Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, Maine

Source: NOAA


The Wells Reserve is a 1600-acre research, education, and recreation facility, a public-private partnership within the National Estuarine Research Reserve System. Reserve facilities are located at Laudholm Farm in Wells, Maine, and include the Maine Coastal Ecology Center.

The Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve was dedicated on August 31, 1986, with a mission to investigate coastal environments and to enhance understanding of their ecology. The Reserve achieves its mission through original research, diverse education programs, and community partnerships. Reserve facilities are situated at historic Laudholm Farm and its activities are supported in part by Laudholm Trust, a nonprofit organization formed in 1982 to protect Laudholm Farm.


Cultural History

caption Wells Reserve boundary map. (Source: NERRS)

The Gulf of Maine was first inhabited more than 11,000 years ago by Native Americans of the Wabanaki Nation. The Wabanaki lifestyle was very conscious of the environment and their use of the land did not highly impact the ecosystem of which they were a part. When the Europeans arrived, estuaries were heavily used for both inland and ocean access. The Europeans also brought with them the concept of private ownership of land. Colonists altered and overused the land, causing drastic changes to the ecosystem and its health.

Farming near the estuary and the use of salt hay for fodder increased the pressure on the estuary. Dikes, ditches and tide gates were created to restrict water levels and change low salt marsh to salt hay habitat. Estuarine wildlife populations were decimated through their non-sustainable hunting practices.

Laudholm Farm was settled in 1642 and was occupied by only four families over the ensuing 350 years. In the mid 1960s, the farm's last private owner sold 199 acres, including Laudholm Beach, to the Maine Department of Conservation. In 1978, as developers bid aggressively on the remaining 250 acres of Laudholm Farm, neighbors banded together to preserve the site and its historic buildings. The group, led by Ruth Howard and Mort Mather, incorporated a nonprofit organization, Laudholm Farm Trust. (The Trust later dropped "Farm" from its name.)

Laudholm trustees reached out to individuals, businesses, and foundations for support. They raised almost $1 million for the 250-acre farm, but their work was just beginning.

Coincidentally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had begun to offer matching funds for purchasing land along estuaries, such as those of the Little and Webhannet rivers in Wells. Trustees successfully negotiated agreements to join the farm with state-owned Laudholm Beach and federally-managed marshes within Wells. In so doing, they proposed a 1600-acre Wells National Estuarine Sanctuary.

The proposal received support from the citizens of Wells, who voted by a margin of 3 to 1 to conserve the land despite losing considerable tax revenue. Support also came from the state and from the Maine Congressional Delegation. As the proposal gained recognition, volunteerism increased and monetary contributions grew. With state assistance, Laudholm Trust raised sufficient funds to obtain the federal match from NOAA. The sanctuary land was purchased in two parcels, the first in 1984 and the second in 1986.

A subsequent campaign, completed by Laudholm Trust in 1990, raised more than $3 million to restore the Laudholm Farm buildings and create the programs of the Wells Reserve. The Laudholm Trust's third major campaign, to establish the Maine Coastal Ecology Center at Wells Reserve, was completed in 2000.

Natural History

caption Aerial view of Wells Reserve (Source: NERRS)

The Wells Reserve is dominated by salt marsh, but also encompasses fields, forests, and beaches, a variety of habitats supporting diverse plant and animal communities. Harbor seals, river otters, mink, muskrat, deer, red fox, and raccoons are among mammals found on the Reserve. Well over 200 bird species have been observed, including herons, egrets, geese, and numerous songbirds. The streams support tomcod, pollock, alewife, flounder, striped bass, bluefish, sea-run brown trout, and Atlantic salmon. The mud flats and estuarine waters of the Reserve host myriad plankton and invertebrates. Rare species encountered at the Reserve have included bald eagles, least terns, peregrine falcons, piping plovers, slender blue flag iris, and arethusa orchid.


Gulf of Maine waters infiltrate the Webhannet and Little rivers, wending behind barrier beaches to form broad estuaries. The salt marshes in these estuaries dominate the Wells Reserve; about 1200 of the Reserve's 1600 acres are salt marsh. The Reserve's uplands, sloping gently from sea level, support maritime forest, brushland, and grassland. A rich flora and fauna dwell in this diverse landscape.

Salt Marsh

Washed by tides, the salt marsh is a demanding and vigorous environment to which few animals and plants have adapted. Spartina grasses are efficient energy users and thrive here. Dominating the low marsh, and bathed twice a day by the tides is the salt-extracting cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Salt hay (Spartina patens) flourishes in the high marsh where tides reach only twice monthly.

Some grasses are consumed by wildlife and insects, but most decompose and are washed into nearby estuaries where they nourish creatures that live there. Fertilized and cultivated by the tides, the marsh is a highly productive ecosystem producing nearly ten tons of organic matter per acre—more than the richest agricultural land.


The fields of the reserve support early stages of successional plant communities. Open spaces, adjacent to the reserve's woods have a mixture of shrubs and young trees. Forests provide cover for a variety of species. Snags and older trees are essential for cavity-nesting species. Upland fields and forests have been classified into four major categories—mowed fields, old fields, oak-pine forest and mixed second growth forests. Prior to European settlement and subsequent farming of the area, oak-pine forest covered the reserve lands. Since then, forests have been cleared for farming, timber and fuel needs. With the decline of farming, fields have once again succeeded toward forest communities. The succession from field to forest is displayed through the variety of old fields existing on the reserve.

Adjacent to the reserve's mowed fields are two "old fields" which have succeeded to shrubs, such as barberry, honeysuckle, bayberry and pasture rose. Both barberry and honeysuckle are introduced species. Apple and hawthorn trees line the field and hedge rows. South of the Merriland River are patches of white pine and poplar forests. Both are relatively young and contain herbs and grasses associated with old fields.

A relatively mature oak-pine forest community is becoming established in several forest stands on the dry, sandy soil. Red maple is also a major component of most of the oak-pine stands in moister areas. Other tree species occur in the canopy and subcanopy but do not attain dominance. At most sites, heath shrubs dominate the understory vegetation with blueberries being most abundant. Mixed second growth forests also exist on the reserve.

The majority of the reserve's lands are wetlands. Three major wetland sub-habitats have been identified on the reserve—salt marshes, red maple swamps, flood plains and shrub swamps. In the red maple swamp, the red maple is the dominant tree with alder and winterberry holly being the dominant shrub species within the community. An herbaceous layer is also well-developed, which contains a variety of dominating sedges, ferns and wetland herbs. A total of 82 different shrubs have been identified on the reserve site.


Marine Invertebrates: Wells Reserve estuaries are important breeding areas for many intertidal and subtidal invertebrates. Examples include softshell clams, green crabs (introduced invasive), and sandworms. Benthic and intertidal areas support a number of marine invertebrates and the water column supports zooplankton.

Insects: Although poorly documented, a diverse insect assemblage occurs in the Wells Reserve's varied habitats.

Fish and Shellfish: Fifty-five fish species from 30 families have been found during surveys done between 1989 and 2001 in the Little River, Webhannet River, Merriland River, Branch Brook, and Wells Bay. The most common of these have been the American eel, alewife, common mummichog, Atlantic silverside, and three sticklebacks (fourspine, threespine, and ninespine).

Mammals: Harbor seals are the only marine mammal to have been recorded at the Wells Reserve. Terrestrial mammals observed at the Wells Reserve include bats, squirrels, mice, muskrat, rabbits, porcupine, coyote, fox, raccoon, otter, and deer. Rare species found here include the New England cottontail.

Birds: At least 235 bird species have occurred at the Wells Reserve since record-keeping began in the 1980s. Waders, shorebirds, seabirds, raptors, and songbirds are all well represented. Piping plover and least tern both nest at Laudholm Beach. The Wells Reserve is consistently voted "Best Birdwatching" in the annual York County Coast Star readers' poll.

Amphibians and Reptiles: Turtles, snakes, salamanders, toads, and frogs all occur, some of them abundantly, on the Wells Reserve.

Endangered Species

The Wells Reserve contains three Registered Critical Areas designated by the state—the Wells Piping Plover Nesting Area, Wells Slender Blue Flag Area and the Laudholm Beach. Endangered or rare species found in the Wells Reserve include the Least Tern and the Piping Plover. Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons have also been sighted hunting in the reserve's salt marshes and tidal flats. Both are federally recognized as endangered species. Two rare plant species, the Slender Blue Flag iris and Sassafras, have been sighted on the reserve as well. Both species are at the northern range of their limit and are rare in this geographical region. Two varieties of Joe-Pye Weed have also been sighted on the reserve, a plant species formerly thought to be extinct in Maine.


The Wells NERR research department studies and monitors change in Gulf of Maine estuaries, coastal habitats, and adjacent coastal watersheds, and produces science-based information needed to protect, sustain, or restore them. In a typical year, the program directs or assists with more than 20 studies involving dozens of scientists, students, and staff from the Reserve, academic and research institutions, resource management agencies, and environmental and conservation groups.

Wells NERR scientists participate in research, monitoring, planning, management, and outreach activities locally, regionally, and nationally. The program supports field research along Maine's southwest coast from the Kennebec River to the Piscataqua River, including nearshore and offshore waters of the Bigelow Bight. Within this region, effort is focused on the coastal compartments from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth, which are characterized by numerous marsh-dominated estuaries and barrier beaches.

Estuarine Water Quality

Water quality is monitored continuously at several stations with automated instruments as part of the System-wide Monitoring Program, as well as bimonthly at 15 to 20 stations through the Watershed Evaluation Team (WET) volunteer monitoring program. These data 1) have allowed us to identify several bacterial "hot spots," 2) are used to identify and open areas safe for shellfishing, and 3) have uncovered a relation between tides and low dissolved oxygen levels. Our water quality work has contributed to the designation of several "Priority Watersheds" in coastal southern Maine by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Our partnership with Maine Sea Grant and the University of New Hampshire has identified species-specific sources of bacterial contamination in our coastal watersheds.

Salt Marsh Habitats and Communities

Factors that control the dynamics and vigor of salt marsh plant communities and marsh peat formation determine the ability of a salt marsh to persist in the face of sea-level rise. Through a combination of experimental manipulations and long-term monitoring, we are producing data to answer questions concerning the sustainability of natural and restoring salt marsh habitats in this region. These studies are looking at nutrient-plant relations, plant community responses to physical and hydrologic disturbance, and the relative contribution of short-term natural events (e.g., storms) and human activities (e.g., dredging, tidal restriction) on patterns of sediment accretion and erosion. The Reserve's marshes and beaches are among the best-studied sites nationally with regard to long-term accretion and erosion (over thousands of years). The barrier beaches that protect these marshes have also been well studied, especially with respect to alterations due to human activity and sea-level rise.

Habitat Value for Fish, Shellfish and Birds

The Reserve combines long-term monitoring with periodic surveys and short-term experiments to identify species and measure trends and changes in populations of fish, crustaceans, clams, and birds. Research has accumulated more than 10 years of data on upland birds, wading birds, and shorebirds for assessing population status. Wading bird data are used as a gross indicator of salt marsh health. Periodic larval, juvenile, and adult fish surveys have produced the best available data for fish utilization of salt marsh estuaries and coastal watersheds in the Gulf of Maine. Researchers periodically conduct surveys and field experiments to look at the survival and growth of hatchery seed, juvenile, and adult softshell clams, as well as their favored habitat characteristics and predation by the invasive green crab.

Salt Marsh Degradation and Restoration

Since 1991, the Wells Reserve has been studying the impact of tidal restrictions on salt marsh functions and values, and the response of salt marshes to tidal restoration. Salt marsh ecosystems in the Gulf of Maine sustained themselves in the face of sea-level rise and other natural disturbances for nearly 5,000 years. Since colonial times large areas of salt marsh have been lost through diking, draining, and filling. Today, the remaining marshland is fairly well protected from outright destruction, but during the past 100 years, and especially since the 1950s, salt marshes have been divided into fragments by roads, causeways, culverts, and tide gates. Tidal flow to most of these fragments is severely restricted, leading to chronic habitat degradation and greatly reduced access for fish and other marine species. Under the umbrella of the Global Programme of Action Coalition for the Gulf of Maine, the Reserve evaluates monitoring results from marsh restoration projects throughout the gulf to assess their performance and to identify data gaps and future monitoring needs.

Further Reading

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



(2006). Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, Maine. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/51cbef367896bb431f69d21c


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