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Sharing the Coast

Great Lakes Coast Ecosystems

Just like ocean coasts, the coasts of the Great Lakes feature a variety of ecosystems, such as beaches, dunes and wetlands, but with the notable exception of hosting freshwater species. Many coastal areas around Lake Superior and northern Lake Huron are remote forests, while along southern Lake Michigan, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park preserve a massive dune ecosystem, one of the largest freshwater sand dune systems in the world.

Although many have been significantly reduced by development, wetland ecosystems provide important habitat for plans and animals. Fish such as yellow perch and northern pike spawn in shallow coastal wetlands, and waterfowl, muskrats and turtles also rely on these habitats for food and shelter. Freshwater wetlands are typically found along sheltered shorelines around the Great Lakes, particularly Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron, Green Bay on Lake Michigan, and the St. Mary's River which flows out of Lake Superior. The low wave conditions along sheltered shorelines encourage the development of wetlands.

The Great Lakes also feature extremely rare habitats known as alvars, which occur on flat limestone bedrock primarily in the northeastern portion of the basin. Remnants of indigenous prairies can also be found on the southern shores of Lake Michigan.

Lake Superior shoreline

The Lake Superior shoreline pictured here features a sandy beach and driftwood that has been washed ashore.
Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Great Lakes Coast Ecosystems

Agricultural and residential development in the Great Lakes region has resulted in the destruction of huge amounts of wetlands, both directly by filling in the land and indirectly by producing runoff and pollutants. Invasive species such as zebra mussels and sea lamprey have also permanently changed Great Lakes aquatic habitats.