Rhode Island Wildlife and Nature Information

picture of buildings on the street in Newport Rhode Island, introduction to Rhode Island wildlife
Welcome to Rhode Island wildlife.

According to the Rhode Island government, the state’s small size can be measured in miles. A short forty eight mile drive is all that is needed to move from the southern border to the northern border. The east to west drive is a bit less, covering thirty seven miles.

Small in size does not necessarily mean small in wildlife diversity for residents and visitors to the Ocean State. Formally, the state gets divided into three ecoregions:

  • The Narragansett/Bristol Lowland
  • Southern New England Coastal Plain
  • Long Island Sound Coastal Lowlands

The map of Rhode Island beaches highlights the thin southwest coastal area that defines the Long Island Sound Coastal Lowlands. It blends into the Southern New England Coastal Plain that constitutes the majority of the west. The Narragansett/Bristol Lowland surrounds the Narragansett bay on the east.

Collectively, these regions host around one hundred mammal species, from the smallest mice to the largest whales.

picture of a harbor seal, official marine mammal of Rhode Island, Rhode Island wildlife
Rhode Island wildlife recently came alive when in 2016 the Ocean State named the Harbor Seal as its official state marine mammal. Whale watching ranks as one of the best Rhode Island wildlife adventures. It’s summer fun because Atlantic whale populations tend to migrate to the cold New England waters during the season. Fin Whales are probably the most common whale sightings along coastal Rhode Island.

Dolphins and porpoises, along with seals are always around and seen. Locals and tourists are constantly surprised with the marine life diversity. According to a report from Rhode Island Sea Grant:

Thirty-six species of marine mammals (30 cetaceans, 5 seals, 1 manatee) and four species of sea turtles are known to occur in the area. Sixteen were categorized as common to abundant… six as regular… eighteen as rare to accidental.

The recent article, Misremembering risk in the age of hurricanes: The Rhode Island Coast in the 1930s–1950s. Coastal Studies and Society. 1(1) 2022 outlines the state’s policies addressing extreme weather associated with their ocean identity. The Fox Point Hurricane Protection Barrier, in Narragansett Bay, for example, helps manage flood control in the population areas around and including Providence.

Anticipating future climate trends also helps with planning for both the commercial fisheries and outdoor recreation boating and fishing industries associated with Rhode Island’s Ocean State identity. The ocean state identity also brings additional outdoor recreation opportunities, such as birding, to the state. As well as being situated along the Atlantic Coastal flyway that brings many seasonal songbirds and breeding birds to the entire state. The warmer and relatively calmer conditions in the Narragansett Bay, for example, provide a suitable winter habitat for a variety of water fowl.

picture of a raccoon walking next to a house
Historically, western Rhode Island’s forests dominated the landscape. Western settlers in the region began timber industries to support both commercial and residential development such as agriculture and construction. While the Southern New England Coastal Plain remains forested, the types and total amount of forest land changes over time in conjunction with the state’s development goals.

Wetlands, or forested swamp areas remain dispersed throughout the west. To a lesser extent, brackish wetlands dot the southern coast and Narragansett Bay. Wetlands, along with the rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds support wildlife, including amphibians and reptiles. Currently the Eastern spadefoot toad is the only herp listed as a state endangered species.

General land mammal populations consist of the occasional larger carnivore such as a bear, with the smaller carnivores such as foxes and coyotes roam the woods.

Residential areas, including the smaller private woodlots around the state also provide habitat for them and other common critters such as raccoons, squirrels, opossum, skunks and rabbits.

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