Many people even here in Bocas dismiss mangrove forests as swampy, smelly wastelands waiting to be developed. However, ecologists and a growing number of tourists have come to value them as the remarkably diverse and important ecosystems they are. Mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs work as a single system that keeps coastal zones healthy. Mangroves provide essential habitat for thousands of species.. They also stabilize shorelines, preventing erosion and protecting the land — and the people who live there — from waves and storms.
Keystone of a coastal ecosystem
Mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs are often found together and work in concert. The trees trap sediment and pollutants that would otherwise flow out to sea. Seagrass beds provide a further barrier to silt and mud that could smother the reefs. In return, the reefs protect the seagrass beds and mangroves from strong ocean waves.
Mangroves provide ideal breeding grounds for much of the world's fish, shrimp, crabs, and other shellfish. Many fish species, such as barracuda, tarpon, and snook, find shelter among the mangrove roots as juveniles, head out to forage in the seagrass beds as they grow, and move into the open ocean as adults. An estimated 75 percent of commercially caught fish spend some time in the mangroves or depend on food webs that can be traced back to these coastal forests.
Feeding the bioluminescence
Mangrove trees are prolific shedders of leaves, which get caught in the roots where they slowly decompose. As the leaves decay, they release a sulfuric odor, but more importantly, they provide nutrients for many organisms... including dinoflagellates which are responsible for bioluminescence, Without the mangrove forest, there could be no bioluminescence!
Mangroves protect both the saltwater and the freshwater ecosystems they straddle. The mangroves' complex root systems filter nitrates and phosphates that rivers and streams carry to the sea. They also keep seawater from encroaching on inland waterways.
A stable coastline
Mangrove roots collect the silt and sediment that tides carry in and rivers carry out towards the sea. By holding the soil in place, the trees stabilize shorelines against erosion. Seedlings that take root on sandbars help stabilize the sandbars over time and may eventually create small islands.
So the next time you find yourself grimacing at the sulfuric smell of the mangroves, remember, this ecosystem could not exist without them!
Source: American Museum of Natural History