Saltmarsh Sanctuary

Saltmarshes are excellent habitat for animals that live both above and below the rise and fall of tides, with many species taking advantage of the twice daily change in water depth. Periwinkle snails climb stalks of cordgrass at high tide to elude foraging blue crabs. At low tide, fiddler crabs march onto adjacent mudflats to sieve algae from the sediment then retreat back to the marsh at high tide to avoid becoming a meal for a hungry fish. Small minnows of the genus Fundulus deposit eggs on marsh grass stalks at the highest tides. The sticky clusters of eggs are resistant to drying out and remain out of harms way until ready to hatch on the next highest tide. Herons and egrets are always present to snatch up unsuspecting prey. Their legs resemble the stalks of marsh grasses - it is too late to flee once the deception has been revealed.

Saltmarshes are safe havens for migratory birds to stop, rest, feed and move on during annual migrations. Without these refueling points, they can exhaust their energy reserves and die along the way. Marshland also serves to retain sediment washed off the land during storms. It buffers against storm surge during hurricanes. And the grasses themselves are able to absorb many pollutants discharged by humans, preventing them from making it into the open water of the Chesapeake Bay.

Even as modern coastal development continues to fill in marshland, we are only beginning to understand how vital these ecosystems are to the overall health of natural systems everywhere.

Atlantic croaker

Scientific name: 
Micropogonias undulates

Distribution: Found in western Atlantic from Massachusetts to Florida and throughout Gulf of Mexico

Habitat: marine, brackish, demersal, max depth 100m. Adults found on mud, sand and shell bottoms. Juveniles found on shallow shoals.

Key characteristics for distinction: Chin with 3-5 pairs of barbells (small). Dorsal fin notched deeply with 10 spines in anterior and 1 spine and 26-30 soft rays in posterior portion. The upper dorsal side typically has many spots brassy in color that take on the appearance of wavy bars; this becomes less distinct in larger fish

Coloration: silvery-pink in color, silvery or brassy white belly, brown spots that form faint irregular stripes on back and dorsal fin *

Feeding habits/specializations: Bottom feeders; mollusks, small crustaceans, worms and at times small fish.

Reproduction: spawning can occur at age 2-3 in continental shelf waters from Summer to Winter. Migrate offshore to spawn. Late summer young travel to lower salinity and freshwater then travel back to high salinity with adults.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): maximum 1.8 ft, commonly 1 ft

Predators:  striped bass, flounder, spotted seatrout, weakfish, bluefish

Importance to humans: fishing/commercial

Conservation status: secure (croaker mature quickly helping to maintain a stable population)

Fun facts: Member of the drum family; able to make a loud drumming/croaking sound by vibrating the swim bladder using special muscles. Also called ‘hardheads’.



Atlantic needlefish

Scientific name: 
Strongylura marina

Distribution: Western Atlantic: Maine to northern Gulf of Mexico to Brazil. Absent from Bahamas to Antilles

Habitat: marine, freshwater, brackish, reef-associated; inhabits coastal areas and mangrove-lined lagoons. Enters freshwater. Found in shallow waters near shoreline. Found near docks, marshes, beaches and grassy beds. Can adapt to a wide range of salinities.

Key characteristics for distinction: Dorsal soft ray 14-17, anal soft rays 16-20, black pigment behind eye that doesn’t extend below level of middle of eye. Long narrow body. Lower jaw slightly longer than upper jaw. One dorsal fin

Coloration: Greenish back, silvery sides with thin bluish silver stripe along each side

Feeding habits/specializations: Feeds mainly on small fish like killifish and silversides as well as shrimp. Patiently stalks prey then catches it sideways in scissor-like jaw. Jaw filled with many tiny teeth.

Reproduction: Oviparous; eggs may be found attached to objects in the water by tendrils on the egg’s surface. Only right gonad is developed. Spawns May-June. Young needlefish do not have elongated jaws like adults.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 3.6 ft, common 2 ft

Predators: Larger fish, fish-eating birds, bottlenose dolphins

Importance to humans: Not high commercial importance but fishery exists for it. Sometimes taken as bycatch. Sport fishermen use it as bait.

Conservation status: Secure status. Not threatened.

Fun facts: Gets name from long needle-like jaws. Attracted to lights which is why they often gather near docks, piers and bridges. Other common names: billfish, bluebone, garfish, green gar, harvest pike, sea pike.



Atlantic silverside

Scientific name: 
Menidia menidia

Habitat: Marine; brackish; pelagic-neritic; oceanodromous. The Atlantic silverside’s habitat is generally near the water’s edge. They are mostly found swimming in brackish waters, such as in the mouths of rivers and streams that connect to the ocean. These small schooling fish have been seen to gather in seagrass beds, which can harbor the nearly defenselss fish some form of shelter from predation as well as provide safe haven for spawning. During winter, most Atlantic silversides swim in deeper water to avoid cold/low temperature. During the summer, most are found in the shallows along the shoreline.

Key characteristics for distinction: anal soft rays 23-26, long slender body

Coloration: mostly silver and white

Feeding habits/specializations: Adults feed on copepods, mysids, shrimps, small squids and marine worms; also eggs of their own species

Reproduction: Oviparous, eggs are deposited on the substrate during a spawning run along the shore

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 6 in

Predators: Preyed upon by striped bass and bluefish (chief predators); shore birds

Importance to humans: minor commercial, used as bait

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun facts: They are a common subject of scientific research because of their sensitivity to environmental changes.



Banded killifish

Scientific name: 
Fundulus diaphanus

Distribution: North America: Atlantic Slope drainages from Newfoundland in Canada to Peedee River in South Carolina, USA; St. Lawrence-Great Lakes and Mississippi River basins from Quebec to Manitoba in Canada, and south to southern Pennsylvania, northern Illinois and northeastern Nebraska in the USA. 

Habitat: Freshwater; brackish; benthopelagic; non-migratory. Inhabits shallow, quiet margins of lakes, ponds and sluggish streams, usually over sand or mud and often near vegetation. Swims in schools a few inches below surface of water.

Key characteristics for distinction: there are 13-15 rays on a banded killifish's dorsal fin and 10-12 rays on the anal fin. Furthermore, the homocercal tail of a banded Killifish is slightly convex or rounded. It also has a small pelvic fin along the abdominal. The body is slender and elongated with somewhat of a flat side and flattened head and small terminal mouth position for surface feeding. Banded Killifish also have a row of small sharp teeth lining their upper and lower jaw. They do not have a lateral line along the side but it does have 39 to 43 cycloid scales in the lateral series

Coloration: olive color on the dorsal and white coloring under the ventral and the throat and fins are yellowish in color. Additionally, there are multiple vertical black and silver/white stripes along both sides.

Feeding habits/specializations: The adults feed on a variety of items such as insects, nymphs, mollusks, turbellarians, and other small crustaceans. Mosquito larvae are also a popular food source. In contrast, the smaller individuals are limited to fewer items such as chironomid larvae, cladocerans, copepods, and midge larvae. Both young and adult banded Killifish have been observed to feed mostly in the afternoon

Reproduction: observed to spawn in dense aquatic vegetation because they practice external fertilization where the female lays her eggs that are equipped with adhesive threads that adhere to plants. Spawning occurs from June to mid-August in shallow waters. During the spawning season, the males go through a color change phase. They develop a bright blue patch near the anal fin. In addition, the lower portion of the body changes to a bright blue color. The male chooses a site in the shallow part of the water and protects it from other males. When a female appears, the male will court the female and fight with the other prospecting males. The female will emit one egg while the male pursues her. Once together, the female emits 10 eggs that falls onto the bottom or gets attached to aquatic plants in the chosen spawn area. The male will continue to pursue the female until the female have laid 50 to 100 eggs.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 5 in

Predators: In the presence of a predatory stimulus, shoal size increases to allow for greater protection via the dilution effect. From the dilution effect, each individual will have a lesser chance of being attacked by a predator, since there are many other individuals in the group. Shoaling also benefits the individual because of group vigilance.

Importance to humans: bait, aquarium

Conservation status: least concern


Blue Crab

Blue crab

Scientific name: 
Callinectes sapidus

Growth stages of a blue crab:
Blue Crab Juvenile
Blue Crab Growth

Distribution: Native to western edge of Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to Agentina and around entire coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Estuaries along east coasts of North and South America. Also been seen in coastal waters of Holland and Denmark. It has been introduced (via transfer in ballast water on ships) to Japanese and European waters.

Habitat: Bottom-dwellers; marine, estuary, coastal, brackish

Key characteristics for distinction: Five pairs of legs, the first pair is modified as pinchers (claws) while the last four pairs are walking legs (the last pair paddle-shaped to aide in swimming). The carapace is drawn out on each side into a large spine. Fully grown, the spine may be as large as 8 inches wide. To help identify against other crab species in the area, count the number of frontal teeth on the carapace. C. sapidus has four frontal teeth while C. ornatus has six. Crabs molt to grow.

Coloration: Back of crab is dark or brownish green. Abdomen and lower legs are white. Claws are various shades of blue except females have red-tipped claws.

Feeding habits/specializations: Omnivore – bivalves, annelids, small fish, plants and almost any other food item it can find along the bottom including carrion and other waste. Blue crabs are scavengers and help “clean up” the water by feeding on most things.

Reproduction: Females only mate one in their lifetime. Mating occurs from May through October. Males will cradle a soft-shelled female for days while he looks for a protected area for her final molt. Once she has molted, the pair mate. After mating, the females travel to southern part of Chesapeake using the tides to migrate to areas of higher salinity. The eggs are fertilized with sperm stored from the only mating (which could be from months to almost a year ago). Up to 2 million eggs may be produced in a single brood while one female can produce of 8,000,000 eggs in a lifetime. The eggs appear as an orange mass on her pleopods for about two weeks before being released between November and December. The eggs hatch and float into the mouth of the bay for about four to five weeks until they make their way back into the bay.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): Carapace width of 9.1 in

Predators: eels, drums, striped bass, spot, trout, some sharks, humans, cownose stingrays, birds and sea turtles.

Importance to humans: Valuable fishery/commercial. Aide in “cleaning up” the water due to their feeding habits.

Conservation status: safe but under management plans throughout the range of the species. Watched carefully as a major commercial fishery.

Fun facts: genus species name translates from Latin meaning “beautiful savory swimmer”. Sexually dimorphic: sexes occur in distinct forms. Males have blue claws and narrow abdominal apron; females have red-tipped claws and broad apron.


Diamond Backed Terrapin

Diamondback terrapin

Scientific name: 
Malaclemys terrapin terrapin

Distribution: Found in the coastal plain of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia, as well as parts of the District of Columbia.

Habitat: Lives in tidal portions of bays and rivers, including brackish marshes, beaches and mud flats, and islands. Hibernates in river banks and at the bottom of creeks and rivers in winter.

Key characteristics for distinction: Carapace covered with scutes (plates) that have diamond-shaped concentric growth rings inside. The growth rings may be a different color than the rest of the shell. Horned beak with a black “moustache” above the mouth. Webbed feet with strong claws.

Coloration: Carapace (shell) varies in color from brownish or greenish to grayish or nearly black. Yellowish or greenish plastron (underside of the shell). Scaly, gray or whitish skin covered with black spots or streaks.

Feeding habits/specializations: Feeds mostly on mollusks, including clams, snails and mussels. Will also eat fish, worms, insects and crustaceans.

Reproduction: Mates in the water, usually during nighttime in May. After mating, females come up onto beaches and dig a shallow nest in the sand. They lay 10-15 pinkish-white eggs. Females may lay several clutches in one breeding season.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 9 in, females larger than males

Predators: High predation on nests and eggs from skunks, raccoons, foxes, gulls, herons. Once in water, herons and predatory fish.

Importance to humans: harvested for food in colonial America but recent efforts to reduce danger and increase populations.

Conservation status: no federal conservation status; state by state status.

Fun fact: The official state reptile of Maryland. A terrapin’s scutes are unique to each animals, just like fingerprints are to humans.


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Mantis shrimp

Scientific name: 
Squilla empusa

Distribution: Found anywhere between Cape Cod to Gulf of Mexico. They are also found along coast of Brazil and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Habitat: Lives along the low part of the shoreline, forming burrows within deep, muddy flats. Burrows are complex, with many large entrance holes. Mostly nocturnal.

Key characteristics for distinction: Flattened, translucent body. Segmented abdomen and carapace. Each segment is outlined in dark green or yellow. Emerald green eyes on stalks located on the top of the head. One pair of long, jackknife claws that resemble a praying mantis. Four pairs of clawed appendages, called maxillipeds. Three pairs of walking legs.

Coloration: translucent body with a pale green hue; segment is outlined in dark green or yellow.

Feeding habits/specializations: Eats live fish, crabs, worms and shrimp, including other mantis shrimp. Aggressive, violent predator. Uses its sharp claws to spear or slice through its prey with a quick, slashing motion.

Reproduction: Because of its secretive, nocturnal habits, little is known about the mantis shrimp life cycle and mating habits. The eggs are developed and carries by the anterior legs, making it look as if the mother as eating her babies.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 15 in

Predators: cephalopods, larger mantis shrimp, carnivorous fish

Importance to humans: Culinary uses, aquarium use. Also serve as pollution indicator; susceptible to agrochemical runoff contamination.

Conservation status: Not evaluated; mantis shrimp are very common.

Fun fact: The strike velocity of a mantis shrimp’s large, powerful claws is one of the fastest movements of any animal on earth. It takes a mantis shrimp less than 8 milliseconds to strike.


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Marsh killifish

Scientific name: 
Fundulus confluentus

Habitat: Marine; freshwater; brackish; benthopelagic; non-migratory. Occurs mainly in grassy backwaters and brackish bays, not along open beaches. Also found in fresh water.

Reproduction: During spawning, male and female swim into vegetation with fine leaves; there eggs are released and fertilized; eggs have mucous threads with which they are attached to plant material.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 3.14 in

Importance to humans: aquarium use, bait

Conservation status: least concern



Marsh periwinkle

Scientific name: 
Littoraria irrorata

Distribution: Atlantic coast and Gulf Coast of North America from Massachusetts to Texas.

Habitat: Found in low, sheltered tidal marshes and wetlands. Usually lives on needlerush and saltmarsh cordgrass stalks.

Key characteristics for distinction: Spiraling, grooved shell. Slightly pointed spire.

Coloration: Varies in color from grayish-white to tan. Reddish-brown flecks on the spiral ridges.

Feeding habits/specializations: Grazes on algae and detritus on the surface of plants and the ground.

Reproduction: Lays individual eggs into the water. Eggs hatch into free-swimming larvae.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 1.15 in

Predators: Blue crabs, mud crabs and terrapins prey upon marsh periwinkles. Avoids predators by climbing up marsh grass stalks.

Importance to humans: Sensitive to toxic agents and are used for toxicology studies.

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun fact: Marsh periwinkles are farmers. It creates wounds on the grass it clings to, which are then infected by fungi, their preferred diet. It then deposits feces on the wounds, which encourage the growth of the fungi.




Scientific name: 
Fundulus heteroclitus

Habitat: Mainly found in saltwater marshes and in tidal creeks. May leave tide pools if aquatic conditions become inhospitable.

Key characteristics for distinction: Stout-bodied with flattened head, rounded or squared-off tailfin, pointed teeth and a lower lip that juts out beyond the upper one.

Coloration: Coloration varies with sex; shading can change based on surroundings. Females: brownish green body features 12 to 15 dusky vertical stripes. Dorsal and anal fins tinted green. Males: darker than female. Green or olive body features 15 silver vertical stripes. Pectoral, pelvic and anal fins yellow. Blue or orange markings present during spawning season.

Feeding habits/specializations: Opportunistic feeders eat a range of items, including algae, plants, insects and insect larvae, worms, small crustaceans and mollusks, the eggs of their own species, other fish and carrion.

Reproduction: Spawning occurs from April to August, during which time males often exhibit aggressive behavior. Females attract males by displaying their silvery bellies. Females can spawn up to 460 eggs eight times in a single season. Females lay sticky eggs in empty mollusk shells or on dead vegetation when the tide is highest during the new or full moon. When tide recedes, eggs are exposed to air. Eggs will not begin to hatch until once again covered with water during the next month's highest tide.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 6 in

Predators: Predators include larger fish, wading birds and seabirds.

Importance to humans: sold as live bait

Conservation status: least concern

Fun facts: "Mummichog" is a Native American word meaning "going in crowds”. It is able to consume up to 2,000 mosquito larvae in a single day and are used as a natural method of mosquito control.



Northern puffer

Scientific name: 
Sphoeroides maculatus

Habitat: Marine; brackish; demersal. Inhabits bays, estuaries and protected coastal waters.

Key characteristics for distinction: Tiny, beak-like mouth. Small dorsal fin set far back, near the tail. Club-shaped fish.

Coloration: Yellow, brown or olive body covered in small prickles. Yellow or white belly. Dark, vertical, splotchy bars on the sides. Small, black spots on the back, sides and cheeks.

Feeding habits/specializations: Uses its strong, beak-like mouth to crush the shells of small mollusks, crustaceans and other invertebrates.

Reproduction: Spawns from May-August in shallow waters near the shore. Female lays sticky eggs that attach to the bottom. Male guards the eggs until they hatch.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 14 in

Predators: Ability to puff up into a prickly ball deters many predators.

Importance to humans: sold in fish markets as "sea squab."

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun fact: If caught and thrown back into the water while inflated, a northern puffer will float upside down at the surface for a few moments, then quickly deflate and swim away.


River Snake-T

Northern watersnake

Scientific name: 
Nerodia sipedon sipedon

Distribution: Southern Ontario and the northeastern US from Nebraska and Kansas in the west to the Atlantic coast and as far south as North Carolina and southern Missouri.

Habitat: Found in aquatic habitats including lakes, swamps, marshes, ditches, and freshwater streams and rivers. Can live in brackish waters up to 12 ppt.

Key characteristics for distinction: Half moon-shaped spots on the belly. Double row of scales under the tail. Round pupils. Dark crossbands on the neck and forefront of the body. The dark bands are wider than the lighter-colored spaces between them.

Coloration: Highly variable color and pattern: may be tan, gray, reddish or brownish-black. Older snakes are darker, often without a clear pattern. Alternating dark blotches on the back and sides on the lower half of the body.

Feeding habits/specializations: Eats small fish, worms, frogs, salamanders and crayfish. Swallows its prey alive

Reproduction: Females give birth to one litter of live young per year, usually in mid- to late summer. Water snakes are independent at birth.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 55 in

Predators: Large snakes and mammals such as foxes and raccoons. Escapes predators by diving underwater. Can be aggressive when threatened. Secretes a foul-smelling odor to keep predators away.

Importance to humans: Beneficial to fish populations – feed on diseased and dying fish and help control areas where overpopulation may exist and could stunt fish growth. However, these animals could be harmful to fish hatcheries and farms.

Conservation status: Least concern. Abundant.

Fun fact: Non-venomous aquatic snake. Can stay underwater for an hour and a half without coming up for air


045-Oyster_Toadfish copy

Oyster toadfish

Scientific name: 
Opsanus tau

Habitat: Marine; reef-associated. Largely inhabits inshore water on rocky bottoms and reefs, jetties and wrecks. Frequently occurs among litter and tolerates polluted water.

Key characteristics for distinction: Scaleless, flattened body. Fleshy flaps or “whiskers” on the cheeks and jaw. Big, bulging eyes on top of large flat head. Broad mouth with strong rounded teeth. Spiny dorsal fin.

Coloration: Olive-brown back with dark blotches; pale belly.

Feeding habits/specializations: Mostly small crabs/crustaceans. Also eats mollusks and small fish.

Reproduction: Spawning males make a distinctive “foghorn” call to attract a mate. Spawns April-October. Males nest in dark secluded location then call for female. Female lays sticky eggs on nest then leaves. Male protects eggs and keeps nest clean.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 17 in

Predators: May be eaten by sharks. Hides from predators within oyster reefs and rocky areas. Protects itself with strong jaws and spiny dorsal fin.

Importance to humans: Becoming important as an experimental fish because of its size and hardiness.

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun facts: An oyster toadfish will quickly take an angler's bait. But be wary of catching this fish — it has powerful, snapping jaws and sharp spines on the dorsal fin.


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Purse crab

Scientific name: 
Persephona punctata

Habitat: Purse crabs live in shallow, sandy, or shelly environments like beaches. Often found washed ashore up on barrier island beaches.

Key characteristics for distinction: Carapace circular, inflated, anterior end squared off, short; claw appendages long and slender; single line of tubercles (small bumps) defining lateral margin of carapace; 3 spines on the posterior lateral margin of the carapace.

Coloration: carapace and claws light colored with reddish, brownish or purplish mottling.

Reproduction: female purse crabs have a purse-like chamber for holding their eggs

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 2.3 in



Rainwater killifish

Scientific name: 
Lucania parva

Habitat: Marine; freshwater; brackish; pelagic-neritic; amphidromous. Inhabits vegetated quiet water and usually swims several inches below surface of water.

Key characteristics for distinction: Scales on sides outlined in melanophores, creating cross-hatched pattern, which is especially prominent in breeding males. Forward and upper surfaces of the head speckled with melanophores, which also extend onto the underside of the lower jaw. Body deep, rather compressed; head flattened above, tapering to vertically rounded, blunt snout.

Coloration: Body not barred. Back silvery to light green, with a narrow, dark mid-dorsal stripe. Belly and undersides of body are silver. Fins generally lack pigmentation, except for some melanophores along the rays.

Feeding habits/specializations: Feeds on larval crustaceans (mainly cyclopoid and harpacticoid copepods), mosquito larvae, small worms, and mollusks.

Reproduction: females began ripening in February, and a few were gravid in July; peak spawning in May and June (males displayed breeding coloration from February into June, or July, with greatest color intensity in May). During spawning, male and female swim into vegetation with fine leaves; there eggs are released and fertilized; eggs have mucous threads with which they are attached to plant material.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 2 in

Predators: In an effort to escape predators, such as bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus), fish may jump from the water onto surface of a lily pad when pursued, lying motionless for up to ten seconds before reentering the water; however, the predator may sometimes take the fish by biting through the lily pad

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun fact: It will remove external parasites from other members of its species.

Sources: fishbase.og,


Red jointed fiddler crab

Scientific name: 
Uca minax

Distribution: Along eastern shore of North America, ranging from Cape Cod to Texas. 

Habitat: Generally found in marshes, beaches and mud flats. Lives in muddy areas in marshes. Red-jointed fiddler crabs are more tolerant of low salinities. Dig burrows above the high-tide line.

Key characteristics for distinction: Males have one enlarged claw that can grow to 1.5-2 inches long. Females’ claws are equal size. Carapace (shell) is squared with rounded rear edges. The red-jointed fiddler crab’s carapace has a groove behind each eye. Four pairs of walking legs. If the claw is not smooth on the underside and had red joints, it is a red-jointed fiddler crab.

Coloration: Vary in color from tan to brown.

Feeding habits/specializations: Eat algae, bacteria and decaying marsh plants. Feed by sifting through sand or mud for food particles. Often eat in a puddle of water to help separate food from sand. Females have an advantage over males for finding and eating food because both their claws are small. The adult male’s major claw makes feeding more difficult.

Reproduction: Fiddler crabs mate every two weeks in summer. Males dig, maintain and defend a tidy, cylindrical burrow. To find a female partner, males stand next to their burrow while females walk past. The males wave their major claw to attract a female’s attention. To find a female partner, males stand next to their burrow while females walk past. The males wave their major claw to attract a female’s attention. Females incubate their egg sponge for two weeks before returning to the surface. They release the eggs into the water, where they hatch and develop into juveniles.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 1.5 in carapace width

Predators: When threatened by predators, the either quickly dig a burrow or run to the nearest burrow to hide. Used as bait. Blue crabs, mud crabs, purple marsh crabs, red drum, diamondback terrapins, willets, gulls, rails, herons, rice rats and raccoons.

Importance to humans: Help maintain population of cordgrass. Help stimulate the turnover of nutrients in the soil. They are also sensitive to contaminants which makes them a good environmental indicator.

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun fact: To find a female partner, males stand next to their burrow while females walk past waving their major claw – or fiddling - to attract a female’s attention.



Ribbed mussel

Scientific name: 
Geukensia demissa

Distribution: native to Atlantic coast of North America, from the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada to northeastern Florida and along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Yucatan.

Habitat: Lives in low, regularly flooded marshes and mud flats. Clumps of mussels are usually found half-buried in the mud among marsh grasses. Attaches itself to marsh grass roots and other surfaces with strong, thread-like strands secreted from the byssus gland.

Key characteristics for distinction: bivalve with dark, ribbed shells

Coloration: Varies in color from olive or yellowish-brown to black. Interior is iridescent blue to silvery white.

Feeding habits/specializations: Filter feeder, feeds during high tide, opens its shells slightly to draw in water, filtering out algae and other particles.

Reproduction: Spawns once per summer; during spawning season, a ribbed mussel’s gender can be determined by the color of its mantle: females tend to be brownish and males are cream or yellowish.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 5 in

Predators: Has many predators, including blue crabs, mud crabs and shorebirds such as rails and willets.

Importance to humans: Edible, but not considered not to taste as good as the popular blue mussel.

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun fact: Age can be determined by counting the ribs on its shells. Mussels help filter and clarify the water.


Salt Meadow Hay

Saltmarsh hay,
Saltmeadow cordgrass

Scientific name: 
Spartina patens

Habitat: Grows in high parts of salt and brackish tidal marshes. Very common in parts of the marsh that are irregularly flooded by tides. Also found on beaches, dunes and tidal flats. Forms dense colonies.

Key characteristics for distinction: Drooping, wiry, dark green leaves that grow 6-12 inches long. Spikes of tiny, overlapping florets bloom in June-October. Long, slender rhizomes.

Coloration: Leaves are shiny on top and rough on the bottom. Dark green leaves.

Feeding habits/specializations: photosynthesis 

Reproduction: Usually reproduces asexually when its long, underground rhizomes spread and form new stems. Produces seeds sparsely.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 4 ft tall

Predators: Food source for ducks and Seaside Sparrows.

Importance to humans: Serve as major source of organic nutrients for the entire estuary; mats of salt hay grass are inhabited by many small animals. Serve as a pollution filters and buffers against flooding and shoreline erosion.

Conservation status: not evaluated; can be an invasive species in some areas.

Fun fact: Stems are easily bent and blown over by the wind, giving the grass its distinctive whorled, “cowlick” appearance.



Sheepshead minnow

Scientific name: 
Cyprinodon variegatus

Habitat: Marine; freshwater; brackish. Occurs in hypersaline lagoons and connecting channels. Found on muddy bottoms in turbid waters.

Key characteristics for distinction: Deep-bodied fish. It is laterally compressed with flat sides, an arched back and a small head with a flattened top. The small mouth is at the end of the snout and the teeth are large and wedge-shaped with three cusps. The pectoral fins are large and extend past the origins of the small pelvic fins. The origin of the anal fin hardly overlaps the trailing edge of the dorsal fin. The caudal peduncle is thick and the caudal fin is truncated and square-ended.

Coloration: olive green above and yellowish below

Feeding habits/specializations: Omnivorous; consuming organic detritus and algae, as well as microcrustaceans, and dipteran larvae.

Reproduction: In colder water, spawning occurs February through October; in warm waters, spawning can last throughout the year. Males construct nest pits in bay bottoms to attract females. When mating, males turn bright blue, fiercely defending their nests. Females can spawn several times during the spawning season at 1-7 day intervals, depositing between 100 to 300 eggs per spawning period. Eggs incubate from 4 to 12 days, depending on water temperature.

Maximum length (in inches or feet)3.5 in

Predators: Predators include red drum, spotted seatrout, Atlantic croaker, turtles and some wading birds. Sheepshead minnows are an important link in the coastal food chain.

Importance to humans: used as forage fish in mariculture

Conservation status: least concern


Salt Marsh Cord Grass

Spartina grass,
Smooth cordgrass

Scientific name: 
Spartina alterniflora

Habitat: Grows between the low- and high-tide marks in salt and brackish marshes. Forms dense colonies that usually parallel the shoreline. Short form more common in slightly higher areas. Tall form more common in low areas that are flooded by tides every day.

Key characteristics for distinction: Round, hollow stems. Smooth, blade-like leaves that taper to a point. Tiny, white flowers that bloom in July-September. Strong, interconnected root system. Grows in two forms: a short form that grows to 2 feet tall, and a tall form that can reach 7 feet tall.

Coloration: The flowers are a yellowish-green, turning brown by the winter.

Feeding habits/specializations: Photosynthesis. 

Reproduction: Usually reproduces asexually when its long, underground rhizomes spread and form new stems. Flowers mature into foot-long seed spikes in autumn.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): short form – 2 ft, tall form – 7 ft

Predators: snow geese, muskrats. Fiddler crabs and ribbed mussels form facultative mutualistic relationships with cordgrass.

Importance to humans: Provides important habitat for marsh periwinkles, ribbed mussels and fiddler crabs. Aides in filtering heavy metals and toxic metals from water column and acts to stabilize shorelines against erosion.

Conservation status: invasive species – removal efforts in some areas

Fun facts: The dominant grass in the Bay’s salt marshes. Used to control shoreline erosion. Spartina alterniflora can become an invasive plant, either by itself or by hybridizing with native species and preventing propagation of the pure native strain.




Scientific name: 
Leiostomus xanthurus

Habitat: shallow waters, often near pilings and jetties. Schools just below the water’s surface. Has been collected from all depths and bottom types. Juveniles often move into freshwater rivers.

Key characteristics for distinction: Deep notch in the dorsal fin. High, rounded back that slopes down to a small head. No teeth in the lower jaw. Forked tail fin.

Coloration: Bluish-gray body. A distinctive large, black spot near the gill opening. 12-15 dark, angled bars across the back. Brassy white belly. Pale fins

Feeding habits/specializations: bottom-feeder; bristle worms, mollusks, crustaceans, plant and animal detritus.

Reproduction: Spawns over the continental shelf from late September-March. After spawning, adults may stay offshore. Tiny larvae enter the Bay and move to freshwater shallows and tidal creeks, where they stay and grow throughout the summer.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 11-12 in

Predators: larger fish like red drum, bluefish, and striped bass

Importance to humans: fishing/commercial

Conservation status: not evaluated

Fun facts: Also called Norfolk spot. Part of drum family which vibrates their swim bladder using special muscles to create a loud drumming or croaking sound.


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Spotfin killifish

Scientific name: 
Fundulus luciae

Distribution: Atlantic coast from Georgia to Massachusetts.

Habitat: Marine; brackish; benthopelagic. Inhabits salt marshes among the Spartina grasses along the high tide line in waters. At low tide spotfins can often be found in shallow muddy troughs, or even wrapped around the bases of clumps of Spartina.

Key characteristics for distinction: They’re named after a dorsal ocellus carried by males. Wild spotfins are so well adapted to their muddy environment that they don’t glisten out of water like most fishes.

Coloration: flat gunmetal gray base color.

Feeding habits/specializations: Adults feed on medium-sized zooplankton and emergent insects, while juveniles search out smaller zooplankters such as rotifers and nematode worms.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 2 in

Predators: birds

Importance to humans: aquarium use

Conservation status: least concern


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Spotfin mojarra

Scientific name: 
Eucinostomus argenteus

Habitat: Marine; freshwater; brackish. Found over soft bottoms of bays and shallow inshore areas, often along sand beaches. Enters freshwater

Key characteristics for distinction: Dorsal spines (total): 9; Dorsal soft rays (total): 10; Anal spines: 3; Anal soft rays: 8. Tip of dorsal fin dusky. Premaxillary groove continuous but narrow, bordered by scales anteriorly; small to medium sized fish with a compressed body and protrusible mouth.

Coloration: Silvery fish that is heavily pigmented with a uniform pattern of 7 dorsal bars separated by 6 dark lateral spots. The snout has distinct V-shape pigmentation and the dorsal fin is clear with fine speckling.

Feeding habits/specializations: Omnivorous. Benthic feeder using its highly protrusible mouth to forage for infaunal invertebrates feeding primarily on bivalves, polychaetes, and crustaceans

Reproduction: The spawning season of Eucinostomus argenteus occurs during the warmer months of December to June in Brazilian waters

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 7.8 in

Importance to humans: used as live bait in snapper fishery

Conservation status: least concern



Stripped burrfish

Scientific name: 
Chilomycterus schoepfii

Habitat: Marine; reef-associated. Common in seagrass beds in bays and coastal lagoons. Also found on shallow coastal reefs. Mostly solitary.

Key characteristics for distinction: covered with short, sharp spines. Short round body. No spines wholly on caudal peduncle. Supraocular tentacles absent or much smaller than eyes. 5 to 7 large dark blotches on back and sides, with many, approximately parallel to obliquely intersecting dark lines distributed over light background color. Strong parrot-like beak.

Coloration: yellowish-green in color with dark wavy stripes. Large dark spots at base of dorsal fin and above and behind pectoral fins.

Feeding habits/specializations: invertebrates like barnacles and hermit crabs; uses powerful beak-like jaws to crush and consume prey; sometimes eats prey whole.

Reproduction: Believed to spawn offshore at night; little is known.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 11 in

Predators: Fends off predators by puffing its body into a spiny ball.

Importance to humans: not commercial fished or sort after; often killed as by-catch in gill nets.

Conservation status: least concern

Fun facts: Burrfish are not very good swimmers. They move by squirting water out of their gill openings, which jets the fish forward.



Striped killifish

Scientific name: 
Fundulus majalis

Habitat: Marine; brackish; benthopelagic. Inhabits bays, estuaries and coastal marshes.

Key characteristics for distinction: Dorsal soft rays (total): 14-15. Males have 15-20 dark bars on side; females have 2-3 longitudinal stripes.

Coloration: It exhibits sexual dimorphism, with the males having vertical black stripes and the mature females having horizontal black stripes along the sides of their silver-colored bodies.

Feeding habits/specializations: The adults feed on a variety of items such as insects, nymphs, mollusks, turbellarians, and other small crustaceans.

Reproduction: During spawning, male and female swim into vegetation with fine leaves; there eggs are released and fertilized; eggs have mucous threads with which they are attached to plant material.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 7 in

Predators: In the presence of a predatory stimulus, shoal size increases to allow for greater protection via the dilution effect. From the dilution effect, each individual will have a lesser chance of being attacked by a predator, since there are many other individuals in the group. Shoaling also benefits the individual because of group vigilance.

Importance to humans: bait, aquarium

Conservation status: not evaluated


Striped Mullet

Stripped mullet

Scientific name: 
Mugil cephalus

Habitat: Marine; freshwater; brackish; benthopelagic; catadromous. Coastal species that often enters estuaries and freshwater environments. Adult mullet have been found in waters ranging from 0 ppt to 75 ppt salinity while juveniles can only tolerate such wide salinity ranges after they reach lengths of 1.6-2.8 inches (4-7 cm). Adults form huge schools near the surface over sandy or muddy bottoms and dense vegetation. There is a large dark blotch at the base of the pectoral fin. The pigmentation in the iris is dispersed and brown, a character that also helps to distinguish it from Mugil curema.

Key characteristics for distinction: The body of the striped mullet is subcylindrical and anteriorly compressed. It has a small, terminal mouth with inconspicuous teeth and a blunt nose. The lips are thin, with a bump at the tip of the lower lip. The adipose eyelid is prominent with only a narrow slit over the pupil. The body is elongate and the head is a slightly wider than deep. Pectoral fins are short, not reaching the first dorsal fin. The origin of the second dorsal fin is posterior to the origin of the anal fin. The lateral line is not visible.

Coloration: grayish olive to grayish brown, with olive-green or bluish tints and sides fading to silvery white towards the belly. Dark longitudinal lines, formed by dark spots at the center of each scale on the upper half of the body, run the length of the body.

Feeding habits/specializations: diurnal feeders, consuming mainly zooplankton, dead plant matter, and detritus. Mullet have thick-walled gizzard-like segments in their stomach along with a long gastrointestinal tract that enables them to feed on detritus.

Reproduction: spawn in saltwater yet spend most of their lives in freshwater. During the autumn and winter months, adult mullet migrate far offshore in large aggregations to spawn. Estimated fecundity of the striped mullet is 0.5 to 2.0 million eggs per female, depending upon the size of the individual. Hatching occurs about 48 hours after fertilization.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 47.2 in

Predators: fishes, birds, marine mammals.

Importance to humans: fishing/bait. Also used in Chinese medicinal practices. Important commercial fish.

Conservation status: least concern

Fun facts: Striped mullet leap out of the water frequently. Biologists aren't sure why these fish leap so often, but it could be to avoid predators. Another possibility is that the fish spend much time in areas that are low in dissolved oxygen. They may quickly exit the water in order to clear their gills and be exposed to higher levels of oxygen.


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White mullet,
Fantail mullet

Scientific name: 
Mugil gyrans

Habitat: Marine; freshwater; brackish. Occur in coastal water, brackish lagoons and lower reaches of rivers (sometimes in freshwater).

Key characteristics for distinction: Anal and pelvic fins yellowish, dark blotch at base of pectoral fin, inverted V-shaped mouth, insertion of second dorsal over that of anal fin.

Coloration: olive green with blue tints on back, shading to silvery sides, white below

Feeding habits/specializations: Feed on small algae and other organic matter.

Reproduction: Oviparous, eggs are pelagic and non-adhesive.

Maximum length (in inches or feet): 18 in

Predators: snook, snappers, barracuda, dolphins

Importance to humans: fisheries

Conservation status: not evaluated