Sandy shores

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This article describes the habitat of the Sandy shores. It is one of the sub-categories within the section dealing with biodiversity of marine habitats and ecosystems.


Sandy shores or beaches are loose deposits of sand, gravel or shells that cover the shoreline in many places. They make up two-thirds of the world’s ice-free coastlines. Beaches serve as buffer zones or shock absorbers that protect the coastline, sea cliffs or dunes from direct wave attack. It is an extremely dynamic environment where sand, water and air are always in motion. Beaches also provide important coastal recreational areas for a many people. Fine-grained sand beaches tend to be quite flat.

Sandy beach in Middelkerke - Belgium [1]


Sandy beaches are soft shores that are formed by deposition of particles that have been carried by water currents from other areas. The transported material is in part derived from the erosion of shores, but the major part is derived from the land and transported by rivers to the sea. The two main types of beach material are quartz (=silica) sands of terrestrial origin and carbonate sands of marine origin. The carbonate sand is weathered from mollusk shells and skeletons of other animals. Other material includes heavy minerals, basalt (=volcanic origin) and feldspar.


The grain size of sand varies from very fine to very coarse. The particle diameter is shown in the table below. As said before, the two main types of beach material are quartz (=silica) sands of terrestrial origin and carbonate sands of marine origin. Quartz sands have a slightly lower density (2.66^{-3}) than carbonate sands (2.7  to  2.95^{-3}). The quartz particles also seem to be more rounded. Calcium carbonate particles sink more slowly in water due to their more irregular shapes, even if their density is higher.

Generic Name Particle Diameter (mm)
Very coarse 1.0 to 2.0
Coarse 0.50 to 2.0
Medium 0.25 to 0.50
Fine 0.125 to 0.50
Very Fine 0.0625 to 0.125

Different beach types based on morphodynamic scale [2]

Porosity is the volume of void space in the sand. It is the volume of water needed to saturate a given weight of dry sand. Most sands have a porosity of about 30 to 40 % of the total volume. The finer a sand the greater its porosity. Permeability is the rate of flow or drainage of water through the sand. Fine sands have lower permeabilities due to their smaller pore sizes. Penetrability is related to particle size and porosity. It can be important to the macrofauna. All species must be able to burrow into the substratum. To determine the penetrability, the proportion of clay and silt and the water content are very important.

The two basic beach types are dissipative and reflective. Together with the intermediate types, there are six major microtidal beach types. The reflective type occurs when conditions are calm and/or the sediment is coarse. There is no surf zone and waves flow upon the beach. It reflects a major part of the incoming wave. When bigger waves cut back a beach and spread out its sediments to form a surf zone, the reflective beaches create a series of intermediate types. When wave action is strong and/or sediment particle size is fine, the dissipative beach type is created. This type has a flat and maximally eroded beach. The sediments are stored in a broad surf zone that may have multiple sandbanks parallel to the beach. The intermediate types are characterized by high temporal variability, sand storage both on the beach and in the surf zone and sandbanks and troughs. [3]

Beach types can also be based on the degree of exposure. This ranges from very sheltered over sheltered and exposed to very exposed.

Functioning and adaptations

The intertidal zone is covered part of the day by water and is part of the day exposed to air. High tides bring nutrients and food with it. When the tide retreats, waste products, eggs and larvae are taken. This causes changes for the organisms that live here. They have adapted to this changing environment, as seen on rocky shores.

The burrowing must be rapid and powerful on high-energy sandy beaches. This is because the animals must not be swept away by incoming waves and swash. They also need to be high mobile and must be able to deal with the swash climate. In contrast with rocky shores, desiccation is not an overriding concern, because the animals can retreat into the substratum or below the water table. Intertidal filter-feeders cannot feed while the tide has retreated. Many species of the meiofauna use vertical tidal migrations through the sand column. Other species move up and down the beach with the tides. This is inadequate for the maintenance of appropriate rhythmic behavior so responses to changing environmental factors are essential. There is a difference between directional (such as light, slope of the beach, water currents) and nondirectional (such as disturbance of the sand, changes in temperature, hydrostatic pressure) stimuli. Directional stimuli act as orientational signs, while nondirectional stimuli act as releasing factors. Because of the absence of attached macrophytes, the predominant feeding types are filter-feeding and scavenging. Adaptations to respiration of animals in low-energy sandy beaches are different from those on surf-swept beaches. Some adaptations are an increased ventilation rate or increased efficiency, reduced metabolic rate or other ways of conserving energy. Many sheltered-shore animals are facultative anaerobes. This is an adaptation during ebb tide. Other animals in oxygenated surf-swept beaches are essentially aerobic. The majority of the intertidal animals have tolerance levels of natural variables that exceed those necessary for survival in their particular habitats. Some species descent into the burrow to escape high temperatures. Another solution is evaporative cooling by replacing water through entering the burrow, plunging into the sea or absorption from the substratum. Another problem for intertidal animals is the time of reproduction. There is variation in the number of eggs, the anatomy of the reproductive organs, the morphology of the egg cases, times of breeding, mating behavior and developmental stages. Adaptations for this is to reproduce at frequent times (iteroparous) or to reproduce just once in a year (semelparous). This depends from species to species. Some species follow the lunar cycle to reproduce at the right time. To ovoid predation, several behaviors are developed. The first one is to burrow very deep. Another one is tidal migration, so the animals remain protected from predation. Other responses are escaping movements or an impressive threat display by crabs by holding their chelae open and aloft. According to circumstances, the behavior of the animals can be modified. This is called phenotypic plasticity.

Several groups of vertebrates make use of sandy beaches for foraging, nesting and breeding. Turtles nest on the backshore of sandy beaches. Birds use the beach for foraging, nesting and roosting. Seals use several areas of the beach for nesting, molting, breeding and raising pups. Other terrestrial animals such as otters, baboons, raccoons, lions,… They descend onto the beach to forage. [4]


The distribution and abundance of the sediment infauna is mostly controlled by complex interactions between the physicochemical and biological properties of the sediment. [5]

The physicochemical properties are:

  • Grain size
  • Water content
  • Flushing rate of water through the sediment
  • Oxidation-reduction state
  • Dissolved oxygen
  • Temperature
  • Light
  • Organic content

The biological properties are:

  • Food availability and feeding activity
  • Reproductive effects on dispersal and settlement
  • Behavior that induces movement and aggregation
  • Intraspecific competition
  • Interspecific competition and competitive exclusion
  • Predation effects

Most invertebrate phyla are represented on sandy beaches, either as interstitial forms or as members of the macrofauna [6]. The macrofaunal forms are by far the better known. Some of them are typical of intertidal sands and their surf zone, while others are more characteristic of sheltered sandbanks, sandy muds or estuaries and are less common on open beaches of pure sand [6].


Macrofauna of the sandy beaches are often abundant and, in some cases, attain exceptionally high densities. Their main feature is the high degree of mobility displayed by all species. These animals may vary from a few mm to 20 cm in length. The macrofauna community consists of those organisms too large to move between the sand grains. The macrofauna of sandy beaches includes most major invertebrate taxa although it has been recognised that molluscs, crustaceans and polychaetes are the most important. There is a tendency for crustaceans to be more abundant on tropical sandy beaches or more exposed beaches and molluscs to be more abundant on less exposed and on temperate beaches although there are many exceptions of this and polychaetes are sometimes more abundant than either of these taxa. Generally crustaceans dominate the sands towards the upper tidal level and molluscs the lower down level [6]. Physical factors, primary wave action and particle size of the sand largely determine distribution and diversity of the invertebrate macrofauna of sandy beaches. Food input and surf-zone productivity may determinate the abundance population. Water movement is important parameter controlling macrofaunal distribution on beaches.


In contrast to the wave-swept surface sand inhabited by most of the macrofauna, the interstitial system is truly three-dimensional, often having great vertical extent in the sand. The porous system averages about 40% of the total sediment volume. Its inhabitants include small metazoans forming the meiofauna, protozoans, bacteria and diatoms[6]. The meiofauna is defined as those metazoan animals passing undamaged though 0.5 to 1.0 mm sieves and trapped on 30 mm screens. On most beaches the interstitial fauna is rich and diverse, even exceeding the macrofauna in biomass in some cases[6]. The dominant taxa of sandy beach meiofauna are nematodes and harpacticoid copepod with other important groups including turbellarians, oligochaetes, gastrotrichs, ostracods and tardigdades.


Terrestrial insects and vertebrates are frequently ignored in accounts of sandy beaches. These animals are usually a conspicuous component of the ecosystems, often rivalling the aquatic macrofauna in terms of biomass and having a significant impact on the system with regard to predation and scavenging.

Case-study Biodiversity patterns

A case-study about the latitudinal biodiversity patterns of meiofauna from sandy littoral beaches can be found here.

See also

Rocky shores

Dispelling the 'ecological desert' perception of sandy beaches [1]


  3. McLachlan A. and Brown A. 2006. The ecology of sandy shores. Academic press – Elsevier. P. 373
  4. McLachlan A. and Brown A. 2006. The ecology of sandy shores. Academic press – Elsevier. P. 373
  5. Knox G.A. 2001. The ecology of seashores. CRC Press. p. 557
  6. 6,0 6,1 6,2 6,3 6,4 Brown & McLachlan 1990

The main author of this article is TÖPKE, Katrien
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: TÖPKE, Katrien (2009): Sandy shores. Available from [accessed on 23-02-2018]

The main author of this article is Kotwicki, Lech
Please note that others may also have edited the contents of this article.

Citation: Kotwicki, Lech (2009): Sandy shores. Available from [accessed on 23-02-2018]