A to Z in the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuary Explore the unique history, ecology, and geography of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary from A to Z! If you're interested in a particular topic, click on its photo for more information. A is for American Alligators The Alligator River, located on the south side of Albemarle Sound, is the northernmost known point in the United States where American alligators live year-round. Although alligators generally make their homes in eastern North Carolina's freshwater rivers, streams, and wetlands, they're also sighted every once in a while on our coastal beaches! B is for Black Bears Black bears live throughout eastern North Carolina, and by some estimates the Albemarle peninsula has the highest density of black bears in North America. Black bears have lived continuously in these coastal wetlands for centuries and served as important sources of food and resources for native peoples of the region. C is for Bald Cypress Trees Historically, water-tolerant trees such as the bald cypress covered much of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine region. The bald cypress is particularly important because it is one of the last trees standing as land subsides or sea level rises in the region, and it is not uncommon to see a bald cypress growing in the water, yards from the current shoreline. Although its seeds need dry ground to germinate, the tree can remain alive and healthy in standing water thanks to their many "knees" that stick out of the water and which are thought to help bring oxygen to the tree's roots. To top it off, bald cypresses found in North Carolina are the oldest known living trees east of the Rocky Mountains! D is for Dissolved Oxygen While fish and other aquatic creatures may use gills instead of lungs, they still need to "breathe" oxygen. However, this oxygen is dissolved in the water, and low dissolved oxygen levels can result from environmental factors such as warm temperatures, stagnant water, or large amounts of decomposing organic material. Low dissolved oxygen can be a sign of poor water quality, and if dissolved oxygen is low enough then fish and other creatures can't survive. Scientists monitor dissolved oxygen levels throughout North Carolina to learn more about the health of the state's waterways. E is for Estuary of National Significance Did you know that Congress designated the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system an estuary of national significance in 1987? An estuary is a place where fresh water from upstream and salty ocean water meet, and with 3,000 square miles of open water flowing from six river basins in two different states, the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary is the second largest in the United States. The estuary is named for the expansive Pamlico Sound and the Albemarle Sound north of it, but it also includes five smaller sounds - Currituck, Croatan, Bogue, Core, and Roanoke. F is for Fish (and lots of 'em) Did you know that over 75% of the commercially or recreationally valuable fish species of the Atlantic seaboard rely on the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary for at least part of their life cycle? Aquatic species in North Carolina's estuaries include striped bass, summer flounder, blue crabs, and shrimp. In addition, the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary is among the few places where Atlantic sturgeon continue to produce young on an annual basis. The sturgeon is a living fossil - the species has been alive literally since the time of the dinosaurs. While sturgeon were once plentiful throughout the region, overfishing and dam-building upstream has contributed to their decline. G is for Gulf Stream The Gulf Stream is a warm water current that flows from the Gulf of Mexico northward along the eastern coast of the United States, and North Carolina is uniquely positioned where the warmer Gulf Stream and the colder Labrador current meet. This confluence of ocean currents means that North Carolina is the northernmost limit for many southern plants and animals, such as alligators, green anoles, Spanish moss, and live oaks, and the southernmost point for many northern species such as the Atlantic brant goose, tundra swan, river herring, and eelgrass. H is for Hurricanes If you look at a map of the United States, you might notice that the North Carolina coast sticks out a little bit into the Atlantic Ocean. This makes North Carolina more vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes than the states that surround it - in fact, the state ranks third in total number of hurricane landfalls, after Florida and Texas. These powerful storms continually reshape the coast's geography, opening and closing inlets on the Outer Banks, moving sand from one area of the coast to another, and sometimes dumping enough rain upstream to temporarily change the saltiness of the sounds. I is for Inlets The gaps between North Carolina's barrier islands connecting the sound with the Atlantic Ocean, known as inlets, have shaped North Carolina's coastal ecosystems. While a few inlets have remained relatively stable over time, many others have come and gone as hurricanes, storms, and currents have reshaped the Outer Banks. The disappearance of Currituck Inlet in the northern Outer Banks in the late 1800's permanently changed the saltiness of Albemarle Sound - without a close connection to the ocean, the sound became a mostly freshwater ecosystem. J is for Jockey's Ridge Jockey's Ridge is the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic coast and the site of one of North Carolina's state parks. Visitors to Jockey's Ridge State Park, located on the Outer Banks near Kitty Hawk, can climb to the top of the sand dunes and even hang glide off of them! These dunes were formed by sand deposited by wind and waves, and were once part of a larger back barrier dune system that reached all the way up to False Cape State Park in Virginia. K is for Kayaking and Paddling Trails North Carolina's coastal plain and estuary, with its wide, quiet rivers and marshes, abundant wildlife, and large swaths of undeveloped waterways, is a hidden gem for kayakers and other paddlers. Depending on the time of year, paddlers can spot ospreys, bald eagles, egrets, alligators, black bears, or white-tailed deer while on the water. Camping platforms on the Roanoke and Tar-Pamlico Rivers provide the opportunity for multi-day expeditions. L is for Lagoons In North Carolina, we call our estuaries sounds for reasons that are largely lost to history. Technically, however, the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary is actually a semi-enclosed lagoon - a shallow body of water separated from a larger water body by barrier islands or reefs. These barrier islands change how the water flows in and out of the estuary, including by increasing the length of time water from upstream spends in the estuary before making its way out to the ocean. This "residence time" in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary can be up to 45 days! M is for Migratory Birds For centuries, the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine region has been the final destination for a fall migration of thousands of waterfowl, including snow geese, tundra swans, and Atlantic brant geese, as well as more than twenty species of ducks. These birds forage grains from the farms along the coast and are also sustained by seeds and shoots from the sounds’ rich underwater grasses. One observer of this migration back in the 1800's stated that the birds "are in such vast numbers on each side of the fresh water rivers and creeks, that at a distance it seems to be land covered with snow," a phenomenon that can still be spotted by visitors to the region during the winter months. N is for Native Plants Native plants play a critical role in sustaining the biodiversity and abundance of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary. Local animals and insects are adapted to utilize native plants for food and shelter, and in addition native plants are usually well-adapted to survive the effects of storms, floods, and other coastal hazards. In contrast, non-native, or invasive plants can take over local habitats, displacing native plants and animals and decreasing biodiversity. By planting native plants, local gardeners can reduce their fertilizer costs, increase their likelihood of plant survival, and give local critters a helping hand! O is for Oyster Reefs Oysters may be delicious on your dinner plate, but did you know that they also play numerous important roles in maintaining the health of our estuary? Oyster reefs protect coastlines from erosion by slowing down waves and currents and provide a habitat for fish, crabs, and other aquatic critters. Oysters also improve water quality by filtering out pollutants from the water - in fact, an adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day! Due to overharvesting and other factors, North Carolina's oyster harvest has declined to 15-20% of its historic levels and while many local organizations are working to restore oysters to their historic habitats, the state's oyster populations have yet to recover. P is for Pocosins The Albemarle-Pamlico region has the greatest accumulation of pocosins, a unique wetland habitat, in the United States. Pocosin wetlands are flooded during the winter and waterlogged the rest of the year. These perpetually wet, low-oxygen conditions create peat soils that are rich in organic matter, and which act as a "carbon sink" to indefinitely store carbon. When these soils are drained or dry out, their organic matter returns to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and the soil itself begins to subside, or sink, as organic matter is lost. In addition, dried-out peat soils can actually catch fire, and the Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine region has had to deal with periodic fires due to increases in dried-out peat soils. Q is for the Queen Anne's Revenge While Blackbeard's ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, may be the most famous of the pirate ships that plied North Carolina's waters in the 18th century, it was by no means the only one. While legend has it that pirates frequented North Carolina's sounds because their shallow waters and ever-shifting inlets helped them to escape capture, it's likely that North Carolina was a convenient stopping place for pirates making their way between northern and southern ports. It's thought that Blackbeard, however, often used North Carolina's Ocracoke Inlet as an anchorage because its location was ideal for spotting ships traveling both north and south along the coast. R is for Red Wolves Red wolves, which are between the size of a coyote and a gray wolf and are named for their reddish fur, once used to range across the southeastern United States. However, by the mid-1900's red wolf populations had declined due to hunting and habitat destruction to the point that it was declared extinct in the wild. As a result of captive breeding programs, the red wolf was reintroduced to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the Albemarle Peninsula in 1987 and the peninsula is now the only place in the world where red wolves can be seen in the wild. S is for Seagrasses Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), also known as seagrasses or underwater grasses, grow in the waters of North Carolina's estuaries. In fact, North Carolina is estimated to have the 3rd-most SAV in the United States due to its shallow, protected sounds. These underwater flowering plants are an important source of food and shelter for fish, birds, and other wildlife, and also improve water quality by absorbing excess nutrients and generating oxygen. SAV slows down waves and currents, and large seagrass meadows on the sound side of North Carolina's barrier islands help to protect the Outer Banks from coastal erosion. T is for Tannins Some rivers in eastern North Carolina look like they're flowing with tea instead of water - their water is clear, but stained brown. This brown color is due to high concentrations of compounds called tannins, which leach out of decaying vegetation and stain the water is a process similar to how a tea bag colors your cup of tea. The southern United States and the Amazon River basin are the major sites of these "blackwater" rivers. U is for Upstream North Carolina and Virginia may be two separate states, but they are connected through their shared waterways. When the border between the states was created in the 1700's, the border surveying expedition headed straight west from what was then Currituck inlet, disregarding the rise and fall of the land and the winding of rivers through it. However, over half of the water entering the Albemarle Sound comes from Virginia, and upstream actions in Virginia are an important part of the downstream health of the sounds. V is for Venus Flytraps The Venus flytrap is a perennial herb that grows in the Coastal Plain and Sandhills of North and South Carolina, and is one of the most widely recognized carnivorous plant species in the world. When the trigger hairs ringing the edges of the plant's two lobes are touched, the lobes snap shut - trapping insects in between them. While the Venus flytrap feeds on these insects, interestingly it does not eat the insects that pollinate its flowers. The plant, along with other carnivorous plants that live in the Carolina Coastal Plain, is in decline due to decreases in available habitat as well as removal of plants by poachers. W is for Watershed The entire watershed, or drainage area, of the Albemarle-Pamlico region includes approximately 28,000 square miles of northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Regardless of where a drop of water falls within this area, it will eventually make its way into the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary. This means that even in the upstream parts of the watershed, far from the estuary, our actions can have an impact on the health of the sounds. This connection between the upstream and downstream parts of the watershed is one reason why APNEP works throughout the whole watershed to protect the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary. X is for "X Marks the Spot" While the Roanoke Colony on the Outer Banks was the first English colony in the western hemisphere when it was settled in the 1580's, it disappeared under mysterious circumstances soon afterwards. For centuries people have been trying unsuccessfully to solve the mystery of the "Lost Colony" - to place an "X" on the map to show the location and fate of the missing settlers. Theories include assimilation with local Native American tribes, an extreme drought causing migration inland to what is now Bertie County, or a massacre of the settlers by Native Americans. Some archaeologists believe artifacts recently found at "Site X," located at the confluence of Salmon Creek and the Albemarle Sound, are evidence that some survivors from the Lost Colony may have settled there! Y is for You People like you are an integral part of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary's story. From its first settlers in the 1500's until today, the Albemarle-Pamlico's human communities have been shaped by the wind, water, and waves of the estuary and have shaped the region's ecosystems in turn. While people have contributed to a decline in the health of the estuary, you can also play a part in its protection and restoration. Whether you live within sight of the sounds or far upstream, the actions you take every day can have a positive impact. Z is for Zoeas What do zoeas have to do with blue crabs? The blue crab's life is not as simple as you'd think, and zoea are just one stage in a complicated blue crab life cycle that takes place in both the ocean and the estuary. Female crabs with eggs migrate to the mouth of the estuary, where her eggs hatch and the larvae are carried by currents out into the ocean. Crabs in this larval stage are called zoea and float wherever currents take them. After going through a number of metamorphoses, zoea metamorphose into megalopae, which are able to use information about light, salinity, and currents to make their way back into the estuary. Once there, they settle in seagrasses or other shallow water habitats and continue to grow, molt their shells, and eventually become adults. These adult crabs start the cycle again, mating and releasing their eggs at the estuary mouth once more.