Meet the Locals: An up close look at the first inhabitants of Edisto Island
By Ashby Gale
Dawn breaks and radiant beams of sunlight spread across the salt marsh and maritime forest. As the light ignites the tops of the tallest live oak trees and palmetto berry clusters, one local yells, “Peter! Peter! Peter!”
“Look at me! Look at me,” Peter replies.
Soon, others chime in by the multitude: “Pity-tuck!” “Ha, ha-ha, HAA-HAAAA!” “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you ALL?” “Conk-A-REEE!”
The story of Edisto Island begins shortly after the melting of Ice Age glaciers, and years after the last mammoths and mastodons left the plains that extended out from the mainland. Glacial meltwater produced the ocean levels seen today, and Edisto Island, as we know it, came into existence. Long before the first nomadic peoples passed through the Sea Islands 4,500 years ago, the first inhabitants of Edisto were not humans, but rather, were the birds, plants, and other wildlife that attracts so many people to the island today.
The Maritime Forest: Edisto’s first house
Our planet has many ecosystems that are home to numerous species, but perhaps the most unique of these is the maritime forest. By definition, maritime forests are communities of salt-tolerant vegetation that grow along the coast and its islands and gain fresh water only through the rain that falls on these patches of land. Plants that inhabit the maritime forest are distinctive in their ability to withstand constant exposure to heat and scouring from salt and sand spray: aerosols born from the crashing of waves and the influence of onshore sea breezes.
Visitors to these beaches may notice the advancement of the maritime forest through dune stabilization when viewed from the high-tide line.
Embryo Dunes – Drifts of fresh sand deposited on the beaches. Moved by wind, dune sand collects among patches of detritus left by previous high tides.
Yellow Dunes – Sea oats and other plants begin to colonize embryo dunes. Yellow dunes are the most commonly recognized dune feature, iconic in their stature and picturesque nature against both sunrise and sunset.
Gray Dunes – Woody plants and shrubs begin to grow among the grasses. During this stage, a vital addition is made to the dune soil: mycorrhizae, fungi that grows in symbiosis with the roots of a plant, which aids in the capture of water and nutrients from the soil.
Vegetated Dunes – At last, the maritime forest in all its glory! Also known as a climax community, the maritime forest now has a distinct soil profile, thanks to the decomposition of organic matter that accumulates between vegetation and exposed roots.
Once established, the maritime forest begins to grow, but with one limiting factor. Thanks to aerosols coming from the ocean, these forests are pruned by “Mother Nature’s knives.” Plant buds at the tops of trees are scoured, burned and sheared by the salt spray, which inhibits much vertical growth. Meanwhile, lateral buds on lower branches are more protected and, consequently, gain much of the tree’s nutrients for growth. As a result, the maritime forest takes on a sculpted, bonsai-esque shape, rising from the ground and curving up to the canopy.
These leaves are tough! In similar fashion to humans putting up storm shutters before an impending hurricane, seaside plants have developed other defenses to the damaging salt spray. A thick, waxy coating (called a cuticle) covers many of our native species, such as live oaks, yaupon hollies, red bay, wax myrtles, yucca, junipers and prickly pear. This cuticle prevents the desiccating sodium chloride—good ol’ table salt—from reaching the plants’ interiors. Any salt that does stick is quickly washed away by rainfall, which rolls off the strongly curved leaves of oaks and hollies, or the stiff needles of pines, junipers and yucca.
The observant beachgoer may note that one plant’s growth is not affected by salt spray: the cabbage palmetto (Sabal palmetto), reaching up to 60 feet tall when mature! Even though this icon may be honored as the official State Tree of South Carolina, the cabbage palmetto is a member of the Liliopsida class of plants, more commonly known to include grasses, tulips, lilies, epiphytes, like “air plants,” and of course rice, corn, barley and rye to name a few. Indeed, the simple makeup of the palmetto means that its only bud (the terminal bud) is protected from scouring by its thick, waxy leaves, called fronds. The palmetto’s success is furthered by a dense network of stringy roots, reaching outward in every direction through the soft, sandy soil.
At its climax, the maritime forest plays host to a multitude of animal life. Reptiles, mammals, amphibians, birds and insects all can live entire lifetimes within the diverse ecosystem of the maritime forest. And yet, “locals” aren’t the only animals to call our maritime forests home. Maritime hammock islands—those that are isolated by marsh and occur between larger islands and the mainland—are vital breeding grounds to many neotropical warblers that migrate from South America and the Caribbean to nest here in the summer.
The Locals: Edisto’s fauna
A closer look at some of Edisto’s more unique locals!
Fun Fact: These color-changing lizards historically gained the nickname “chameleons” thanks to their ability to change from chartreuse to brown to aqua! Despite this nickname, the chromatophores—color-changing skin cells—are nowhere near as sophisticated as their old-world relatives, the true chameleons.
Life History: Size 5–8 inches, lifespan 2–8 years, common throughout the piedmont and coastal plains of the entire Southeast.
Loggerhead sea turtle
Fun Fact: That wasn’t a tractor that drove up out of the ocean! Sea turtle tracks are a common sight along beaches in the Southern Atlantic and help patrol teams distinguish the different species. Two of the most similar in size (loggerhead and green sea turtles) can be differentiated by the alternating stroke of the loggerhead and the simultaneous stroke of the green.
Life History: Hatchling size 2 inches, adult size 36 inches, 250 pounds, lifespan 90+ years, circumglobal range as a species, with nesting populations located within the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Fun Fact: Step carefully—least tern chicks are camouflage masters! Their speckled plumage allows this ground-nesting species to blend in with dune sand, shells and detritus while the parents are off foraging. So respect those bird-nesting areas on the beaches.
Life History: Size 8–9 inches, wingspan 19–21 inches, lifespan 15 years, breeding populations along the coastal Southeast, Caribbean, and certain Midwest rivers.
Fun Fact: The French call painted buntings nonpareil, which means “without equal,” referring to this species’ stunning plumage!
Life History: Size 5 inches, lifespan up to 12 years, pairs breed in Texas, the coastal Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, and migrate to Central America and the Caribbean during the winter.
Fun Fact: Scientific names are not random! Scientists named the red-winged blackbird after the Greek agelaios, meaning “belonging to a flock,” while the species name is derived from a Latin word for deep red.
Life History: Size 7–9 inches, wingspan 12–15 inches, lifespan 2+ years on average, year-round residents across all lower 48 states.
Eastern screech owl
Fun Fact: Birds of the same species can have drastic color variation. These differences occur in what are called “morphs” of the species. Eastern screech owls are known for having red and gray morphs, with only 15 percent of individuals bearing the red plumage pictured here!
Life History: Size 6–10 inches, wingspan 18–24 inches, lifespan 14 years, year-round residents in states east of the Rockies.
Fun Fact: A wood stork feeds by “tactolocation,” or the ability to locate food via motion receptors on the bill. By sweeping its bill through the water, a wood stork waits until it senses a fish to snap the bill shut in 25 milliseconds—the fastest reflex of any vertebrate. For comparison, the average blink of a human eye is 100–400 milliseconds!
Life History: Size 3 feet tall, wingspan 5 feet, 4–6 pounds, lifespan 20 years, breeds in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the largest population present in South America.
The sun starts to set on the island, and the last traces of light graze the tops of the spartina grasses, dancing in the first fingers of offshore breezes. Visitors to the island are bunking down in their nests, while others are climbing out of the rough surf, coming and going in the night with only their tracks to betray their presence. The locals are stowing away in their homes as well, but this time they are joined by another local—a newer local. Humans are parking their cars, drawing the blinds on their houses, settling in for the night. For humankind, the wilderness may be shut out from their abodes, but their presence does not go unnoticed by Edisto’s longest-lived locals, who wish for a future where continued coexistence is possible.