Every living organism has specific habitat needs that must be met in order to survive. Habitats provide food, protection from predators, and safe places to nest and breed. The many types of habitats in the Chesapeake Bay watershed account for the extraordinary diversity of life found here.
Captain John Smith and his colleagues were astounded by the abundance and diversity they encountered in their Bay explorations. Smith’s journals are filled with descriptions of the bounty: “In sommer no place affordeth more plenty of sturgeon, nor in winter more abundance of foule….” Smith wrote. “Neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety for small fish had any of us ever seen in any place…than in the Bay of Chesapeack.”
Smith notes “many shoals lying in the entrances [where] we spied many fishes lurking in the reeds.” Sea grasses, known today as submerged aquatic vegetation, covered hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the Bay and lower reaches of the tidal rivers. Though fewer now than in Smith’s time, grasses are still the hiding and feeding places for a great variety of plants and animals.
The landscape Smith saw was mainly covered by deep forest. The types of trees varied with the location. By 1607 most of the forests back home in England had been cut for domestic and industrial use. Imagine Smith’s awe at seeing oak trees in America so big that a timber 30 inches square and 60 feet long could be cut from a single log. He described cypress trees “three fathoms [18 feet] about the foot, very straight, and 50, 60, or 80 [feet] without a branch.”
American Elm in Smith’s time grew to 90 feet high. Mature chestnut trees could be 120 feet or more in height and have a canopy 100 feet across. Elm and chestnut have vanished from the Chesapeake landscape, and only a few stands of cypress remain today. These are among the species that did not survive 400 years of environmental change.
Change comes about in many ways. There are natural reasons, such as strong storms and climate changes. There are invasive species that compete with natural species and bring disease. But the most dramatic changes are human-imposed, the results of population growth, pollution, deforestation, overharvesting, urban and agricultural development.
All of these changes affect habitats and have consequences for the Bay’s plants and animals, because all living things within the Bay’s ecosystem are interdependent. Healthy habitats are essential to the survival of the Bay’s living resources.
Some habitats and their resident species are lost and will not be recovered. However, through modern science and experience people now know a great deal about what threatens habitats and what can be done to protect and restore them. Restoring habitat is the key to preserving the wondrous diversity of the Chesapeake Bay.
Habitat restoration benefits humans, too, by improving water quality, protecting property from erosion and flood damage, and increasing recreational opportunities.
There are at least seven different types of habitats in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Learn about what lives in each type:
Learn More about Bay Habitats