SSU Natural Resources

Natural Resources of the University by the Sea:

Habitats and Ecosystems of Savannah State University

First published by the Savannah State College Archives,
Volume 1, number 2 winter 1994.
Revised 1/21/99

For more than 100 years the beauty of Savannah State University's campus has provided an inspirational setting for intellectual and spiritual growth at "The University by the Sea." The beauty is more than skin deep. Containing elements of two biologically diverse and important coastal ecosystems, the maritime live oak forest and the salt marsh estuary, the 165-acre campus is ecologically unique among the 34 instructional units of the University System of Georgia. These natural habitats and ecosystems provide natural laboratories for instruction and research in the School of Science and Technology where they are closely linked to abundant "hands-on" exposure and experiences, particularly in the Bachelor of Science degree programs in Marine Biology and Environmental Studies.

Savannah State University, formerly Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, was founded as a result of the Land Grant Act of 1890 which forced the Georgia General Assembly to establish a land grant college for Blacks in Georgia or risk losing federal funds. Higher education for Blacks at Atlanta University resulting from the 1862 Land Grant Act became unsuccessful when legislators withdrew the funds from the institution, arguing that since white students were being taught, the laws of segregation of races in public education in Georgia were being violated (Hall 1991). A community effort was begun on March 6, 1891, at the First African Baptist Church to secure the college for Savannah. The group convinced a commission of five persons appointed by the governor to locate the college in Savannah, and the first 76 acres of land upon which the current 165-acre campus resides was deeded to the Trustees of the University of in 1891 in two tracts: 10 acres donated by George Parsons of New York City and 66 acres were purchased from Sara B. Postell for $6,000. Bordering the predominantly white town of Thunderbolt and Southeast coastal salt marsh, the land was, at one time, part of the Placentia Plantation, later known as Warren Place and contained two large homes which became Parson's Hall, located at the site of the current swimming pool, and Boggs Hall, located in front of Camilla-Hubert Hall (Hall 1991).

Construction of buildings on the campus began near these structures on the sandy bluff overlooking the salt marsh in the area now known as Felix J. Alexis Circle. This high ground represents barrier island beach dunes that were formed during the Pleistocene epoch 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. At that time the coastline was adjacent to the current campus because the sea level was higher as the result of globally warmer temperatures and more water in the oceans from melted polar ice. Small changes in sea level coupled to tidal and wave scouring can result in significant landscape rearrangement along broad, gently-sloping, sandy, barrier island coastlines. Even without sea level changes, the action of wind, wave, and tides, especially during storms, annually re-configure barrier island coastlines. Certain places on Wassaw Island, a favorite field trip spot for SSC Marine Biology classes, have undergone changes from dune, to beach, to tide pool, to salt marsh, back to dune over a period as short as 14 years.

The campus is located in the low country, an area bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the east, sand hills to the west, and extending from Georgetown, South Carolina, to St. Marys, Georgia. The diverse ecological communities of the low country and campus result from the considerable influence of fresh water, salty ocean water, and the tidal mixing of them resulting in the biologically productive shallow aquatic habitats called estuaries. The low country represents one of the most extensive salt marsh estuary systems in the United States. The magnitude of the system results from the broad gently sloping sandy coast and continental shelf of the Southeast U.S. coupled with one of the highest tide ranges along the east coast of North America. Each day, two high and two low tides averaging 6 to 8 feet in range inundate a vast area of the coastal zone, maintaining a system of creeks, channels, and rivers. Since tides are principally the result of the gravitational pull of the moon and the sun on the earth, the timing and range of the tides depend upon their relative positions. Tidal range is greater than average when the sun and moon are aligned with the earth during new and full moons and are called spring tides. Tidal range is smaller than average when they are not aligned during the other moon phases and are called neap tides.

Besides an average annual rainfall of over 50 inches per year, an enormous volume of freshwater enters the coastal zone from rivers. The fresh water that drains into the tidal zone is mixed with sea water and creating brackish conditions and one of the earth's most productive ecosystem. Energy captured by plants from sunlight flows from prey to predator throughout a complex estuarine food web in which nutrients are absorbed, redistributed, and recycled. Due to the abundance of early life stages of both coastal marine and oceanic species in the system, estuaries are called the "nurseries of the sea." The eggs and larvae of both estuarine and marine species are carried into a system where they find both resources and refuge. Estuarine habitats are subdivided into salt marsh shrub zone, salt marsh flats, needle rush marsh, smooth cord grass marsh, marsh edge zone, intertidal creek banks, bars and flats, and tidal pools, creeks, and rivers.

The saline influence of the ocean in coastal environments is significant. Sea water is salty because it contains 7 major ions (elements forming salts when not separated by water in a solution), 5 minor elements, and 11 trace elements. The salinity or saltiness of oceanic sea water is about 36 parts per thousand (3.6%) dissolved inorganic ions and elements. The salinity of the brackish water in the tidal creek and adjacent coastal waters can range from less than 5 to over 30 parts per thousand during the year. The plants and animals that inhabit this changing environment are generally well-adapted to it.

The major elements of the salt marsh ecosystem can be seen from the University dock adjacent to the Marine Biology building. Smooth cord grass is the dominant tall green grass found in the lower part of the marsh where the ground stays wet and very muddy as a result of the tides flooding the area twice daily. In late spring through late fall when most of the salt marsh is lush green, darker dead-looking sections of marsh grass can be seen. This dead-looking marsh grass has long, tubular stems and sharp brown- pointed tips and is called the needle rush. These two grasses are replaced toward higher ground by the sea oxeye, which has a succulent leaf with a yellow aster flower in June and the similar, but taller, marsh elder, a shrub that encroaches on part of the wooden walkway leading to the dock. None of these salt tolerant plants, called halophytes, is found beyond the influence of the brackish tidal water.

The tidal creek supports much more marine life during the summer than during the winter. In summer, the warmer temperatures and greater sunlight increases the overall productivity of the salt marsh while in winter the colder temperatures and less sunlight decreases the productivity. While the water in the tidal creek is never crystal clear because the tides constantly stir up the mud, it is significantly clearer in the winter because there are fewer microscopic organisms such as algal cells suspended in it.

At low tide, the surface of the mud banks along the campus' tidal creek is highlighted by the golden hue of millions of algal cells called diatoms. Mud snails aggregate by the thousands on the mud zone. Mullet, Atlantic menhaden, killifishes, blue crabs, mud crabs, white shrimp, and brown shrimp are most responsible for activity at the surface of the water in the creek. Because of the significant tidal flushing, pollution does not accumulate in the creek; blue crabs and shrimp harvested here are safe to eat.

Attached to the dock and its pilings are barnacles, oysters, seaweeds and a variety of encrusting marine life known as hydrazoans, anthozoans, and ascidians. Because they strain microscopic particles from the water, including harmful microorganisms associated with animal waste, oysters from the creek by the campus and many other tidal creeks and rivers near human and animal habitation cannot safely be consumed. Attached and clinging to the stalks of the salt marsh grasses are ribbed mussels and periwinkle snails. In higher marsh sandy zones, fiddler crabs dig burrows, feed, and interact. The one enlarged chela (claw) of the male is useful for defense and communication but it is not effective for food gathering. As a result, males must spend twice as much time feeding as the females, which have two small chelae.

A non-natural, but common element of the salt marsh is marine debris: plastic containers, Styrofoam, cans, and other material of human origin, which ends up along coastal shorelines. These materials come from commercial and recreational boats and ships, marinas and docks where trash containers are absent or overflowing, construction sites and vehicles on roadways near the water, and from deliberate littering. Debris is constantly being redistributed on coastal shores by the action of tides, winds, and waves. Based upon a 1992 study of the rates of accumulation at four sites in Chatham County, over 40,800 kg or 40.8 metric tons of marine debris wash up on coastal shorelines in Chatham County annually (Gilligan et al).

The maritime influence on the campus climate and vegetation is significant. In the spring when it is somewhat hot and humid inland, the campus has cool breezes from the still-cold tidal waters, a form of natural air conditioning. In winter, the relatively warmer tidal waters can prevent vegetation from freezing. For example, cabbage palms, a distinctive tropical element of the low country, only grow naturally close to salt marshes.

Most of the natural and developed parts of the campus contain major elements of the maritime live oak forests, which characterizes the low country and its barrier islands. Well over 100 species of trees, shrubs, vines, and grasses can be found on or near the campus. The most notable and distinctive vegetative elements of the campus are the size and number of canopy trees (live oak, cabbage palm, loblolly pine, southern magnolia) and the large number of oak tree species.

Between the Marine Biology Building and dock are a weeping willow and red mulberry. A larger red mulberry is located directly behind the Kennedy Fine Arts Building. Adjacent to the Marine Biology Building along the marsh is an eastern red cedar, which is characterized by its dark, green, scaly leaves and light brown, fibrous bark and some very tall and old cabbage palms. The smaller variety of palm found in low-lying wooded areas is the saw palmetto because it has saw tooth edges at the base of the frond stems. Near the entrance to the Marine Biology Building are two sweet gum or gum-ball trees. Their star-shaped leaves are fragrant when crushed, and their fruit are round and prickly. Directly in front of the building are live oaks, so-called because they do not lose their leaves and look "dead" in winter. Hanging from them is Spanish moss which is neither Spanish nor a moss since it produces small green flowers. It is a bromeliad (air plant) obtaining its nutrients from debris on the branches. It does not harm the host tree but can reduce nut production in pecan trees.

Along the marsh directly behind Camilla-Hubert Hall are several laurel oaks between the parking lot and marsh. The leaves are elliptic, black and deeply furrowed. Bordering the east entrance to the building is a yucca or Spanish bayonet, a desert plant with succulent leaves with a sharp point, wax myrtle, a shrub with small gray, aromatic leaves and white berries, azaleas, and a hickory tree.

Across the street on Felix J. Alexis Circle is a southern magnolia which has very thick, shiny, oval, evergreen 5 to 10 inch-long 2 to 3 inch-wide leaves. The fruit is reddish brown with a fragrant smell. The circle is dominated by large live oaks, many of which have resurrection fern growing on the limbs. Under dry conditions the fronds curl up and turn brown but uncurl and turn green when wet. Scattered on the north half of the circle are some near record size loblolly pines which have pale blue needles bundled into threes and reddish-brown bark.

There is a high diversity of both indigenous and planted tree species on campus including pignut hickory (behind Herty Hall); tallow tree, sugarberry (between Hubert and Kennedy Halls); pecan (next to Kennedy Hall); slash pine (grove next to Griffith Drew Hall); long leaf pine, swamp chestnut oak (grove next to Whiting Hall); water oak, willow oak, Darlington oak, red oak (by Gardner Hall); black tupelo or black gum sweet bay (between NROTC and the Orsot Apartments); Virginia pine (behind Jordan Hall); Shumard oak, Carolina laurel (across from Plant Operations); Bradford pear, red maple, silver maple, dogwoods, lagustrum, mimosa, and many others.

Through the diversity and abundance of insects in the low country is fascinating to a biologist, they are generally regarded as pests, and in some cases, genuine nuisances. The prominent species in the later regard is the small biting midge, affectionately known as sand gnats or "no-see ums" which are occasionally abundant in early spring and late fall near the salt marshes where they breed. Fortunately, their populations are naturally regulated to unnoticeable levels during most of the year.

Mosquitoes, including a saltwater species, would be a significant problem on campus if it were not for the diligent and efficient efforts of the Chatham County Mosquito Control Commission which monitors populations and employs a variety of control methods. In the mid 1980's, the Asian tiger mosquito arrived in Savannah and has spread throughout the county. It is a container breeder and need only a small amount of standing water in which to lay its eggs, even water trapped in folded magnolia leaves. It is not only difficult to reduce its breeding habitat but also more difficult to control adult populations because it is active during the day, and pesticide spraying is only effective during the night.

The two major aquatic habitats on campus are the Placentia Canal, a county-maintained, fresh water drainage system which runs through the campus and drains into the Wilmington River, and the salt marsh estuary. Though they contain the same ecological components (producers, consumers and decomposers), fresh water and marine habitats are distinctly different in terms of their component species. Many amphibians (frogs and a large ell-like amphibian called the two-toed amphiuma) make their home in the canal, but no amphibians are found in marine habitats. Over 100 coastal marine and estuarine fishes have been collected from the salt marsh and nearly two dozen from the canal, but only a few species are at home in both habitats.

The reptilian inhabitants and visitors to the campus include a variety of non-poisonous snakes, lizards, geckos, and turtles. American alligators, though fairly abundant in some parts of the low country, are rare on or near the campus due to the lack of adequate fresh water habitats that they prefer. Natural resource personnel remove small alligators from the area to more suitable locations. The diamond back terrapin, an attractive turtle, lay its eggs on high ground in the salt marsh and several other turtle species are found on campus. Over 250 species of birds inhabit or visit the low country; however, fewer than 30 are seen daily on the campus. From the upland habitat of campus to salt marsh to sounds and beaches, the most commonly observed birds here are the common grackles, boat-tailed grackles, mockingbirds, common crows, fish crows, turkey vultures (buzzards), mourning dove, ground doves, swallows, red-winged blackbirds, cormorants, brown pelicans, five species of herons, three species of egrets, laughing gulls, ospreys, bald eagles, royal terns, least terns, and black skimmers. Winter migratory residents of the campus tidal creek include hooded mergansers and loons.

Fifty of nearly 100 species of coastal mammals recorded from the low country sea islands have been reported in Chatham County. They include both terrestrial species and marine species (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). The largest mammal encountered near the campus is the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Individuals and small pods have been observed from the University dock swimming up the tidal creek to feed on the abundant mullet. Pods exhibit a remarkable behavior here and in other tidal creeks of the low country: they chase schools of mullet onto the mud banks and emerge completely from the water onto the bank to feed on them.

Large river otters and mink are occasionally seen swimming or running along the mud banks and disappearing into the marsh grass along the tidal creek. Raccoons would probably be more abundant on campus were it not for the large populations of feral house cats that live and forage near the marsh and dormitory trash bins. Several undeveloped areas remain on the campus which contains natural understory vegetation of the maritime forest. These acres are principally located along the north margin of the campus bordered by the Placentia Canal, North Tompkins Road and Drew-Griffith Hall. Another small, but diverse section remains between the NROTC building and the Orsot Apartments.

No other instructional unit of the University System of Georgia can boast such a rich endowment of coastal habitats and ecosystems. On a calm cool evening in the early spring and late fall, the view through the oaks, pines, palms, cedars, and magnolias to the salt marsh grasses illuminated by the setting sun is a unique and enchanting experience of singular beauty, inspiration, and wonder.

The natural environments of its campus have enhanced the rich educational history and legacy of Savannah State University. This spiritually uplifting place lives in the memories of all those who have been touched by it and will continue to offer its unique qualities and experiences in higher education to all.

The 165-acre campus of Savannah State University contains elements of two biologically diverse coastal ecosystems: The maritime live oak forest and the salt marsh estuary. The variety of plants and animals found in these habitats provide a natural laboratory for instruction and research.

We wish to thank the following individuals for sharing information about the campus vegetation: Mr. Elias Golden, Head, Grounds and Maintenance, Dr. Margaret C. Robinson, Dean, School of Sciences and Technology, Mr. Risher Willard, Forester, Georgia Forestry Commission, for assistance with tree identification, and Dr. Louise Golden, Associate Professor of Humanities for editing. A 1993-1994 Title III Grant sponsored this faculty and student research publication. Dr. Charles J. Elmore, Director; Dr. John T. Wolfe, President

Matthew R. Gilligan, Ph.D., is a professor of Marine Sciences at Savannah State University where he has served since 1980

The late Kelvin Austin assisted with the project when he was a student in the Marine Biology degree program at Savannah State University. His contributions included library research, interviews, and field trips with University and community experts.

Clara Aguero, M.F.A., was Director of Archives and Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Savannah State University. She served as project director for Archives publications and lectures.