Ecological Importance

Printable Info Sheet

Mangrove trees are an indigenous species to Florida and a major contributor to the state's marine environment. The mangrove tree is a halophyte, a plant that thrives in salty conditions. It has the ability to grow where no other tree can, thereby making significant contributions that benefit the environment. Their coverage of coastal shorelines and wetlands provides many diverse species of birds, mammals, crustacea, and fish a unique, irreplaceable habitat. Mangroves preserve water quality and reduce pollution by filtering suspended material and assimilating dissolved nutrients.

The tree is the foundation in a complex marine food chain and the detrital food cycle. The detrital food cycle was discovered by two biologists from the University of Miami, Eric Heald & William Odum, in 1969. As mangrove leaves drop into tidal waters they are colonized within a few hours by marine fungi and bacteria that convert difficult to digest carbon compounds into nitrogen rich detritus material. The resulting pieces covered with microorganisms become food for the smallest animals such as worms, snails, shrimp, mollusks, mussels, barnacles, clams, oysters, and the larger commercially important striped mullet. These detritus eaters are food for carnivores including crabs and fish, subsequently birds and game fish follow the food chain, culminating with man. Many of these species, whose continued existence depends on thriving mangroves, are endangered or threatened. It has been estimated that 75% of the game fish and 90% of the commercial species in south Florida rely on the mangrove system. The value of red mangrove prop root habitat for a variety of fishes and invertebrates has been quantitatively documented. Data suggest that the prop root environment may be equally or more important to juveniles than are sea grass beds, on a comparable area basis. Discovery of the importance of mangroves in the marine food chain dramatically changed the respective governmental regulation of coastal land use and development.

The beneficial effects mangroves have on the marine ecology are summarized as follows :

  • Basis of a complex marine food chain.
  • Creation of breeding habitat.
  • Establishment of restrictive impounds that offer protection for maturing offspring.
  • Filtering and assimilating pollutants from upland run-off.
  • Stabilization of bottom sediments.
  • Water quality improvements.
  • Protection of shorelines from erosion.
Since mangroves grow along the coastlines, lagoons, and estuaries of the state, their domain has been significantly reduced by land reclamation and bulkheading of waterfront property for development. In addition, large concentrations of mangroves were isolated from lagoon waters in the 1950's, by the construction of dikes that established impounds for mosquito control. These impounds continue to be used for controlling mosquito populations through the managed flooding of wetlands during the summer months when tidal waters are low and insect reproductive activity is high.

The dikes now prevent the free flow of water and movement of organisms between the mangroves and intracoastal waters, thereby denying the marine ecology the full benefits of mangrove wetlands.

Development and population growth will continue to have a negative impact on mangrove habitat necessary to maintain commercial and recreational fisheries. Based on analysis of aerial photos from the 1940's to the 1980's, one study of the Indian River from Sebastian Inlet south to Vero Beach, Florida, documented an 86 percent decline in the availability of mangrove habitat to fisheries over the forty year period.

Escalating pressure on mangrove populations and increasing quantities of pollutants reaching coastal and intracoastal waters has brought new interest in the importance of mangroves to a healthy marine ecology. As natural members of the estuary system, mangroves help mitigate the environmentally adverse effects of development and pollution.

Habitat Dynamics   |   Home Page is an Citizen Sector Organization (CSO) providing methodology and technology in mangrove afforestation, restoration and habitat creation. The organization contributes to solutions for poverty, hunger, environmental degradation and pollution.
Research was undertaken to develop and define a methodology for establishing self-sustaining, mangrove-stabilized shorelines.
Photos and video clips illustrate shoreline stabilization, habitat creation and restoration including plant development stages (videos require RealPlayer software). Information on habitat dynamics and the ecological importance of mangroves is provided with links to mangrove projects. A brief summary of the project is given in Spanish.