Estuaries are biomes that occur where a river, a source of fresh water, meets the ocean. Therefore, both fresh water and salt water are found in the same vicinity; mixing results in a diluted (brackish) salt water. Estuaries form protected areas where many of the offspring of crustaceans, mollusks, and fish begin their lives. Salinity is an important factor that influences the organisms and the adaptations of the organisms found in estuaries. The salinity of estuaries varies and is based on the rate of flow of its freshwater sources. Once or twice a day, high tides bring salt water into the estuary. Low tides occurring at the same frequency reverse the current of salt water (Figure 20.30).
The daily mixing of fresh water and salt water is a physiological challenge for the plants and animals that inhabit estuaries. Many estuarine plant species are halophytes, plants that can tolerate salty conditions. Halophytic plants are adapted to deal with salt water spray and salt water on their roots. In some halophytes, filters in the roots remove the salt from the water that the plant absorbs. Animals, such as mussels and clams (phylum Mollusca), have developed behavioral adaptations that expend a lot of energy to function in this rapidly changing environment. When these animals are exposed to low salinity, they stop feeding, close their shells, and switch from aerobic respiration (in which they use gills) to anaerobic respiration (a process that does not require oxygen). When high tide returns to the estuary, the salinity and oxygen content of the water increases, and these animals open their shells, begin feeding, and return to aerobic respiration.