of maritime forest exist on the coastline and barrier islands of the park.
Maritime forests form on higher elevations than that of shoreline wetlands or dunes. They rely on a freshwater source but can tolerate salt water exposure such as salt spray. These forests thrive in sandy soil comprised of rich sedimentary deposits. Able to withstand bouts of extreme weather, they protect more vulnerable inland resources. Like the barrier islands they sometimes call home, maritime forests are ever-changing, subject to flooding, erosion, and shifting land. Common species of trees and shrubs found in the maritime forests of the park include Live Oak, Southern Magnolia, Waxed Myrtle, and Red Cedar.
These forests provide essential habitat and haven for migratory birds and other animals. They play a key role in holding the shorelines of coastal areas and barrier islands together. This is due to a strong network of expanding roots that corral unstable sand. The combination of sand, roots, and the trees they anchor, form the natural barrier that gives the islands their name.
Maritime forests have become less prevalent over the years due to the many threats they face. Climate change and coastal development have reduced these woodlands to small patches in areas where they once thrived. The ever-changing nature of the barrier islands themselves poses a threat to maritime forests as well. As the islands move west, their forests get left behind, becoming submerged in the salt and brackish waters.

Animals in this ecosystem

  • A cottonmouth snake moves along a dead log with its tongue out.


    Snakes are important residents of the gulf islands, several species including venomous snakes can be found throughout the park.

  • A white bird dips its beak toward the surf along a sandy beach.


    Many species of birds utilize the pristine Gulf Islands habitat for feeding and nesting. Learn more about the avian residents.

  • A juvenile armadillo walks through low lying vegetation.


    The little armored one of Gulf Islands.


  • Jack E. Davis (2017). The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, New York.

  • Proctor, N. S., & Lynch, P. J. (2012). A field guide to the southeast coast and Gulf of Mexico: Coastal habitats, seabirds, marine mammals, fish and other wildlife. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

  • Wibur H. Duncan and Marion B. Duncan (1987). The Smithsonian Guide to Seaside Plants of the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. Washington D.C. and London, Smithsonian Institution Press

  • “What is a Maritime Forest” NOAA website,

Last updated: April 21, 2020

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