Published: February 2007

Mangroves

Mangroves

Forests of the Tide

At the intersection of land and sea, mangrove forests support a wealth of life, from starfish to people, and may be more important to the health of the planet than we ever realized.

By Kennedy Warne
Photograph by Tim Laman

Mangroves live life on the edge. With one foot on land and one in the sea, these botanical amphibians occupy a zone of desiccating heat, choking mud, and salt levels that would kill an ordinary plant within hours. Yet the forests mangroves form are among the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on Earth. Birds roost in the canopy, shellfish attach themselves to the roots, and snakes and crocodiles come to hunt. Mangroves provide nursery grounds for fish; a food source for monkeys, deer, tree-climbing crabs, even kangaroos; and a nectar source for bats and honeybees.

As a group, mangroves can't be defined too closely. There are some 70 species from two dozen families—among them palm, hibiscus, holly, plumbago, acanthus, legumes, and myrtle. They range from prostrate shrubs to 200-foot-high (60 meters) timber trees. Though most prolific in Southeast Asia, where they are thought to have originated, mangroves circle the globe. Most live within 30 degrees of the Equator, but a few hardy types have adapted to temperate climates, and one lives as far from the tropical sun as New Zealand. Wherever they live, they share one thing in common: They're brilliant adapters. Each mangrove has an ultrafiltration system to keep much of the salt out and a complex root system that allows it to survive in the intertidal zone. Some have snorkel-like roots called pneumatophores that stick out of the mud to help them take in air; others use prop roots or buttresses to keep their trunks upright in the soft sediments at tide's edge.

These plants are also landbuilders par excellence. Some Aborigines in northern Australia believe one mangrove species resembles their primal ancestor, Giyapara, who walked across the mudflats and brought the tree into existence. The plants' interlocking roots stop riverborne sediments from coursing out to sea, and their trunks and branches serve as a palisade that diminishes the erosive power of waves.

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