Pine Barrens Habitats

Learn about the great diversity of habitats found in the Pinelands.


Pine/Oak Upland Forest

Pine/Oak Upland Forest is the most common and the most characteristic natural community in the Pine Barrens.

Pine barrens Uplands
Pine Barrens uplands. Photo: Uli Lorimer

It is defined by its flora, but is also home to a diverse fauna. Many of the mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects use the uplands for all or part of their life cycles. Many amphibians – for example, the Pine Barrens Treefrog – are really creatures of the forests, and the adults use the wetlands mainly for breeding. Here you’ll notice that the majority of the canopy trees are Pitch Pines, the most characteristic tree of the Pine Barrens, with a smaller number of Shortleaf Pines, and, in some areas, a few Virginia Pines.

The understory is made up of shrubs such as Scrub Oak, Mountain Laurel, Low Blueberry, Pine Barrens Heather, and Sweet-fern. The ground cover consists of low-lying plants such as lichens, mosses, ferns, annual and perennial wildflowers, and sub-shrubs like Bearberry, Teaberry, and Hudsonia.

Oak/Pine uplands are simply areas where the oaks predominate. Ecologists believe that oaks are likely to predominate in areas where wildfire has been suppressed over long periods. In some areas, the oaks may out-compete the pines so thoroughly as to become virtually exclusive.

Pygmy Pine Plains

The Pgymy Pine Plains (or Dwarf Plains) of the Pine Barrens of New Jersey are upland forests that have long intrigued biologists.

Pinelands Exploration Map East Plains at Warren Grove Al Horner
East Plains at Warren Grove. © Albert Horner

Early in the 20th Century, Witmer Stone described them as “desolate stretches of white sand barrens … for the most part devoid of trees higher than one’s knees.” The Pine Plains are dominated by dwarfed Pitch Pines and Blackjack Oaks in the low canopy. Pine Barrens Heather is frequent in the understory. Ground cover includes lichens, mosses, and the sub-shrubs Bearberry and Teaberry.

All of the tree species in the Pine Plains are also found throughout the Pine Barrens, so why do they take on a dwarf form in the Plains? Though the mechanisms are not entirely understood, most experts believe that a combination of factors are involved. The Pine Plains soils are particularly droughty and nutrient-poor, and, as plateaus elevated above their surroundings, the plains are subject to higher winds. Most importantly, for centuries these forests have been exposed to wildfires at least twice as frequently as other Pine Barrens forests.

These extremely harsh conditions have created a forest with Pitch Pine trees that are stunted and have adopted certain genetic peculiarities. The pines of the Plains almost exclusively produce “serotinous” cones – cones that open only when subjected to the heat of wildfire – and have an extraordinary ability to send up new growth from their roots, even when the rest of the tree is completely burned.

Atlantic White Cedar Swamp

Atlantic White Cedar Swamps are the characteristic swamps of the Pine Barrens, though they are now much reduced in both size and number due to over-harvesting in the past.

Old, well-established cedar swamps are magnificent. It tends to be cool and shady in an old cedar swamp. The straight-trunked cedars arise from hummocks usually covered with sphagnum mosses and various other plants, the diversity and vigor of which depend on the amount of sunlight reaching the floor. The plants growing on the hummocks typically include an occasional Swamp Maple or Pitch Pine.

Cedar swamp
Sunlight penetrates a white cedar swamp. Photo: PPA

You’ll also find Highbush Blueberry, Swamp Magnolia, Gray Birch, Swamp Azalea, Pitcher Plants, sundews, several species of orchids, various wildflowers, as well as grasses, sedges, and rushes. A great many of the Pinelands animals use cedar swamps for breeding, feeding, nesting, and resting. Some of our rarest flora and fauna have safe harbors in these communities.

Pitch Pine Lowland/Hardwood Swamps

Pitch Pine Lowlands are wetlands that are comprised of mostly Pitch Pine trees in the canopy, and Hardwood Swamps are wetland forests where the canopy is made up primarily of deciduous hardwoods – mostly Swamp Maple and Black Gum, and, in some areas, Sweet Gum.

Today, hardwood swamps may be more common than cedar swamps, having developed because of over-harvesting of the cedars in the past.

Pitch Pine Lowlands
Pitch Pine Lowlands ©Albert Horner

You may find some cedars here and there in a hardwood swamp, or cedars may be in small patches or groves. Shrubs include Highbush Blueberry, Dangleberry, Sweet Pepperbush, and Leatherleaf, and there is some variety of herbaceous plants, grasses, sedges, and rushes. These forested wetlands are also important wildlife habitat. Extensive hardwood swamps are good nesting habitat for both Barred Owls and Red-shouldered Hawks, for example, and they are populated by a great variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.


Some of the most beautiful lowland communities in the Pinelands are the Savannas or Wet Meadows.  They vary greatly in size and species make-up, but are recognized by the lack of trees, and abundance of herbaceous plants, grasses, sedges, and rushes. This is another hotspot for rare plants, some of them of worldwide significance. They include globally rare species such as New Jersey Rush, Bog Asphodel, and several of the Beaked-rushes.

A savanna along the Batsto River. Photo credit: PPA.

Experts say many of the savannas are shrinking due to natural succession, the process by which open areas gradually become colonized grasses, then shrubs, and finally by forest trees. It is likely that people who were digging out bog iron long ago created at least some of the savannas we see today. The process undoubtedly severely disrupted the land surface, leaving a wide, wet, sandy/mucky surface. No one knows how long it may have taken such areas to become colonized again by plants, but we may be seeing a late stage of the long, complex process of succession in these shrinking sites. In natural cycles, some savannas would be maintained and, occasionally, created by wildfires and storms. Today, humans suppress wildfires in the Pine Barrens to protect property and lives. The effect of wildfire suppression on savannas is one of several ways in which our efforts to prevent uncontrolled fires is shaping the natural landscape of the Pine Barrens.

Aquatic Habitats

Rivers and Streams in the Pine Barrens flow east into the estuaries and bays along the Atlantic.

Oswego Lake
Oswego Lake. © Bob Birdsall

One river, the Rancocas Creek, flows west to the Delaware River. These are all slow-moving streams and rivers, fed by rains and the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer. These rivers and streams, when undisturbed by human impacts, are highly acidic and very low in nutrients. These key water quality characteristics shape the biological cycles and communities within the rivers, streams and wetlands.  The streams and rivers of the Pine Barrens support unique plant communities and complex wildlife communities. About thirteen species of fish are considered indigenous to the Pinelands waters, and another forty-six species, including peripheral and introduced species, may be encountered.

Permanent natural lakes are absent from the Pine Barrens. The only natural ponds or lakes in the Pine Barrens are those created by beaver, which dam up streams to create ponds and foster growth of the aquatic plants they like to eat. The larger lakes one sees today are all manmade. People have been damming up watercourses in the Pinelands since the earliest European settlers arrived. Impoundments that can be called lakes in a technical sense (with water deep enough to limit plant growth in some areas) are the result of activities designed to use water power: people built dams and waterwheels to drive machinery such as grist mills, sawmills, and the bellows associated with the forges and furnaces.  Ponds are technically any body of fresh water that is shallow enough to permit plant growth from the bottom throughout the entire area of the pond. Small impoundments made by people for various reasons qualify as ponds. Beavers make ponds throughout the area, when they have the opportunity.

Intermittent ponds, sometimes also called vernal pools. These ponds are only filled with water part of the year. They form in shallow depressions where the water table is very near the surface for most of the year. These ponds fill with water in the fall, winter and early spring, then dry up in the late spring and summer as the water table falls. Intermittent ponds support many rare plants and animals. For example, they are favored by Pine Barrens Treefrogs and salamanders for breeding because they do not harbor fish that would prey on the amphibians’ eggs.

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