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Ecology of Assateague Island National Seashore

Plant and animal life on Assateague Island National Seashore have endured a constantly changing environment.

Ecology of Assateague Island National Seashore

The most famous of all Assateague Island’s wildlife are its wild horses. These horses have been on Assateague for hundreds of years. They have withstood hurricanes and Nor’easters and adapted to eat salt marsh grasses.

Color photograph of brown and white pony eating grass. The pony is standing in short saltgrasses with longer saltgrasses behind
An Assateague Island pony feasting on salt marsh grass. Some 300 wild horses live on Assateague Island. Legend has it that they arrived on a Spanish galleon hundreds of years ago.

These wild horses are not the only creatures that inhabit Assateague’s various ecosystems. Assateague Island provides habitat for an abundance of mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds, insects, mollusks, and fish. Besides the feral ponies, mammals on Assateague include white-tailed deer, raccoons, red foxes, opossum, river otters, muskrats, meadow jumping mouse, voles, and even bottle-nose dolphins and the occasional whale in the waters off the coast. Different mammals occupy unique habitats within Assateague. For example, the river otters and muskrats find refuge in the marshy waterways and red foxes and raccoons can be found on the dunes and in the maritime forests on the hunt for insects and berries to eat. Smaller rodents like the meadow jumping mouse and meadow vole make their homes in the grasses and eat seeds, plants, and even insects.

A variety of snakes, toads, and frogs rely on the freshwater ponds in the center of the island. Assateague is also home to five different types of freshwater turtles and three species of sea turtles. Northern Diamondback Terrapin are likely to be found in the salt marshes and Loggerhead sea turtle nests can sometimes be found along the beach, but freshly-hatched sea turtle babies have to get past a variety of nesting beach birds to make it to the ocean.

Assateague Island’s extremely productive saltwater marshes provide habitat for a plethora of wildlife from blue crabs and birds to flounder and Atlantic menhaden. Bivalves like ribbed mussels and oysters are also an important part of the ecology of Assateague Island and the salt marshes. Migratory birds such as snow geese arrive at Assateague seasonally and feast on abundance insect life. The various habitats and ecosystems within Assateague Island provide the natural resources to support a vibrant ecological community with a wealth of different species relying on one another.