If you’ve spent time at the southern coast of Florida, you may have noticed strange-looking forests of trees and shrubs at the water’s edge. These are mangrove forests. The United States has around 1,500 square miles of mangrove forests. Almost all of these are located at the southern Florida coast.
Unlike indoor plants that are purely decorative, Mangroves have plenty of purposes and are of great importance to Florida’s natural ecosystem. Since the coast is normally an uninhabitable area for trees, naturally this can encourage a variety of questions from Florida natives and non-natives alike. You may be asking, why are they able to survive in these areas? What are the purposes that make them so important?
In this article, we will answer these questions and more. By the end, you’ll understand why Florida mangroves are critical to the Florida ecosystem, and why they need to be preserved. Keep reading to find out more about these majestic trees, their importance, the troubles they are currently facing, plus what we can do to help.
What Are Mangroves?
Mangroves are trees or shrubs that grow in salt water along the coastline. While it may be unusual that these trees grow in saltwater, they are actually able to derive fresh water from where they are planted. Some of the mangroves are able to secrete excess salt through their leaves. Others block the salt at the roots.
The low-oxygen soil and slow current of water allow sediments to build up, thus providing a suitable home for the mangrove trees. Since mangroves cannot tolerate cold temperatures, they grow only in tropical or subtropical regions, just like the south of Florida.
You can identify mangroves not just by where they live, but by the dense system of prop roots exposed above the water’s edge. This makes it look like the trees are standing on stilts. Prop roots have also given the mangrove the nickname “the walking tree”.
The tangled prop roots provide a means for the mangroves to survive getting flooded. This happens at least twice a day, with the rising and falling of the tides. These roots are also instrumental in slowing the movement of tidal waters. This makes the sediments settle out of the water and build up the muddy bottom nicely.
Are All Mangrove Trees Related?
It’s interesting to note that the various species of mangroves are not really closely related to each other. Although, they all have the capacity to grow in unlikely terrain. There are around 54 species of true mangroves that belong to 16 different families.
In Florida, the most well-known mangrove is probably the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). It is easily identifiable by its reddish prop roots.
Black mangroves (Avicennia germinans) are found in slightly higher elevations from the red mangrove. You can identify them by the many finger-like projections, called pneumatophores, that stick out from the soil around the tree’s trunk.
Lastly, white mangroves (Laguncularia racemosa) are found even further upland from red and black mangroves. It has no visible aerial root systems. You can identify the white mangrove by their leaves: they are a light yellow-green color, elliptical in shape, and two have distinct glands at the base of the leaf blade.
Beyond this, the term “mangrove” is also used to refer to a mangrove community of trees and shrubs that live along the shoreline. This also creates a place for different plants and animals to call home, all encompassed by the name “mangrove”.
The different marine organisms that attach themselves to mangrove roots also help the mangroves by filtering water and trapping nutrients for creatures living among the mangroves to enjoy.
Why Are Mangroves Important?
Now that you know what mangrove trees are, it’s time to learn what value they give to the world. There are several different reasons as to why mangrove forests are important. They play a significant role in their ecosystem and beyond. Let’s explore this further.
They Provide Shelter
As we have previously learned, mangroves have a tangled root system. This creates a great home for significant amounts of biodiversity. The roots form a special underwater habitat. Fish and other organisms, like snails and shellfish, flock to for food and shelter. It provides a safe place for nurseries to form for fish of varying sizes.
This keeps them away from predators, allowing them to breed and exist safely. Beyond this, mangroves also make a fantastic place for insects, monkeys, migratory birds, and sea turtles to call home. Many of the species that find themselves seeking shelter in mangrove forests are endangered; mangroves help to sustain their lives in ways that would not normally be possible.
They Keep Water Clean
Mangroves also help to clean the waters in and around their forests. The dense system of roots traps and filters phosphates, nitrates, and other pollutants. This helps to keep the water quality pure, clear, and healthy. Because they are able to prevent pollutants from contaminating the waters downstream, mangroves help save coral reefs and seagrass beds.
They help keep the ocean and nearby water sources clean for everyone. Mangroves also absorb nutrients from runoff, helping prevent harmful algal blooms offshore. This is quite a big problem in South Florida, so we’re glad mangroves are doing their part!
They Create Livelihood
Mangroves help to create a livelihood for many different kinds of people. The wood from the trees is used in providing fuel and rot-resistant, hardy materials for construction. Many people also use the leaves of mangrove trees as fodder for their animals, helping to sustain local agricultural efforts.
This goes double for the different fishing communities that use mangrove forests as a steady supply of fish and shellfish. It’s also a common practice around the world to use the plant extracts medicinally; preliminary studies have shown they have an antibacterial effect against pathogenic bacterial strains.
Ecotourism is also a factor in what makes mangrove forests important. This helps to create a good income for those in the area. Sports fishing, birdwatching, and kayaking are all great activities to partake in around the mangrove trees.
It also helps that mangrove forests are often located near coral reefs and along sandy beaches. Provided that ecotourism is done sustainably, it can be a great incentive to preserve mangrove trees and continue creating revenue for those who run these businesses.
They Protect People
Mangroves also have a special role in keeping people safe. Coastal areas benefit from mangrove forests as they protect against erosion, flooding, and hurricanes. Their root systems act as a natural buffer against storm surges and rising tides. This is especially helpful in the fight against climate change. Adding to this, mangroves are part of blue carbon ecosystems.
These ecosystems are up to 10 times more effective in absorbing and storing carbon versus terrestrial ecosystems. How mangroves do this is by capturing carbon dioxide emissions and other harmful greenhouse gases. They then store these gases in the carbon-rich soil beneath them. This helps keep the atmosphere cleaner, which is great news for all of us.
What Endangers Mangrove Forests?
Unfortunately, mangrove forests everywhere are threatened, including the ones in Florida. Studies have shown that over the last one hundred years, Tampa Bay has lost around 44% of its coastal wetlands acreage, including mangroves and salt marshes. Lake Worth has also experienced a changing system in its mangroves; over 87% of its mangrove acreage has been lost in the last 40 years alone!
While it’s true that natural degradation of mangrove forests definitely occurs, the majority of mangrove forest loss is a direct result of human activity. Development projects, water pollution, dredging, filling, aquaculture, and deforestation all impact the disappearance of mangrove forests both in Florida and all over the world. This also has a negative impact on the ecosystems housed in the roots of mangroves. Since many of the creatures lose their homes, their lives are also endangered.
When mangrove forests are destroyed, they release the massive amounts of carbon dioxide they have been holding onto in their root system. This contributes negatively to climate change. Moreover, as the temperatures climb worldwide, so do the rising sea waters.
While mangrove forests are normally able to migrate inland, human development has prevented them from doing this. Mud build-up is also necessary to help the transition. However, in many parts of the world, the waters are rising faster than mud can build up. With the change of the climate also comes an increase in hurricanes and other storms that can severely damage sparse mangrove habitats.
What Can We Do to Help?
It goes without saying that there are plenty of factors led by human impact that put these important forests in danger. Some studies show that by the end of the 20th century, over 50% of the world’s mangroves had been destroyed. Today, half of that number remains in poor condition. Given their great significance to humans and animals alike, it is of utmost importance that mangrove forests be revitalized. There are many different ways to help this cause.
Information is imperative to any conservation effort. Equipping yourself with knowledge of mangroves and why they are so important is the first step in taking action. Since you have read this article, you are already on your way to helping South Florida restore its mangrove forests.
Spreading awareness among your loved ones can also really help to further the cause. We encourage you to keep reading about mangroves and share the information with people who matter to you. This way, everybody can be involved in preserving these incredible trees.
Get in Touch
The next step is to get in touch with organizations that work towards the conservation of mangrove forests. By doing this, you’ll be able to forge relationships with people who are passionate about protecting our environment. This will in turn, help you help the mangroves.
There are many such organizations that exist to aid this cause. One organization is the Grove Project, established by a teenager in 2019, to help promote the preservation of mangroves. They work to promote the beauty of mangrove forests. Their goal is to show people what we could be losing if we do not act immediately.
Get to Work
Once you have established yourself in a local organization, you can start getting to work! Getting involved in replanting and revitalizing mangrove forests means being at the heart of the action. Get your family and friends involved and make a day–or several!– of working at the coastline to preserve these natural wonders.
Less directly, there are many other things that you can do to make sure that mangrove forests everywhere are protected. You can look for sustainable options over shrimp and other food commercially farmed from mangrove areas. Support local organizations and government projects with your monetary aid and by spreading the word to interested parties.
Lastly, do what you can to reduce your carbon footprint. Living more sustainably and remembering to reuse and recycle can really help make a difference in the mangroves’ future.
We hope that this article has helped you understand the real importance of mangroves in both Southern Florida and across the world. Mangroves have such a great impact on the lives of all the living things they touch. Securing the mangroves’ future also secures our future, given all that they do to protect us.
As the temperature rises, remember to keep making eco-friendly choices and be involved wherever you can. We only have one world to live in, so it’s important to keep that world alive. Let’s start with the mangroves!