Habitat Types

Nantucket is fortunate to have a wide variety of habitats on a relatively small island. Each habitat is influenced by many different ecological factors such as soil type, water availability, slope and exposure to salt spray. Several Nantucket habitats are unique to this region—and rare in the world.

Sandplain Grasslands and Heathlands

Nantucket’s sandplain grasslands and heathlands are upland plant communities unique to this region of North America. Once common along the northeastern seaboard, residential and commercial development and succession to shrublands has all but eliminated these habitats from many coastal areas. It is estimated that over 80 percent of all the world’s sandplain grasslands occur on Nantucket, Tuckernuck and Martha’s Vineyard. More…

Scrub Oak and Pitch Pine Barrens

Many of Nantucket’s grasslands and heathlands have become overgrown by taller shrubs and trees such as scrub oak and pitch pine. These overgrown heathlands are collectively referred to as barrens. Plant diversity in barrens communities is limited by the drought-prone, acidic, nutrient poor nature of the soils. However, the larval stages of many rare and endangered moths feed exclusively on plants species associated with these habitats. More…

Hardwood Forests

Compared to the rest of New England, Nantucket has relatively few hardwood forests. However, this was not always the case. Just prior to European settlement, large areas were dominated by oak, with some beech, pine, maple and hickory. Emigrants settled on Nantucket beginning in 1659 and cut trees for home construction, ship building and firewood. Large areas were also cleared for growing crops and as pasture land. These activities quickly depleted the island of its forests. More…

Ponds and Bogs

Nantucket’s ponds and bogs were formed by the retreat of the last glacier that covered the New England area. Meltwaters from the glacier formed river valleys that ran from the glacier to the ocean. As the ice melted, the sea level rose and flooded all but the highest elevations surrounding Nantucket, isolating it from the mainland. Ocean currents deposited sand into the areas where these valleys met the shore, blocking their southern ends and causing them to fill up with freshwater, forming a system of long, narrow ponds running perpendicular to Nantucket’s south shore. More…

Salt Marshes

Salt marshes are found all along the eastern coast of North America from Newfoundland to Florida. They sit on the border between land and sea, being exposed and flooded twice daily by the tide. They are usually found on the less exposed side of barrier beaches and harbor shorelines, where the wave energy is not as great as on the ocean beach. On Nantucket, salt marshes are relatively rare because most of the island’s shoreline is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound. More…

Barrier Beaches and Dunes

Nantucket’s barrier beaches sit between the island and the surrounding sea. Coatue, Great Point, Coskata and the Haulover collectively comprise an ever-changing fragile strip of sand that shelters Nantucket Harbor from the open waters of Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. These beaches were formed and continually reshaped over the last 6,000 years by ocean currents moving sand, forming Great Point and the adjoining barrier beach known as Coatue. Smaller barrier beaches also occur at Smith Point and Eel Point. More…