Beach Ecology Facts

Instructor: Amanda Robb
In this lesson, we'll be exploring the abiotic and biotic factors of the beach. By the end of the lesson you'll understand difficult conditions plants and animals need to overcome to thrive in this unique ecosystem and examples of each.

What Is a Beach?

Picture a sunny day at the beach. Visitors stretch out their towels and dig their umbrellas into the sand. Children run into the waves while adults sun bathe. But, while beachgoers relax an entire ecosystem is at work. Waves pound the shore from wind and water currents, while oysters and clams cling for dear life against the tide. Grasses grow in the dunes and birds circle above, looking for a meal.

This environment is called a beach ecosystem. In science, a beach is a border between the ocean and the land with sandy or rocky soil. Sometimes beaches can be sandy, like the beaches we enjoy sunbathing at. Other times, there are rocky cliffs or marshes at the border between land and sea. Today, we're going to learn about the different parts of this ecosystem and how they work together to support beach life.

Abiotic Factors

Although we usually think of ecosystems as a collection of living things, an ecosystem is actually made of both living things and non-living things, called abiotic factors. Abiotic factors form the base of the ecosystem and include things like sunlight, water, wind, temperature, soil, and rocks. Without these factors, no living things could exist.

Beaches typically have rocky soil, either sand created from erosion of larger rocks and coral debris, pebbles, or sheer rock faces creating ocean cliffs. These conditions make it difficult for plant life like trees to take root. As a result, there are few large trees around beaches making conditions generally sunny.

Wind currents from the ocean also make it difficult for trees and larger plants to take root. With increased wind also comes variable water currents and the changing tides. The high salinity of the ocean also presents a challenge for living things, which need to find a way to regulate their salt and water balance.

Although we usually think of beaches as being hot and sunny, beaches come in all temperatures. Increasing or decreasing latitude away from the equator results in colder waters, and thus colder beaches. Think about the cold oceans of the North and South Pole. Even though it's cold at these extreme latitudes, there are still beaches where the ocean meets the shore. With such a large mass and high salinity, oceans generally don't freeze over even if temperatures outside are below freezing.

Biotic Factors

With these intense abiotic factors, it's a wonder that life flourishes at all on the beach. But, many living things, or biotic factors, have made the beach a cozy home.


The high wind, changing tides, and salinity can make life tough for plants. If you've ever put salt water on a plant, you know it quickly wilts. However, some plants have evolved strategies to get around these challenges.

Mangrove trees are specialized plants that grow in sand, mud, and rocky soils at coastal borders. They withstand flooding from the tides twice a day and have special adaptations to excrete salt, store freshwater and get oxygen from the nutrient poor soil.

Mangrove trees have special adaptations to grow on the beach
mangrove trees

Other beach plants take a different route, opting to grow away from the salty water and into the sand dunes. These plants need special adaptations to root themselves in shifty, sandy soil and get freshwater. Many beach plants have long roots and grow horizontally across the sand, instead of growing upright against the wind, such as the red sand verbena, which grows along the coast and inland in dry soils of California.

Many beach plants also have succulent leaves, which are small modified leaves with a waxy coating. Their shape allows them to better store water, and the waxy coating prevents them from drying out in the beach heat. Many have leaves that are colored to reflect bright sunlight as well.

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