Littoral zone

Littoral refers to the coast of an ocean or sea, or to the banks of a river, lake or estuary. In coastal environments, the littoral zone extends from the high water mark, which is rarely inundated, to shoreline areas that are permanently submerged. It always includes the intertidal zone and is often used to mean the same as the intertidal zone. However, the meaning of "littoral zone" can extend well beyond the intertidal zone.

There is no single definition. What is regarded as the full extent of the littoral zone, and the way the littoral zone is divided into subregions, varies in different contexts (lakes and rivers have their own definitions). The use of the term also varies between different parts of the world, and between different disciplines that use the term. Military commanders speak of the littoral in ways that are different from marine biologists.

The word "littoral" is used both as a noun and an adjective. It derives from the Latin noun litus, litoris, meaning "shore". (The doubled 't' is a late mediaeval innovation and the word is sometimes seen in the more classical-looking spelling 'litoral'.)


The adjacency of water gives a number of distinctive characteristics to littoral regions. Water's erosive power results in particular types of landforms, such as sand dunes, and estuaries. The natural movement of the littoral along the coast is called the littoral drift. Biologically, the ready availability of water enables a greater variety of plant and animal life, and the additional local humidity due to evaporation usually creates a microclimate supporting unique types of organisms.

Lake definitions

In lakes, where tides are usually negligibly small, other definitions of "littoral" are used. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources defines littoral as that portion of the lake that is less than 15 feet in depth. This zone is home to most of the aquatic plantlife (both rooted and floating) in a pond or lake because the high amount of sunlight reaching it allows for significant photosynthetic activity.

Military definitions

For the purposes of naval operations, the United States Navy divides the littoral zone in a different way (see diagram above). The US Army Corps Engineers and EPA have their own definitions, and these have legal implications.

Other definitions

In oceanography and marine biology the idea of the littoral zone is extended roughly to the edge of the continental shelf. Starting from the shoreline, the littoral zone begins at the spray region just above the high tide mark. From here, it moves to the intertidal region between the high and low water marks, and then out as far as the edge of the continental shelf. These three subregions are called, in order, the supralittoral zone, the eulittoral zone and the sublittoral zone.

Supralittoral zone

The supralittoral zone, also known as the splash zone or the spray zone or the supratidal zone, is the area above the spring high tide line that is regularly splashed, but not submerged by ocean water. Seawater penetrates these elevated areas only during storms with high tides.

Organisms here must cope also with exposure to air, fresh water from rain, cold, heat and predation by land animals and seabirds. At the top of this area, patches of dark lichens can appear as crusts on rocks. Some types of periwinkles, neritidae and detritus feeding isopoda commonly inhabit the lower supralitoral.

Eulittoral zone

The eulittoral (mid- or medio-littoral') zone is the intertidal zone, also known as the foreshore. It extends from the spring high tide line, which is rarely inundated, to the neep low tide line, which is rarely not inundated. The wave action and turbulence of recurring tides shapes and reforms cliffs, gaps, and caves, offering a huge range of habitats for sedentary organisms. Protected rocky shorelines usually show a narrow almost homogenous eulitoral strip, often marked by the presence of barnacles. Exposed sites show a wider extension and are often divided into further zones. For more on this, see intertidal ecology.

Sublittoral zone

The sublittoral zone, also called the neritic zone, starts immediately below the eulitoral zone. This zone is permanently covered with seawater.

In physical oceanography, the sublittoral zone refers to coastal regions with significant tidal flows and energy dissipation, including non-linear flows, internal waves, river outflows and oceanic fronts. In practice, this typically extends to the edge of the continental shelf, with depths around 200 metres.

In marine biology, the sublittoral refers to the areas where sunlight reaches the ocean floor, that is, where the water is never so deep as to take it out of the photic zone. This results in high primary production and makes the sublittoral zone the location of the majority of sea life. As in physical oceanography, this zone typically extends to the edge of the continental shelf. The benthic zone in the sublittoral is much more stable than in the intertidal zone; temperature, water pressure, and the amount of sunlight remain fairly constant. Sublittoral corals do not have to deal with as much change as intertidal corals. Corals can live in both zones, but they are more common in the sublittoral zone.

Within the sublittoral, marine biologists also identify the

  • infralittoral zone: algal dominated zone to maybe five metres below the low water mark.
  • circalittoral zone: region beyond the infralittoral, that is, below the algal zone and dominated by sessile animals such as oysters.

Shallower region of the sublittoral zone, extending not far from the shore, are sometimes referred to as the subtidal zone.


Supralittoral can be thought of as meaning above the littoral, and sublittoral can be thought of as meaning below the littoral, so it is not surprising that the eulitoral is often just called the littoral.

See also



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