Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

Creature Feature

Salt Marsh

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The salt marsh habitat is an enclosed coastal area with muddy sediments. These areas often appear as lifeless and barren, but a rich variety of life lives in this fragile and threatened habitat. Salt marshes and mudflat communities are nourished daily by the tides and are home to an incredible number of small animals like polychaete worms, clams, ghost shrimp, and fiddler crabs, which most often are found burrowed in the mud. Salt marshes are considered the “nurseries of the sea,” providing a protective nutrient-rich habitat for baby fish, such as the California halibut. In addition to providing homes for resident birds, southern California salt marshes are rest stops for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Many wading birds, such as sandpipers, curlews and willets, follow the changing tide line and probe into the mud with their beaks.

The main food pathway in a salt marsh starts with the bacterial breakdown and decay of plant material, such as eelgrass, to yield organic debris (called detritus). The detritus is then eaten by a variety of invertebrates, such as fiddler crabs, amphipods, and isopods, who in turn are eaten by fishes. These invertebrates and fishes are an attractive food source for the mudflat’s large bird population, including the willet and snowy egret. Herons and egrets use their keen eyesight to locate prey and grab it with their strong forceps-like bills. Swimming birds like grebes, loons, and ducks dive after fish or dabble along the bottom, straining small plants and animals with their sieve-like beaks. Over 100 species of birds reside in or visit southern California mudflats!!

To learn more about marsh plants and the many animals that depend on this important habitat, please enjoy the following fun activities and information on salt marshes!

Did you know...
that just over 100 years ago there was about 50,000 acres of salt marsh habitat in southern California? Unfortunately, mostly due to development, less than 11,000 acres remain. This fragile and important habitat is a top priority for local conservation efforts.

que hace poco más de 100 años había alrededor de 50,000 acres de hábitat de marismas en el sur de California? Desafortunadamente, debido principalmente al desarrollo humano, quedan menos de 11,000 acres. Este hábitat frágil e importante es una prioridad para los esfuerzos de conservación local.

Did you know...
that ghost shrimp are known as "bioengineers"? They dig tunnels and stir up the sediment that keep mudflats full of oxygenated water, thus helping the entire mudflat community survive!

que los camarones fantasmas son conocidos como "bioingenieros"? ¡Excavan túneles y agitan el sedimento manteniendo las marismas llenas de agua oxigenada, ayudando a toda la comunidad de las marismas a sobrevivir!

Take a virtual tour of the Salt Marsh! 

All About the Salt Marsh!

Learn about the marine plants and animals that make the salt marsh their home.


Crafts and Activities

Here are some activities for you to do!


Worksheets and Games:

Arts and Crafts:


Learn about what animals you can find in your backyard and how they are related to salt marsh animals. Then match them up yourself!

Salt Marsh STEAM Resources

Learn about Bird Feathers!

  • LESSON Birds 101:A Lesson on Bird Feather Anatomy
  • Identify the birds that live in the salt marsh! Take this bird quiz and see how you do!

    Find more information about Salt Marshes and Mudflats here: Cabrillo Marine Aquarium Discovery Lecture Series


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    Southern California Species

    The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is home to more than 200 species of animals that live in and around the waters of Southern California. Do you have a question about these and other Southern California species? Ask a Biologist.

    Haliotis sp.

    Young abalone with a shell size of less than 3 cm take shelter within the spines of sea urchins for protection.

    Balanus spp.

    Barnacles are hermaphroditic (they have both female and male sex organs).

    Cetorhinus maximus

    The basking shark is the second largest species of fish in the world.

    Asterina miniata

    When two bat stars bump into each other they begin a slow-motion “arm wrestling” match. Each sea star tries to get its arm on top of the other’s arm.

    Nycticorax nycticorax

    Black-crowned night herons feed at night in the same areas that other heron species feed in the day.

    Prionace glauca

    The blue shark has one of the largest ranges of all species of sharks.

    Balaenoptera musculus

    The blue whale is the largest living animal.

    Lythrypnus dalli

    These peaceful fish are often territorial with members of their own species.

    Sebastes paucispinis

    The bocaccio can live up to 45 years.

    Tursiops truncatus

    The bottlenose dolphin uses echolocation to find its prey.

    Pelecanus occidentalis

    The brown pelican is the smallest of all pelicans and is the only one that plunges from the air into the water to catch its food.

    Aplysia californica

    Each Sea hare may lay up to eighty million eggs. However, most of the eggs are eaten by predators.

    Leuresthes tenuis

    Unlike other fish, grunion come completely out of the water to lay their eggs in the sand.

    Paralichthys californicus

    The California halibut is a flatfish with both eyes on one side of its head!

    Mytilus californianus

    While feeding, a mussel filters 2 to 3 quarts of water per hour.

    Scorpaena guttata

    The California scorpionfish has venom in its spines.

    Zalophus californianus

    Sea lions use their long front flippers to steer and propel themselves through the water.

    Semicossyphus pulcher

    The California sheephead are all born as females.

    Raja inornata

    The California Skate has a skeleton made completely out of cartilage.

    Panulirus interruptus

    California Lobsters do not have front claws.

    Alopias vulpinus

    The common thresher shark uses its long tail in a whip-like fashion to deliver incapacitating blows to its prey.

    Phronima sedentaria

    The eyes of this amphipod are so large that they make up nearly a quarter of the entire body.

    Aequorea victoria

    Crystal jellies can expand their mouth to eat prey half their size!

    Zostera marina

    Eel grass is a true plant (not a seaweed) and is one of the few flowering plants that grow in the ocean.

    Uca crenulata

    Males have a large claw that they wave back and forth like a fiddler.

    Balaenoptera physalus

    The Fin whale is the second largest animal after the blue whale

    Hypsypops rubicundus

    Garibaldi is the California State marine fish.

    Hypsypops rubicundus

    Garibaldi is the California State marine fish.

    Macrocystis pyrifera

    Under ideal conditions, giant kelp can grow about two feet a day.

    Heterostichus rostratus

    The giant kelpfish can quickly change color during courtship or territorial displays.

    Stereolepis gigas

    This fish is huge, growing over 7.5 feet long and weighing over 500 pounds.

    Pollicipes polymerus

    Gooseneck barnacles can live 20 years, or more.

    Eschrichtius robustus

    The gray whale is a baleen whale.

    Carcharodon carcharias

    The great white shark is capable of explosive bursts of speed and has been known to jump 3 meters (10 feet) out of the water.

    Anthopleura xanthogrammica

    Some fishes develop resistance to the green anemone's sting by covering themselves with mucus.

    Harbor Porpoise   Arrow
    Phocoena phocoena

    The harbor porpoise is one of six species of porpoise

    Phoca vitulina

    The Harbor seal is the most widely distributed species of pinniped.

    Pagurus sp.

    Hermit crabs protect their rear ends by hiding it in a snail shell.

    Heterodontus francisci

    The female horn shark lays a distinctive spiral-shaped egg case.

    Megaptera novaeangliae

    The humpback whale has distinct patterns on the tail flukes used to identify individuals.

    Paralabrax clathratus

    Kelp bass reproduce by spawning (release egg and sperm into the water column) and form large aggregations in the summer months.

    Orcinus orca

    The killer whale, as known as the orca, is the largest dolphin.


    Thysanoessa spinifera

    Krill are eaten by whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish.

    Phoebastria immutabilis

    The wings of a laysan albatross are adapted to lock open into a wingspan of nearly seven feet.

    Triakis semifasciata

    Leopard sharks are bottom feeders and are named because of their stripes.

    Hemisquilla ensigera

    Mantis shrimp are not true shrimp, but get their name because of their appearance.

    Limosa fedoa

    The marbled godwit has a long, slightly upturned bill with a dark tip and pinkish base.

    Loxorhynchus crispatus

    The masking crab decorates itself with bits of algae, sponges and bryozoans.

    Balaenoptera acutorostrata

    The minke whale is the smallest of the rorqual whales

    Gymnothorax mordax

    This eel's favorite prey is the octopus.

    Norrisia norrisi

    These snails travel up and down kelp every day.

    Pisaster ochraceous

    These sea stars are able to digest their prey outside of their bodies.

    Squatina californica

    The Pacific angel shark superficially looks like a ray, but is a true shark.

    Eptatretus stoutii

    Hagfish are considered to be the most primitive species of all living fish.

    Pacific Hake   Arrow
    Merluccius productus

    The Pacific hake can live up to 15 years.

    Scomber japonicus

    The Pacific mackerel is also known as the chub mackerel or blue mackerel.

    Sardinops sagax

    The Pacific sardine form large schools of up to 10 million fish.

    Hippocampus ingens

    The Pacific seahorse reverses traditional birthing roles.

    Strongylocentrotus purpuratus

    Sea urchins have tube feet, which they use for attachment, locomotion and feeding.

    Grampus griseus

    Adult Risso's dolphins bodies are typically heavily scarred, while calves have little or no scarring


    Xenistius californiensis

    These fish have an up-turned mouth to better eat plankton.

    Dendraster excentricus

    You can't spend these dollars, they are relatives to sea stars.


    Anisotremus davidsoni

    The sargo is the largest of the Pacific grunts.

    Renilla koellikeri

    A sea pansy is not a flower, but is an animal that is related to sea jellies.

    Isurus oxyrinchus

    The shortfin mako shark is able to elevate its body temperature almost 20°F above the surrounding water.

    Enhydra lutris nereis

    Sea otters do not have blubber to keep warm, instead they have very dense fur (up to one million hairs per square inch).

    Physeter macrocephalus

    The sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales and the largest toothed predator.

    Pachygrapsus crassipes

    The striped shore crab spends at least half its time on land, but submerges at times to wet its gills.

    Cephaloscyllium ventriosum

    When stressed, the swell shark can “swell” by inflating its stomach by swallowing water.

    Eucyclogobius newberryi

    The tidewater goby is an endangered species.

    Octopus bimaculoides

    Octopus are extremely intelligent and have well-developed eyes.

    Larus occidentalis

    The Western gull typically lives about 15 years, but can live to at least 25 years.

    Cryptolepas rhachianecti

    Whale barnacles live attached to the skin of whales.

    Atractoscion nobilis

    The white seabass is the largest species of croaker in California.

    Tringa semipalmata

    The willet is very territorial and will aggressively defend their nesting and feeding territory.


    Creature Feature Archive

          9/20/2020 Sea Otters (Featured)
          8/17/2020 Shark Week
          6/5/2020 Bony Fishes
          6/3/2020 Spring Outdoor Program
          5/23/2020 Birds
          5/15/2020 Whales
          5/8/2020 Salt Marsh
          5/1/2020 Rocky Shores
          4/23/2020 California Grunion
          4/15/2020 Celebrate Earth Day!
          4/7/2020 Sandy Beach Invertebrates
          3/11/2019 Channel Island Fox
          11/14/2016 Piddock Clam
          6/22/2016 Giant Pacific Seahorse
          3/2/2016 Spiny Sand Crab
          12/22/2015 Northern and Southern Tidewater Gobies
          9/16/2015 Tuna Crab
          6/17/2015 Snake Skin Brittle Star
          2/23/2015 Humboldt Squid
          12/15/2014 Allen’s Hummingbird
          5/17/2013 Killer Whale
          3/31/2013 Cowcod
          2/15/2013 Crystal Jelly
          11/1/2012 Risso's dolphin
          9/6/2012 Lacy Crust Bryozoan
          8/16/2012 California sheephead
          7/31/2012 Chitons
          7/17/2012 Splitnose rockfish
          2/28/2012 Green Sea Turtle
          12/26/2011 Gray Whales
          11/16/2011 California Brown Pelican
          8/23/2011 Oarfish
          2/21/2011 Pacific Mackerel
          6/28/2010 Football Fish
          3/3/2010 Grunion
          1/12/2010 E. coli, Oh My!
          7/22/2009 Cabrillo's Fossils
          3/9/2009 Garibaldi
          11/3/2008 Laysan Albatross