Appreciating our Mangroves

You might recognize mangroves as those bushy trees that grow in the saltwater tidal zones of warmer climes, standing on root systems that form a complex, intertwining network that appears as if no living thing could navigate its way through. But rather, mangrove ecosystems are responsible for supporting a glorious abundance of life, much more than is apparent at first, second, even third glance!

In fact, mangroves provide an enormous multitude of environmental contributions and ecosystem services which benefit a plethora of species (including us!) as well as contributing to the health of the environment itself.

The Salt Life: How Do They Survive?

Mangroves occur worldwide within the salty and brackish waters of earth’s tropical & subtropical latitudes and withstand the twice-daily rise and fall of the tides. Rather than denoting one particular species, the word “mangrove” in fact makes up more than 80 tree or shrub species known as “halophytes” meaning able to survive in saltwater conditions. Red mangroves achieve this by using salt-filtering taproots to filter out freshwater from the salty environment in which they exist. Other species, such as our white, black and tea mangroves, excrete salt through glands on their leaves, leaving a surface of dried salt crystals.

The Submerged Life: How Do They Breathe?

Mangroves truly live in conditions that are nearly intolerable. Not only do they have to constantly extract or exude salt from their system, but also there’s that pesky universal dependence on oxygen that all life shares, leaving these trees with the complicated job of obtaining enough with which to grow and thrive despite twice-daily inundation and roots sunk into oxygen-deprived mud.

But mangroves have evolved unique adaptations to survive against all these odds and colonize an otherwise unoccupied and ultimately harsh environment. Special aerial roots in some mangroves reach slowly downward from taller branches and take in air, as do specialized underground roots in other species that send up “pneumatophores”, or upward facing roots, which gather oxygen at low tide. The prop roots of the red mangrove have tiny holes called “lenticels” which close when submerged at high tide and open as the waters recede to gather the essential oxygen.

A Forest of Roots & How it all Begins:

Some species, like the red mangrove, grow upon prop roots, meaning the base of the tree is supported aerially by a multitude of bowed roots that plant into the mud and provide a wide support system allowing the tree to withstand constant tidal and wave action including storms, hurricanes and even tsunamis by dissipating wave energy. This provides essential protection to coastal  communities and can mean devastation in strong storm surges for regions where mangrove forests have been removed.

Mangroves are actually able to grow their own, unique ecosystems, practically from nothing more than a bit of sand! Areas that once might have been a shallow sandbar can grow into a completely established mangrove island in a matter of 50 years or so.

Mangroves seeds are known as propagules, meaning they are actually living seedlings before they even fall from the parent tree. Red mangrove seeds are elongated and as they float in the shallows they’ll slowly turn vertical when ready to root so as to more easily lodge into the mud. If unable to root, the  seedling will alter its density to float horizontally again until it senses more favorable conditions. In effect, the seed is actually “looking” for calm, shallow waters appropriate for a young mangrove to begin to grow and thrive..and more are always sure to soon follow. As soon as a root network is formed, fine silt and sediments floating through the slow moving water collect and the resulting substrate is better able to support even more mangrove seedlings, eventually forming a forest.

A Thriving Ecosystem Results:

And so begins the construction of an ecosystem that will not only support a fantastic diversity of species, including some that are endemic (found nowhere else) to mangrove forests, but the intricate tangle of roots also supports and provides a protective nursery for young fish that will grow into many of our reef and commercially harvested species.

But not just fish benefit from the shelter and protection from larger prey and food offered by a healthy functioning mangrove system and its thick network of prop roots. In fact, mangrove roots themselves are literally coated with life—crabs, snails, barnacles, oysters, worms, sponges, algae, anemones, shrimp and a great deal more.

And all of this life provides a massive food supply to support even more life across the food web. Wading birds such as night herons and green ibis nest and feed in mangrove forests, various mammals like crab-eating raccoons, common black hawks and even monkeys will hunt among the prop roots searching out crustaceans and kingfishers will lurk hidden on a branch waiting for the perfect fish to reveal itself from the shaded shallows.

American Pygmy Kingfisher
Mangrove Periwinkle

Even snakes, lizards and frogs can use the mangroves as their hunting grounds. And then there’s the menagerie of ants, spiders, moths, and scorpions that feed among the branches and nest in hollowed twigs above the water. And if you’re lucky, you might find a blooming orchid growing off a mangrove branch and you’re sure to not miss the termite nests nestled in the high crooks of these salt-soaked trees.  

Life Has Leaf Litter to Thank:

So among all of these species, how is all this life supported by a “simple” collection of salt-loving trees? Where does this food web begin, you might wonder? Well, the growing mangroves drop leaves throughout the year, directly adding nutrients to the water and sediment below. When you see yellow leaves sprinkled among the greenery of the red mangroves, they’re not just dead leaves, they’re a special  means of extracting the salt that they are taking in. The mangrove system will direct it all into specific individual leaves (known as the “sacrificial leaf”) which turn yellow and die, falling into the water beneath.

All this “detritis” (dead organic matter) that collects on the seafloor beneath creates a rich leaf litter layer that is full of nutrients. This is the food supply that supports the microorganisms below the water, including bacteria  and fungi. These organisms, called detritivores or decomposers are key species that assist in the decomposition process. Microbes and aquatic invertebrates feed on the decay and the young nursery fish and crustaceans in turn feed upon them. And on up the food web a multitude of species is sated, resulting in a plethora of thriving, well-fed life.

When Mangroves Are Around, Everyone Benefits:

And as if all this weren’t enough, mangroves are also crucially important in their role in cycling and storing carbon, even more so than primary rainforests, throughout tropical ecosystem, helping to reduce this greenhouse gas in our atmosphere. Mangroves also prevent coastal erosion and filter rainwater runoff.

Yet despite how essential mangrove ecosystems are to so many species, it is sadly true that, despite protection and restoration efforts, over half of the world’s mangroves have been removed for development (including for tourism, agriculture expansion, shrimp farming, marinas and roadways) in recent times.

According to the Mangrove Action Project, “We have already lost over half of the world’s original mangrove forest area, estimated at 32 million hectares (app. 80 million acres). In 2007, less than 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of mangroves remain. The current rate of mangrove loss is approximately 1% per annum (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization), or roughly 150,000 hectares (370,050 acres) of mangrove wetlands lost each year.”

Green Kingfisher

Mangroves are precious ecosystems that we can’t afford to lose. To become aware of their importance is the first step and to realize that they are declining can perhaps help move us to action to ensure their preservation through restoration and protection. By supporting organizations that work to protect mangroves and sharing with others about the essential ecosystem services these coastal forests provide, we are taking steps toward helping maintain these biodiverse treasures.  

Caterpillar of the Tetrio Sphinx Moth

One look at this magnificently showy caterpillar gives warning to any potential predator by way of its brightly patterned body: Don’t eat me, I’m toxic!

Wildlife PanamaThe frangipani hornworm, also called plumeria caterpillar, can be found crawling around on the clean, elegant branches of its namesake the plumeria tree (genus Frangipani). Oblivious to the world, this munching on the broad, fleshy leaves that form clusters at the end of otherwise bare branches.

The flowering plumeria tree might be best known for that gloriously delightful fragrance that wafts off of the famous Hawaiian flower necklaces (called “leis”) made with strings of these crisp, beautiful blossoms. While plumerias are native to various parts of the world, the white plumeria we have growing here at Tranquilo is indeed native to Central America.  

Birding Panama

The frangipani caterpillars hatch from clusters of 50-100 eggs lain under the broad, fleshy leaves of the plumeria which provide the caterpillars with an ample supply of food which they waste no time getting right to work on.

The leaves of the plumeria produce a white, toxic latex that the caterpillar is unaffected by and can sequester into its body as defense. This “aposematic” or warning coloration signifies that this creature is dangerous to eat while allowing it to go about its showy business in full view without fear of attack. Humans would be wise to leave them alone as well, not just for the fact of their toxicity, but they’re also known to bite and the small hairs on their bodies can cause irritation when inadvertently rubbed in one’s eyes.

As the tiny caterpillars methodically eat their way through leaf after leaf they can, in their efforts combined, ultimately ingest the entirety of leaves on the host tree, leaving bare sticks in their wake–in as little as a week! While this might seem as if these caterpillars are a pest and are harming the tree, this is a natural cycle created by co-evolution, the tree is not dead and the leaves and flowers will return, so don’t fear! Once the caterpillars have gorged themselves, reaching a hefty length of about six inches, they will descend to the ground below and bury themselves beneath the leaf litter.

So what comes next? From the ground emerges the Tertio Sphynx Moth, an aerodynamically formed, fast-flying moth from a family known for its ability to hover, allowing it to easily feed at flowers. What’s interesting is that, upon hatching, the moth is of course attracted to the delicious scent of the oleiferous plumeria flowers above. Well, wouldn’t you know that the tree that this caterpillar not long ago obliterated in its quest to gorge itself silly has now fooled the resulting moth into searching for nectar from a flower that produces not a lick of the sugary liquid! In fact, that intoxicating smell actually comes from scent nodules below the bud. Nonetheless, in its probing, the sphinx moth is carrying out the act of pollination that the plumeria tree needs to reproduce.

Just yet another wild and complex drama in the wonderful world that is the tropics!