In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Coastal Dune Habitats

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Databases
  • Defining the Biome and Classification (Describing World Coastal Dunes)
  • Foundational Works
  • Plant Succession on Coastal Dunes
  • Contemporary Views and Models
  • Climate Change
  • Conservation and Restoration
  • Human Impacts
  • Habitat Status Assessment
  • Ecosystem Services

Ecology Coastal Dune Habitats
Thomas E. Miller, Marina Lauck
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0161


Coastal dunes occur along the majority of coastlines worldwide, often as parts of barrier islands, and are one of the most dynamic areas on earth. Sufficient supply of sand and strong onshore winds create a dynamic topography of building dunes near the shoreline and often a system of older dunes and troughs further inland. Coastal dunes have significant economic value for, among other things, tourism and fishing, as they protect inland areas from storms and high-water events. They also have critical ecological value, as they provide habitat for many animals, especially nesting seabirds, and shelter- sensitive oyster and seagrass beds in bays, as well as wetlands, and marshes from intense storms. Some of the earliest studies of plant succession, such as Cowles work in 1899, “The ecological relations of the vegetation on the sand dunes of Lake Michigan,” were conducted on coastal dunes and remain prominent for environmental research—especially as sea levels rise and human-related disturbances increase.

General Overviews

Because coastal dunes are an important feature of coasts worldwide, there are many, sometimes conflicting descriptions in the popular literature. The sometimes confusing array of terminology is described by Otvos 2012. While there is significant variation within and among region variation in coastal dune ecosystems, they share a number of features worldwide, and there are a number of good reviews. The reviews can generally be divided into those describing geological processes from those describing ecology. From the geological side, as detailed by Bauer and Sherman 1999, there has long been interest in understanding how dunes develop from small-scale sediment processes; Psuty 2004 demonstrates how these may result in a variety of regional scale patterns for dunes. A somewhat separate set of studies has focused on ecological processes, with the greatest emphasis on plant succession and zonation, as demonstrated by Ehrenfeld 1990 and Wiedemann and Pickart 2004. Finally, there is an increasing number of reviews of the relationships between humans and coastal dunes, including Barbier, et al. 2011, with its description of human impacts, and Lithgow, et al. 2013 and its study of restoration.

  • Barbier, E. E., S. D. Hacker, C. Kennedy, E. W. Koch, A. C. Stier, and B. R. Silliman. 2011. The value of estuarine and coastal ecosystem services. Ecological Monographs 81:169–193.

    DOI: 10.1890/10-1510.1

    A review of the ecological services provided by a variety of coastal habitats, including sand beaches and dunes. Where possible, they provide estimates of the economic benefits of specific habitats and also note that the economic value of many areas, such as coastal sand dunes, have yet to be properly assessed.

  • Bauer, B. O., and D. J. Sherman. 1999. Coastal dune dynamics: Problems and prospects. In Aeolian environments, sediments and landforms. Edited by A. S. Goudie, I. Livingstone, and S. Stokes, 71–104. New York: Wiley.

    A review of how beach characteristics affect sand transport and dune formation.

  • Ehrenfeld, J. G. 1990. Dynamics and processes of barrier island vegetation. Reviews in Aquatic Sciences 2:437–480.

    This is a general review of the interactions between dune evolution and vegetation. It is often cited for stating that plants determine dune morphology. Not only can plants help to promote taller, more stable dunes but this article also suggests that some plants may also promote low, stable areas by acting against dune development.

  • Lithgow, D., M. L. Martinez, and J. B. Gallego-Fernandez, et al. 2013. Linking restoration ecology with coastal dune restoration. Geomorphology 199:214–224.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2013.05.007

    This literature review of restoration practices on large coastal dune systems identifies how restoration success has been assessed in some sixty-seven published articles. In particular, the article notes that incorporating natural successional processes in restoration is important for improved ecosystem integrity.

  • Martínez, M. L., and N. P. Psuty, eds. 2004. Coastal dunes ecology and conservation. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag.

    This is a comprehensive edited volume on all aspects of coastal dune ecology. There are contributions from over twenty scientists from around the world, ranging from geology and dune development to vegetation and conservation.

  • Otvos, Ervin G. 2012. Coastal barriers: Nomenclature, processes, and classification issues. Geomorphology 139:39–52.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.geomorph.2011.10.037

    The terminology associated with geological features near shorelines is contradictory and confusing. Otvos discusses the difficulties that this presents and then makes a strong attempt to clarify and simplify the language used in this area.

  • Psuty, N. P. 2004. The coastal foredune: A morphological basis for regional coastal dune development. In Coastal dunes ecology and conservation. Edited by M. L. Martínez and N. P. Psuty, 11–27. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Verlag.

    There are some basic patterns of beach and dune morphology that occur worldwide; however, there are an infinite number of variations in the basic form and size. Psuty discusses the geological constraints on dune development and how these constrain dune morphology and contribute to larger regional-scale dynamics.

  • Wiedemann, A. M., and A. J. Pickart. 2004. Temperate zone coastal dunes. In Coastal dunes ecology and conservation. Edited by M. L. Martínez and N. P. Psuty, 53–65. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer Verlag.

    This chapter provides a complete description of the natural history of typical coastal dunes in temperate areas of the world, with some emphasis on western North America. It also provides an introduction to issues associated with conservation and management of these areas.

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