The Coast's Ecosystems
  • Last updated:
  • 29 Jan 2016

The Sunshine Coast is one of the most biologically diverse areas in Australia.

Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is the variety of all species on earth. It includes plants, fungi, animals (including humans) and micro-organisms, as well as their genes and the ecosystems that they comprise.

Ecosystems differ in type and size, from a large forest to simply an area under a rock, or can be vast such as an ocean. They are defined as a community of living organisms interacting with each other and the physical elements surrounding them.

The range of ecosystems or vegetation communities found on the Coast include coastal and dune areas, heathland and paperbark forest, mangroves and saltmarshes, seagrass communities, open forest and woodlands, wet and dry sclerophyll, rainforest (or closed forest), and rocky/montane heath.

This wide range in vegetation and ecosystems means there is a diverse range in habitat provided, and hence a particularly vast array of significant species are found on the Coast. The vegetation communities that are likely to have the greatest number of native animal species are those with the greatest variety of plant species, e.g. rainforests.

To fully understand vegetation communities, it is helpful to have some appreciation for local geology and soils, as these processes underpin why vegetation communities have evolved where they have across the region.

Vegetation communities that are found here on the Coast:

Coastal and dunes

These communities are important crossovers between the marine and terrestrial (land) environments. Coastal areas are constantly changing and can be unstable due to the buffeted coastlines where they are found. This results in unique values but also vulnerability.

Plants in coastal areas have evolved to withstand constant wind and salt spray, and play an important role in stabilising dunes. Such species include spinifex (Spinifex sericeus), jack bean (Canavalia rosea), pig face (Carpobrotus glaucescens) and goat's foot convolvulus (Ipomoea pes-caprae). Weeping horsetail sheoaks (Casuarina equisitifolia) and screw pines (Pandanus tectorius) are common tree species found along the coast.

Mangroves and saltmarshesMangroves and saltmarshes

Inundated with salt water periodically, plants of this group have immense value to the productivity of estuaries and the long-term stability of coastal systems. An estimated 75 per cent of fish caught in Queensland spend some time in mangroves or depend on food chains that can be traced back to these coastal forests (DERM, 2011).

These areas are important habitat for migratory birds and provide spawning and nursery areas for aquatic animals. Mangroves (for example Avicennia marina, Bruguiera gymnorhiza, Rhizophora stylosa) mitigate bank erosion and provide important buffers to waterways from adjacent land use, and may supply nutrients to nearby seagrass meadows.

Seagrass communitiesSeagrass communities

Seagrasses, such as those found in Pumicestone Passage and Noosa River, are important breeding and feeding grounds for large numbers of fish and invertebrate (lacking a backbone) species, and provide a critical food source for dugongs and turtles.

Seagrasses form meadows in estuaries and shallow coastal waters with sandy or muddy bottoms. Their leaves support an array of seaweeds and tiny filter-feeding animals, and they help to keep the water clear. Sunshine Coast species include eelgrass (Zostera capricorni) and paddleweed (Halophila ovalis). Urban, industrial and agricultural runoff can have detrimental effects on seagrasses, as can severe flood events and some marine vessels.

Heathland and paperbarksHeathland and paperbarks

Heath communities are generally known as "wallum”, and have been extensively cleared on the Coast for housing developments. Usually characterised by low vegetation (with the exception of sections of paperbarks), banksias, and a variety of wildflowers in spring; heathland communities have fluctuating water tables and periodic waterlogging.

Heath wetlands can have highly acidic waters and may be home to threatened animals that specifically require low pH levels, such as the acid frogs. These ecosystems have an important role in filtering sediments/pollutants before they enter main waterways. Common species of wet heath include swamp banksia (Banksia robur), wallum boronia (Boronia falcifolia) and Leptospermum spp.

Dry sclerophyll and open forest/woodlandDry sclerophyll and open forest/woodland

Dry sclerophyll, or dry eucalypt forests occur on many different soils and at different altitudes. They are generally made up of a grass layer, a shrub layer/s and the canopy tree layer. Wattles (Acacia spp) and sheoaks (Casuarina and Allocasuarina spp) are common in the understorey. Frequent fire is a natural part of the life cycle of these communities, with shrub and eucalypt species having developed strategies to ensure survival after fire or drought.

In eucalypt woodland or tall open forest, the trees are separated from one another creating a park-like effect, often due to shallow infertile soils or sometimes due to human disturbance. These ecosystems often feature grass trees (Xanthorrhoea spp) in the understorey.

Wet sclerophyllWet sclerophyll 

Wet sclerophyll, wet eucalypt or tall forests, are often found on the edges of rainforest and will generally occur in fertile soils in higher rainfall areas. Many tall trees  for example, flooded gums (Eucalyptus grandis) and brush box (Lophostemon confertus) - create the canopy and a well-developed variety of understorey species exists below. 

Ferns such as bracken (Pteridium esculentum) and basket fern (Drynaria rigidula), are more likely to occur than grasses. Palm species such as the cabbage tree palm (Livistona australis) and walking stick palm (Linospadix monostachya) may be found amongst the eucalypts and other taller trees.


The Coast's subtropical rainforests feature a dense canopy, which restricts the amount of light reaching the forest floor except in gaps created by tree and limb falls. Ferns, palms, epiphytes (plants that grow on other trees) and vines are common. Amongst the many rainforest species, strangler figs (Ficus watkinsiana) and piccabeen palms (Archontophoenix cunninghamiana) are easily identified, as well as the stately trunks of emergent bunya pines (Araucaria bidwillii) or hoop pines (Araucaria cunninghamii).

Rainforests generally have high plant and animal species diversity. Riverine or gallery rainforest  an endangered ecosystem type  plays an important role in stabilising stream banks from erosion and sedimentation of waterways.

Rocky/montane heath
Soils on rocky mountain tops or plateaux are shallow and low in nutrients, often resulting in low heath vegetation. Plants may grow in rocky crevices and are generally exposed to full sun and wind; these are harsh conditions and generally this results in fairly low fauna diversity.

Old volcanic laccoliths and dykes such as Mt Tinbeerwah, Mt Emu (Peregian) and Mt Coolum and the plugs of the Glasshouse Mountains provide good examples of typical montane vegetation. Montane species on the Coast include Queensland peppermint (Eucalyptus exserta), golden candlesticks (Banksia spinulosa), Logania albiflora and Plectranthus graveolens.

Regional ecosystems

According to the Queensland Herbarium’s regional ecosystem classification system, the Sunshine Coast has eighty-four different ecosystem types [PDF 350KB].

Regional ecosystems are communities of vegetation that are consistently associated with a particular combination of geology, land form and soil. To find out more about this classification system visit the Department of Environment and Natural Resource Management's website[include7].

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