Organisms living in this zone have a highly variable and often hostile environment, and have evolved various adaptations to cope with and even exploit these conditions. One easily visible feature of intertidal communities is vertical zonation, where the community is divided into distinct vertical bands of specific species going up the shore. Species ability to cope with abiotic factors associated with emersion stress, such as desiccation determines their upper limits, while biotic interactions e.g.competition with other species sets their lower limits.
Intertidal regions are utilized by humans for food and recreation, but anthropogenic actions also have major impacts, with overexploitation, invasive species and climate change being among the problems faced by intertidal communities. In some places Marine Protected Areas have been established to protect these areas and aid in scientific research.
Intertidal habitats can be characterized as having either hard or soft bottoms substrates. Rocky intertidal communities occur on rocky shores, such as headlands, cobble beaches, or human-made jetties. Their degree of exposure may be calculated using the Ballantine Scale. Soft-sediment habitats include sandy beaches, and intertidal wetlands (e.g., mudflats, and salt marshes). These habitats differ in levels of abiotic, or non-living, environmental factors. Rocky shores tend to have higher wave action, requiring adaptations allowing the inhabitants to cling tightly to the rocks. Soft-bottom habitats are generally protected from large waves but tend to have more variable salinity levels. They also offer a third habitable dimension—depth—thus, many soft-sediment inhabitants are adapted for burrowing.
Because intertidal organisms endure regular periods of immersion and emersion, they essentially live both underwater and on land and must be adapted to a large range of climatic conditions. The intensity of climate stressors varies with relative tide height because organisms living in areas with higher tide heights are emersed for longer periods than those living in areas with lower tide heights. This gradient of climate with tide height leads to patterns of intertidal zonation, with high intertidal species being more adapted to emersion stresses than low intertidal species. These adaptations may be behavioral (i.e. movements or actions), morphological (i.e. characteristics of external body structure), or physiological (i.e. internal functions of cells and organs). In addition, such adaptations generally cost the organism in terms of energy (e.g. to move or to grow certain structures), leading to trade-offs (i.e. spending more energy on deterring predators leaves less energy for other functions like reproduction).
Intertidal organisms, especially those in the high intertidal, must cope with a large range of temperatures. While they are underwater, temperatures may only vary by a few degrees over the year. However, at low tide, temperatures may dip to below freezing or may become scaldingly hot, leading to a temperature range that may approach 30 °C (86 °F) during a period of a few hours. Many mobile organisms, such as snails and crabs, avoid temperature fluctuations by crawling around and searching for food at high tide and hiding in cool, moist refuges (crevices or burrows) at low tide. Besides simply living at lower tide heights, non-motile organisms may be more dependent on coping mechanisms. For example, high intertidal organisms have a stronger stress response, a physiological response of making proteins that help recovery from temperature stress just as the immune response aids in the recovery from infection.