Walking with Mangroves

This week’s blog is written by Wulfgar, a monthly blog correspondent and Bass and Drummers Alumni.  Beginning in ancient times, and taking us all the way up to present day, he writes about mangrove forests.  Read on to discover more about these unique ecosystems!

Wulfgar R.

When I was but a wee lad I fell in love with this TV show called “Walking with Beasts” aired by BBC. It had everything a young science-minded boy could ask for: prehistoric animals, exotic locations, and narration by Kenneth Branagh. If you haven’t seen it and are at all interested in any of the aforementioned qualities I highly recommend you look it up. There was one episode that caught my eye, and what interested me so much is its setting. It is a dense, lush mangrove swamp formed in an estuary in what will become the Sahara desert. Woven throughout are salt water channels leading out to the vast ocean. It was exotic, it was beautiful and it provided a dramatic backdrop for which the story to take place. An ancient predatory whale (Basilosaurus), driven to the coast by starvation, hunts futile until it encounters the early amphibious ancestor of the elephant (Moeritherium). As a Moeritherium finds itself stranded on a small strip of sand in the mangrove forest the Basilosaurus encircles it, waiting for the Moeritherium to return to the channels in hopes of escape. There is a catch though, in the tidal waters the sand would soon be engulfed by the ocean’s rising tide- dooming the Moeritherium to the crushing jaws of the Basilosaurus. It adds drama to the benign hunting of the whale. It creates tension and plot. The setting is the only reason the story continues. It forces the watcher to choose who they would like to live, the desperate Basilosaurus; on the brink of extinction, unable to change with the tide; or the Hippo-like Moeritherium; a peaceful grazer, caught like a mouse in a trap. And just like how the setting plays an integral role in the lives of the Basilosaurus and Moeritherium, so too does it play an integral role in our lives, and the lives of other organisms.

Mangrove forests store a disproportionately large amount of carbon when compared to any other ecosystem on the planet, they place nutrients back into the soil, and they reduce the impact of coastal storms, and root the soil in place. As the name implies a Mangrove forest is a tidal swamp found in tropical areas on the coasts of landmasses. The most striking features of the highly evolved mangrove tree are its adaptability to survive in the low oxygen environment of coastal salt water and the tangled mass of roots that is hallmark of the ecosystem. It provides a home for an extraordinary amount of biodiversity and is unlike any other biological community in the world. Of all their functions, ranked highest is the swamp’s ability to absorb massive amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere and store it away. The mangrove forests cleverly stores carbon in both living and dead biomass. When it comes to living biomass per acre, the mangrove forests are unrivaled. When compared to the poster child of massive amounts of biomass, the rainforest, the mangrove swamp has almost double the living biomass of the tropical rainforest and is “celebrated as one of the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and it is believed that about 10% of what they produce also gets sequestered away in the soil” (Mark Spalding). The carbon is stored most commonly away in peat, a dead biomass. While in most peat forests its decomposition produces high levels of methane, the salinity in a mangrove forest soil keeps microbial processes at bay. Valuable to both the utilitarian and biocentric conservation philosophies, mangrove swamps are the most effective form of ecosystem to impact carbon in the atmosphere, and provide specialized niches for organism seen nowhere else in the world. Of course mangrove forests are not the be-all end-all for reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere, but if I was a betting man, which I am, I would put some of my money on the Mangrove Forests.


Photo Credit: Peyri Herrera via Flickr creative commons- original photo can be found by clicking here.

Works Cited
Paterson, Nigel, director. Walking with Beasts. 2001.
Spalding, Mark, et al. “Science: Mangrove Forests as Incredible Carbon Stores.” Cool Green Science, 24 May 2017, blog.nature.org/science/2013/10/11/new-science-mangrove-forests-carbon-store-map/.
US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What Is a Mangrove Forest?” NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 3 June 2009, oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/mangroves.html.
“What Is a Mangrove?” EcoLogic Development Fund, www.ecologic.org/actions-issues/about-the-region/what-is-a-mangrove/.