Sandhills Fact Sheet
Sandhills are an inland habitat type characterized by rolling hills capped
by deep coarse sands. They are wedged between the Coastal Plain and Piedmont
regions of North and South Carolina. Scientists believe sandhills were
formed by ancient oceans that rose and then receded in response to melting
and freezing of polar ice caps. Beaches formed wherever the water met
the land. Each time a beach formed, a sandhill was left behind when the
Sandhills Plant Life
Because sandhills contain dry, nutrient-poor soil, this habitat contains
only hearty, well-adapted plants. Turkey oak and longleaf pine trees are
typical sandhills vegetation. Their rooting systems allow them to extract
water from various soil depths. These species are also adapted to the
frequent, lightning-induced fires that strike sandhills. Longleaf pines
have a thick, fire-resistant bark, and turkey oaks killed by fire will
resprout because the fire does not damage their root systems. Several
grass species, which also can survive fires, inhabit sandhills. They include
wiregrass, sorghastrum, broomsedge and three-awn grass.
Sandhills support many reptile and amphibian species that are adapted
to the habitat's dry, sandy conditions. The gopher tortoise, which is a state-listed threatened species in South Carolina
and Georgia, digs underground burrows in sandhills. The burrows are typically
20 to 30 feet long and from 6 to 8 feet deep. Gopher tortoises eat sandhills
grasses and berries and may even help distribute such vegetation throughout
sandhills by spreading plant seeds in their feces. Also, gopher tortoises
are keystone species -- other animals and plants in the habitat are affected
by tortoise activities. Specifically, other animals, such as gopher frogs,
several species of snakes and several small mammals, use tortoise burrows
on a regular basis.
Other reptiles and amphibians that inhabit sandhills include broad-headed
skinks, oak toads, six-lined racerunner lizards, glass lizards and hog-nosed
snakes. Mammals that inhabit sandhills include white-tailed deer, opossums, gray foxes, bobcats, fox squirrels and cottontail
rabbits. Birds include the mourning dove, sparrow hawk, red-tailed hawk
and wild turkey.
Scientists at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory have conducted a variety
of animal and plant studies in sandhills of the 310-square-mile Savannah
River Site near Aiken, S.C., since the early 1950s.
Studies have included plant and animal inventories, forest dynamics, longleaf
pine/wiregrass restoration and fire ecology of the sandhills. Recently,
scientists have confirmed that periodic fires -- whether they be lightning-induced
or prescribed burning by forest managers -- increase plant biodiversity
in the sandhills. Fire returns nutrients to the nutrient-poor sandhill
soils and temporarily creates more open space that allows new species
to become established. Research has shown an increase in both the number
of plant species and the number of individual plants. Such increases means
there is a potential for increase in the number of animal species that
inhabit sandhills, scientists say.
Did You Know?
- The sandhills support one of the remaining strongholds
of longleaf pine in the entire southeastern United States. Longleaf
pines were once the dominant tree species in the Southeast. Much of
the virgin longleaf pine forests of the region were cut by 1930; the
wood produced timber, tar, pitch and turpentine.
- Sand depths in sandhills can reach as deep as
60 meters (198 feet).
- About 800 hectares (1,976 acres) of the 310-square-mile
Savannah River Site support sandhills vegetation.
- Plant species diversity increases for about
seven years after a fire in a sandhills forest.
- The seeds of two sandhills grass species, wiregrass
and Indian grass, have awns that may help them penetrate the sandy soil
and promote germination. They have also adapted to soil temperatures
that measure as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit (49.5 degrees Celsius)
at two inches below the surface in July.
- An average of 24 different insect families inhabit
the sandhills. Families include ants, roaches and beetles.
Sandhills are wedged between the Coastal Plains and Piedmont regions of
North and South Carolina and Georgia.
Where to See Representative Sites
- About 45,000 acres of sandhills are found in
the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in Chesterfield County,
S.C., near McBee. Call 803-335-8401.
- About 45,000 more acres of sandhills are found
in the Sandhills State Forest, also in Chesterfield County, S.C. Call
- More information is also available from South
Carolina Heritage Trust, a division of the S.C. Department of Natural
Resources. Call 803-734-3918.