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Science and mystery coexist in Carolina bays and maritime shell forests

Iris tridentata, longleaf pines and pond cypress thrive in the longleaf pine savannah habitat of the Red
Iris tridentata, longleaf pines and pond cypress thrive in the longleaf pine savannah habitat of the Red

South Carolina is a patchwork of diverse habitats from the mountains to the barrier islands. Two mysterious habitats residents of the Charleston area can experience are the Carolina bay and the maritime shell forest, both of which harbor strange creatures and rare plants. The Carolina bay and maritime shell forests are enigmas to scientists, who cannot say for sure how or why they came to be.

An inhabitant of the Carolina bay in the Francis Marion Forest.
Cameron Allen

Carolina bays, large egg-shaped geological depressions situated towards the southeast, are found in the Carolinas and Georgia. Scientists once attributed their existence to a meteorite shower. But some think the origin could be less catastrophic, like the result of erosion. “No theory adequately explains all the facts surrounding the bays,” says Dr. Richard Porcher. “Until one does, their origin remains shrouded in uncertainty and mystery.”

You can visit Carolina bays in the Francis Marion Forest. The closest one is the clay-based Red Bluff Creek Bay where Dr. Porcher recently led a group through a pitcher plant bog and other wonders. Pocosin, or peat-based, bays can be explored in McClellanville at the Santee Coastal Reserve. Bays act as basins, collecting water and forming hospitable environments for isolated swamps and pond cypress savannahs. These host the infamous bay trees: loblolly, sweet, swamp red bay. Endangered animals, such as the black bear and the pine barrens tree frog make the bays a home, with venus fly trap and Carolina wicky alongside orchids and iris.

According to Dr. Porcher’s book, South Carolina has 4000 bays. Only 400-500 remain intact, very few in good condition. Many have been drained for farmland or timber, some converted to pastures, some used as junkyards.

Maritime shell forests provide another frontier for local residents to explore. While natural shell deposits are not botanically unique, shell mounds made by Native Americas are mysteriously rich in biodiversity. Calcium-loving species, such as the southern sugar maple, mottled trillium and the delicate Indian-midden morning glory love the environment, but wouldn’t be there unless they were carried over marsh and swamp from higher land. From the air in the fall, these magical places are obvious from the fire red of the sugar maple. You can visit the Sewee shell ring and shell mound at Francis Marion Forest. Visit the Sewee Visitor Center for information.

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  • jerry johnson 5 years ago

    Very nice and informative article! I always enjoy the slideshow.

  • Dave Sandersfeld, Oregon Nature Examiner 5 years ago


  • Tina Ranieri 5 years ago

    Your articles are always great-Atlanta roller derby b- team is play in NC tonight

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