Salt marsh on Toms Cove, overlooking the Coast Guard Station and boathouse

The Wilds of Assateague Island

A stampede of horses run wild, hooves kicking up sand along a grassy knoll. The long grass and horses may conjure images of a ranch, yet there are no fences around for miles. These horses are the 150 wild ponies of Assateague Island, the descendants of domestic horses introduced to the island by European settlers. However, the ponies are considered “wild,” and are not like the horses used for horseback riding on other parts of the island.

Just off the coast of Maryland, this barrier island supports more wildlife than just ponies. Horseshoe crabs and shells are scattered across the beaches, and the white-tailed deer run abound. Tens of thousands of shorebirds, such as the snow geese that pass by in the autumn, stop by the islands to rest and eat as stopovers during their long migrations.

Many of the birds take shelter and feed on the plentiful food in the wetlands of Assateague, but the wetlands also work in less obvious ways to provide for their wildlife inhabitants. As water passes through these wetlands, the plants that grow in these habitats serve to filter the water, absorbing many pollutants from the water column. This keeps the water clean and allows fish and other seafood to flourish, from tasty crabs to scrumptious clams. In turn, the plentiful seafood enables all sorts of recreational opportunities, from fishing to crabbing, where you can rent a boat and bait to catch your own dinner!

The wetlands also buffer the island from storms, absorbing rising waters and slowly releasing them downstream. Like a sponge, the wetlands soak up surging waters to lessen damaging wave action.  Though the wetlands protect the island, it still might be a good idea to avoid the peak storm season and harsh winter weather and visit in the milder summers, especially if you are planning on camping at the many sites around the island. In addition, Assateague is a barrier island, which means it is exposed to the elements and helps mitigate the damage to the mainland caused by stormy seas, so make sure you come prepared.

The island is more than just marshes and meadows. The coasts are surrounded by beautiful beaches, where you can swim, surf, and kayak in the water—or, just relax and unwind for some fun in the sun! Visiting Assateague can be a great way to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the mainland and learn more about the natural environment. Go on a guided ranger program and discover even more about this distinctive habitat.

Visit this unique National Park or explore a wetland near you. Click here to learn more about wetland habitats and what you can do to from home to help protect them!