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Littoral sediment

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Habitat (physical) description


 Salinity: Full (30-35 ppt), Variable (18-35 ppt) 
 Wave exposure: Very exposed, Exposed, Moderately exposed, Sheltered, Very sheltered, Extremely sheltered 
 Tidal streams:  
 Substratum: Shingle; gravel; sand; mud; mixed sediment 
 Depth Band: Lower shore, Mid shore, Strandline, Upper shore 
 Other Features:  

Download comparative physical and biological data. The comparative tables enable a rapid comparison of the species composition and principal physical characteristics between a given set of biotopes.
Distribution of habitat LS  Littoral sediment
Distribution of habitat LS Littoral sediment, based on records on the UK Marine Recorder database and EUSeaMap. Red dots represent records on which the biotope is based. Blue dots show other certain records, black dots show records tentatively assigned to this biotope. Yellow areas show level 2 and 3 sublittoral and deep-sea habitats prediced by EUSeaMap within UK waters.

Biotope description

Littoral sediment includes habitats of shingle (mobile cobbles and pebbles), gravel, sand and mud or any combination of these which occur in the intertidal zone. Littoral sediment is defined further using descriptions of particle sizes - mainly gravel (16-4 mm), coarse sand (4-1 mm), medium sand (1-0.25 mm), fine sand (0.25-0.063 mm) and mud (less than 0.063 mm) and various admixtures of these (and coarser) grades - muddy sand, sandy mud and mixed sediment (cobbles, gravel, sand and mud together). Littoral sediments support communities tolerant to some degree of drainage at low tide and often subject to variation in air temperature and reduced salinity in estuarine situations. Very coarse sediments tend to support few macrofaunal species because these sediments tend to be mobile and subject to a high degree of drying when exposed at low tide. Finer sediments tend to be more stable and retain some water between high tides, and therefore support a greater diversity of species. Medium and fine sand shores usually support a range of oligochaetes, polychaetes, and burrowing crustaceans, and even more stable muddy sand shores also support a range of bivalves. Very fine and cohesive sediment (mud) tends to have a lower species diversity, because oxygen cannot penetrate far below the sediment surface. A black, anoxic layer of sediment develops under these circumstances, which may extend to the sediment surface and in which few species can survive. Some intertidal sediments are dominated by angiosperms, e.g. eelgrass (Zostera noltii) beds on the mid and upper shore of muddy sand flats, or saltmarshes which develop on the extreme upper shore of sheltered fine sediment flats.


Littoral sediments are found across the entire intertidal zone, including the strandline. Sediment biotopes can extend further landwards (dune systems, marshes) and further seawards (sublittoral sediments). Sediment shores are generally found along relatively more sheltered stretches of coast compared to rocky shores. Muddy shores or muddy sand shores occur mainly in very sheltered inlets and along estuaries, where wave exposure is low enough to allow fine sediments to settle. Sandy shores and coarser sediment (gravel, pebbles, cobbles) shores are found in areas subject to higher wave exposures.

Temporal variation

Littoral sediment environments can change markedly over seasonal cycles, with sediment being eroded during winter storms and accreted during calmer summer months. The particle size structure of the sediment may change from finer to coarser during winter months, as finer sediment gets resuspended in seasonal exposed conditions. This may affect the sediment infauna, with some species only present in summer when sediments are more stable. These changes are most likely to affect sandy shores on relatively open shores. Sheltered muddy shores are likely to be more stable throughout the year, but may have a seasonal cover of green seaweeds during the summer period, particularly in nutrient enriched areas or where there is freshwater input.

Similar biotopes

Not applicable or unknown.

Characterising Species

Characterising species data not applicable.

Example photographs of biotope

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Version 15.03 of the classification adds a deep-sea section to version 04.05; therefore superseding version 04.05, 97.06 and 03.02.

This online classification should be cited as:

JNCC (2015) The Marine Habitat Classification for Britain and Ireland Version 15.03 [Online]. [Date accessed]. Available from: jncc.defra.gov.uk/MarineHabitatClassification

Information from the shallower section (up to sublittoral sediment, taken from Version 04.05) be cited as the report accompanying Version 04.05, as follows:

CONNOR, D.W., J.H. ALLEN, N.GOLDING, K.L.HOWELL, L.M. LIEBERKNECHT, K.O. NORTHEN AND J.B. REKER (2004) The Marine Habitat Classification for Britain and Ireland Version 04.05. In: JNCC (2015) The Marine Habitat Classification for Britain and Ireland Version 15.03 [Online]. [Date accessed].
Available from: jncc.defra.gov.uk/MarineHabitatClassification
ISBN 1 861 07561 8

Information from the deep-sea section (added in March 2015) should be cited as the report accompanying the deep-sea section, as follows:

PARRY, M.E.V., K.L. HOWELL, B.E. NARAYANASWAMY, B.J. BETT, D.O.B. JONES, D.J. HUGHES, N. PIECHAUD, T.D. NICKELL, H. ELLWOOD, N. ASKEW, C. JENKINS and E. MANCA (2015) A Deep-sea Section for the Marine Habitat Classification of Britain and Ireland. JNCC report 530. In: JNCC (2015) The Marine Habitat Classification for Britain and Ireland Version 15.03 [Online]. [Date accessed].
Available from: jncc.defra.gov.uk/MarineHabitatClassification
ISSN 0963 8901