Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

North American Coastal Plain

Tab 1

The North American Coastal Plain is large in area and rich in biodiversity, containing forests, woodlands, grasslands, marshes and savannahs. Many species are endemic, meaning they are found only in the hotspot, including the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula, VU) and the red-cockaded woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis), which is listed as an endangered species by the U.S. government. 

The hotspot is a fire-dependent region. When early European settlers first came to the area, they thought local Native American tribes started the periodic fires. In reality, the fires were not only natural but needed by the plant and animal species in the region that had evolved to depend on them.  By preventing the fires, colonizing Europeans caused the scrub of the hotspot’s pine savannas to become too dense, resulting in habitat degradation.

Not only was habitat loss long hidden by this misconception, but also by the fact that no lists of endemic plant and animal species existed until recently. In addition, 85.5 percent of the natural area of the hotspot’s natural savannas and woodlands has been converted to anthropogenic vegetation such as farmland—these areas have now been farmed for so long that people have forgotten that they were once rich wildlife habitats. These false impressions about the North American Coastal Plain led to its exclusion from the list of biodiversity hotspots until 2015, when it became the 36th globally recognized hotspot. This recognition came due to an intensive study undertaken by a team of biologists from the University of Central Florida, led by Dr. Reed Noss.


Hotspot Original Extent (km²) ​>22.6 million
Hotspot Vegetation Remaining (km²) 1.13 million
Endemic Plant Species 1,816
Endemic Birds 51
Endemic Mammals 114
Endemic Amphibians 57
Endemic Freshwater Fish 138
Extinct Species no data available
Human Population Density (people/km²) 72.4
Area Protected (km²) 161,829.95 (12.8% of total area)
Area Protected (km²) in Categories I-IV* 44,849.24 (3.5% of total area)
*Categories I-IV afford higher levels of protection.


The North American Coastal Plain has long been misunderstood, which is why it has taken so long to be classified as a hotspot. Despite the 1,816 endemic plant species and the 1.13 million square kilometers of area, the region has a low level of geographic variety and an unusually low level of elevation change when compared to the other hotspots, leading the scientific community to assume that it would be less biodiverse. This and other misconceptions, including misunderstandings about the nature of the fires that regularly occur within the area, delayed its recognition as a hotspot. 

The elevation in the North American Coastal Plain varies little. Half of the land in the hotspot lies below 50 meters, with its highest point reaching just 250 meters. The hotspot lies almost entirely within the United States, reaching from a small section of northern Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico and up the East Coast to southeastern Massachusetts. 

The pine savannahs found primarily in the southern areas of the hotspot are subject to surface fires every one to three years on average, and many endemic species rely on the regular fires in order to maintain a proper balance of the ecosystem.

Tab 2


Unique biodiversity


Taxonomic Group Species Endemic Species Percent Endemism
Plants 6,200 1,816 29.3
Mammals 306 114 37.3
Birds 274 6 2.2
Reptiles 291 113 38.8
Amphibians 122 57 46.7
Freshwater Fishes 424 138 32.5


​The North American Coastal Plain has a high number of plant species, with an endemism rate of almost 30 percent. After European settlers colonized the land, they converted more than 85 percent of the savannahs and woodlands found in the hotspot to non-native plant species, artificially reducing the land’s endemism rate and giving rise to misconceptions about the true levels of biodiversity. 

The hotspot is home to the rough-leaved loosestrife (Lysimachia asperulifolia), a flowering plant that has only 64 distinct populations remaining in the wild; the swamp black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia auriculata), which is threatened by fire suppression and habitat conversion; and the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris, EN), a tree that was nearly driven to extinction in the late 19th century and early 20th century by clear-cutting logging techniques and threats from fire suppression. Also endemic to the hotspot is the Florida yew (Taxus floridana, CR), a small evergreen tree that grows wild in only a single 15-mile stretch of the bank of the Apalachicola River. The bark of the Florida yew contains a compound known as paclitaxel, which is used to fight cancer.


There are more than 270 species of birds native to the North American Coastal Plain, 2.2 percent of which are endemic, including the red-cockaded woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis), which relies on the longleaf pine tree for its habitat; the Southeastern American kestrel (Falco sparverius paulus), which is the smallest falcon in the U.S.; the Florida burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia floridana); and the Florida scrub jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens, VU), the only species of bird endemic to the state of Florida.

The hotspot is also home to the Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla), which numbered as few as 30 in the 1970s. Due to conservation efforts, there are now approximately 130 individuals; they live exclusively in and around the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge in the southern part of the state. 

The North American Coastal Plain contains 306 species of native mammals, 114 of which are endemic to the area. Many of the endemic mammals are rodents, including the beach vole (Microtus breweri, VU), the Florida water rat (Neofiber alleni alleni), and the silver rice rat (Oryzomys argentatus), which was originally found only on Cudjoe Key.

Also endemic to the hotspot are the Florida bonneted bat (Eumops floridanus, CR), the Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), the Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium), the Florida black bear (Ursus americanus floridanus) and the Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus). The Lower Keys marsh rabbit is a subspecies of marsh rabbit that meets the criteria set by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to be classified as Critically Endangered if it were a full species, the Key deer is the smallest deer in North America, and the Florida and Louisiana black bears are the largest mammals in the hotspot. 

There are 293 species of reptiles native to the North American Coastal Plain, 113 of which are endemic. The chicken turtle (Deirochelys reticularia); the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus, VU); and the North American worm lizard (Rhineura floridana), the only species in its genus, are among the endemic species. 

Two of the three species in the snapping turtle genus Macrochelys, the Apalachicola snapping turtle (Macrochelys apalachicolae) and the Suwannee snapping turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis), are endemic to the hotspot as well. There are seven extinct genera in the Chelydridae family, but only two are still in existence, one of which is Macrochelys

Two of the three subspecies of the scarlet snake are endemic to the hotspot: the Florida scarlet snake (Cemophora coccina coccina) and the Texas scarlet snake (Cemophora coccina lineri). The eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi), the longest snake native to North America, is also endemic to the hotspot. It is a threatened species in Florida and Georgia due to habitat loss. The Louisiana pine snake (Pituophis ruthveni, EN) is endangered not only because of habitat loss through deforestation, but also due to the suppression of naturally occurring fires.

Amphibians have the highest rate of endemism of any class of animals in the hotspot. Of the 122 species of native amphibians, 57 are endemic. Frogs, toads, salamanders and sirens live in the moist environments provided by the coasts as well as in water sources within savannas, flatwoods and pine barrens.

Endemic to the hotspot is the smallest toad in North America, the oak toad (Anaxyrus quercicus), as well as one of the largest amphibians in the world, the two-toed amphiuma (Amphiuma means), which can reach lengths in excess of 45 inches. The Gulf Coast waterdog (Necturus beyeri), which has lungs in addition to external gills, also lives exclusively in streams within the hotspot.

The Houston toad (Anaxyrus houstonensis, EN) and the black-spotted newt (Notophthalmus meridoinalis, EN) are both endemic to the hotspot. Only about 3,000–4,000 adult Houston toads are alive today and, despite its toxic skin deterring predators, the black-spotted newt’s population numbers continue to decline due to use of herbicides and insecticides, as well as agriculture-based habitat alteration. 

The pine barrens tree frog (Hyla andersonii) is facing population decline due to habitat loss partially associated with fire suppression and is now isolated to three major population pockets: the New Jersey pine barrens, the North and South Carolina sandhills, and the meeting of the Florida panhandle with southern Alabama. The gopher frog (Rana capito) is also in decline due to habitat loss associated with fire suppression.

Freshwater Fishes 
The North American Coastal Plain is home to 424 species of freshwater fishes, 138 of which are endemic to the hotspot. Endemic species include the Alabama sturgeon (Scaphirhynchus suttkusi, CR), the broadspotted molly (Poecilia latipunctata, CR), the striped goodeid (Ataeniobius toweri, EN) and the phantom blindcat (Prietella lundbergi, VU). The striped goodeid is the only species in its genus, and the recently discovered phantom blindcat is a blind species of catfish that lives only in caves within the Tamesi River drainage area in Mexico.

Tab 3

​Threats to the hotspot are largely man made. The suppression of natural fires throughout the region has caused the scrub to overgrow in the savannas, pine barrens and woodlands. When the scrub becomes too dense, habitat quality is reduced, leaving fewer animals with suitable environments and fewer plants an opportunity to grow. The longleaf pine tree, the red-cockaded woodpecker, the rough-leaved loosestrife, the Florida scrub jay, the gopher frog, the pine barrens tree frog, and the Louisiana pine snake have all sustained habitat loss due to fire suppression. 

Deforestation for agricultural purposes and for infrastructure development also threatens the hotspot’s biodiversity. Besides the destruction of habitat for the black-spotted newt, the Houston toad, the gopher frog and the Florida bonneted bat, pesticides and industrially generated water pollution contribute to the species’ decline. Deforestation has also taken a toll on the longleaf pine tree, which was placed on the endangered species list due to overzealous harvesting exacerbating its habitat loss due to wildfire prevention. Global climate change also contributes to habitat loss in the North American Coastal Plain. The Florida mangroves that make up the Key deer’s habitat are especially vulnerable to the effects of global climate change due to rising sea levels and changes in salinity. 

When habitats are converted to agricultural land, herbicides and insecticides are used to maximize crop production, but these pesticides can harm the species in the regions in which they are used. The black-spotted newt and the striped goodeid are both threatened by pesticides and other pollution. Despite the need for conservation, these animals have not been the focus of conservation efforts in the past due to its low economic importance.

Tab 4

​In Florida, a state situated completely within the boundaries of the hotspot, the Everglades is a national park, and a marine sanctuary has been established in the Keys. These protections put in place by the state are augmented by additional groups, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which protects animals in the saltwater, freshwater and terrestrial environments of Florida’s coasts. Within these areas of concentrated wildlife, public access is limited and common recreational activities like boating are banned, as are dogs. 

In North Carolina, the entirety of the coastal region lies within the hotspot. Fittingly, the state has created a Coastal Habitat Protection Plan, which aims to document coastal ecosystems, identify threats and develop management options as needed. Also protecting biodiversity in North Carolina’s coastal plains is the Coastal Plain Conservation Group. The group safeguards nesting areas for the diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin), works to create sustainable oyster beds in order to protect coastal habitats for American oystercatchers (Haematopus palliatus) and offers education programs about locally nesting birds and how to encourage stable populations in residential areas, among other projects.

The Louisiana government has an office of conservation which works to ensure that waste disposal in the state will have minimal effects on the environment. Waste disposal in Louisiana is an important issue because the state lies entirely within the hotspot. Its groundwater resources program protects groundwater purity, handles groundwater-related emergencies and is working to establish best practice guidelines to guard the precious resource. The Louisiana Wildlife Federation (LWF) works to protect habitats, fighting to keep migration corridors open for the Louisiana black bear and the state’s migratory birds. It was LWF that successfully fought to place the 71,000 acres of the White Lake Wildlife Area under the supervision of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The federation also works to influence state policies that affect the region’s ecology. 

A small portion of southeastern Massachusetts lies within the hotspot, primarily Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Efforts made by the state government include the protection of the Nantucket Island watershed through the development of a comprehensive water management program and a wastewater management program that, together, will sustainably improve the water quality in the watershed. The privately-run Nantucket Conservation Foundation focuses on land acquisition and management, aiming to keep as much of the island’s wildlife habitat whole and as protected as possible.

Tab 5

​Audubon Nature Institute. (n.d.). Mississippi Sandhill Crane.

Berger, Cynthia. (2004). The bald eagle may be the symbol of our country--but these bird species are the only ones that live solely within our borders. National Wildlife Federation.

Center for Plant Conservation. (2010). Lysimachia asperulifolia.

Coastal Plain Conservation Group. (n.d.).

Flores-Villela, O., Parra-Olea, G., Hammerson, G.A., Wake, D. & Irwin, K. (2008). Notophthalmus meridionalis. The IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species 2008.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. (n.d.).

Florida Natural Areas Inventory. (2001). Southeastern American Kestrel.

Forest Guides. (n.d.) Houston Toad.

Geoffrey Hammerson, John Jensen. (2004). Lithobates capito. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2004.

Goodyear, Numi C.. (1987). Distribution and Habitat of the Silver Rice Rat, Oryzomys Argentatus. Journal of Mammalogy 68 (3). [American Society of Mammalogists, Oxford University Press]: 692–95. doi:10.2307/1381608.

Grosse, Andrew M. (n.d.). Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi). Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

Kowalski, Ed and Watkins-Colwell, Greg. (2004). Amphiuma pholeter. Caudata Culture.

National Wildlife Federation. (n.d.). Global Warming and Mangroves.

Nations Encyclopedia. (n.d.). Tamaulipas.
New England Wild Flower Society. (n.d.). Lycopodiella alopecuroides.

Noss, Reed F., Platt, William J., Sorrie, Bruce A., Weakley, Alan S., Means, D. Bruce, Costanza, Jennifer, and Peet, Robert K. (2014). How global biodiversity hotspots may go unrecognized: lessons from the North American Coastal Plain. Diversity and Distributions: A Journal of Conservation Biogeography.


Noss, Reed F., Platt, William J., Sorrie, Bruce A., Weakley, Alan S., Means, D. Bruce, Costanza, Jennifer, and Peet, Robert K. (2014). SUPPORTING INFORMATION: Noss et al., “HOW A GLOBAL BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOT, THE NORTH AMERICAN COASTAL PLAIN, WENT UNRECOGNIZED”

Noss, Reed F., Platt, William J., Sorrie, Bruce A., Weakley, Alan S., Means, D. Bruce, Costanza, Jennifer, and Peet, Robert K. (2014). SUPPORTING INFORMATION: Noss et al., “HOW A GLOBAL BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOT, THE NORTH AMERICAN COASTAL PLAIN, WENT UNRECOGNIZED”
S3: Assessing Vegetation Modification in the Coastal Plain.
Noss, Reed F., Platt, William J., Sorrie, Bruce A., Weakley, Alan S., Means, D. Bruce, Costanza, Jennifer, and Peet, Robert K. (2014). Table S3.1 Classification of Ecosystems (Biophysical Settings; see above) into General Habitat Types.

Snoeks, J., Laleye, P. & Contreras-MacBeath, T. (2009). Prietella lundbergi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2009.

South Carolina Department of Resources. (n.d.). Pine Barrens Treefrog.

South Florida Museum. (n.d.). Longleaf Pine Forest Overview.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (2015). Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Recovery.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (n.d.). Species Profile for Mississippi Sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla).

Tab 6