When someone thinks of southern Florida, they might think of beautiful, vast beaches and harsh, sunny weather – but my research often takes me to a habitat that, though not as picturesque to most, is vitally more important. It’s no secret that Mangrove Saltmarsh Snakes (Nerodia clarkii compressicauda) are one of my favorite study organisms, but the Mangrove swamp habitats they inhabit are worthy of significant attention as well.
I was reminded of mangroves as plants (and a “vegetative habitat,” as we ecologists call them) when talking with a friend, Heather Stewart, who is working on her PhD with mangroves in Panama and the United States. They’re an interesting and extremely beneficial plant group. They keep to the southern Florida coast because they are relatively cold-intolerant (keeping them south) and relatively poor competitors when compared to our freshwater swampy trees like cypress (keeping them to the salty zones where cypress can’t establish.) But, for a heat-loving, poorly competing group of organisms, Mangroves do wonderfully in the high-disturbance wild-west of the world’s tropical coastlines.
That’s great and all, but what have mangroves ever done for us? Wouldn’t southern Florida be better with more beach and less mangrove? Not a chance!
Of course, given Irma’s track in the Caribbean and Florida, perhaps the most timely benefit of mangroves is the benefit they provide during catastrophic events. Mangroves can provide significant protection from storm surge and erosion – especially one of our most common mangroves in Florida, the Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle). Beyond flood protection and erosion protection during catastrophic events, mangroves provide day-to-day erosion protection from the tides and waves that can wreak havoc on our beaches.
Not only do they protect us from erosion – they can make erosion work backward. Mangroves, especially our friendly neighborhood Red Mangroves, can trap sediments in their roots and, over time, build entirely new islands – many of the islands in Florida Bay and the keys can trace their history back to a few helpful Rhizophora.
Then, of course, Mangroves provide great habitat for other organisms – whether that be fish, epifauna (stuff that lives on the mangrove roots), or even the friendly Mangrove Saltmarsh Snake – mangroves provide an enormous ecological benefit. That’s some of the research my friend Heather is working on – what other living things are calling the mangroves home. Mangroves give a sizable economic benefit as well: much of the sports fishery is supported in some way by mangrove swamp.
So, next time you’re in southern Florida or the tropics, take some time to appreciate the fertile, protective wonderful mangrove swamp. Its secrets are still being probed and its beauties open to anyone willing to visit and invest their time in it.