Mangroves are what we call the collection of salt tolerant plants that are found along coastal areas and up rivers in the tropics and subtropics. There are 34 species of mangroves in Queensland with a total of only 69 species worldwide. Boardwalks have been installed at several locations in the Wet Tropics area and this makes a wander through the mangrove forest enjoyable and easy - but don't forget your insect repellent!

These salt tolerant plants have adapted for where they live. Each high tide, the sea floods their roots and trunks. The mangroves have a number of different systems to handle all this salt:

  • their roots can prevent its absorption by filtering it out
  • they can concentrate the salt in older leaves which fall off, taking their accumulated salt with them
  • some species have salt glands which actually excrete the salt onto the surface of the leaves where it is washed away by the rain.

Some species of mangroves are more salt tolerant than others and, because of this, there are distinct zones in a mangrove forest where the boundaries between species can easily be seen. The less salt tolerant trees are actually on the seaward side as they will be frequently washed by seawater. Salt pans are uncommon in the Wet Tropics but can be found in extremely saline situations. Salt meadows of salt tolerant grasses and fleshy herbs occur in small patches among mangroves on higher and drier areas inundated only by king tides. Small depressions form salt scalds after the sea water evaporates. Salt pans, salt meadows and salt scalds are more extensive in the drier northern and southern extremities of the Wet Tropics.


Mangrove roots

Mangroves actually enhance their own environment, in a way. The root systems are designed to trap silt - the more silt builds up, the more mangroves can grow, and trap more silt and make more muddy areas for more mangroves. But mangroves have had to adapt to all this mud. In terrestrial plants, the soil gets soaked from rain and then dries out, allowing air to reach the roots. This doesn't happen with mangroves as there is little to no oxygen available in the heavy mud, so these plants have adapted their roots to be able to get oxygen without extracting it from the mud. Their roots grow up out of the mud so that oxygen is accessed straight from the air. Many of the root types are distinctive to the species of mangrove so the plant's genus can be identified sometimes by the root type alone.


Mangrove reproduction has also adapted to be successful in a salt water environment. All mangroves flower but some don't produce seeds which fall off like other plants but rather 'live plants'. The fertilised seed develops into a seedling while still attached to the flower. The seedling is merely a long, cigar shaped 'stem' (called a propagule) and this grows for up to a year on the tree before it is ready to find a place of its own to grow. When it reaches about 20 cm (8 inches), depending on the species, it drops off and is carried by the tide. These seedlings are often washed up onto tropical beaches. If the seedling gets carried into brackish water shallows (part fresh, part salt water) and is lodged into a muddy bottom, roots are quickly sent out to take hold in the soil and the stem grows upward and produces leaves.

Of course, other species of mangrove do produce seeds which drop off and float in the water until they reach a brackish water area and their seed coat breaks away, allowing the seed to start a shoot.


Mangroves as habitat

The mangrove forest provides shelter and food for a wide range of animals, especially invertebrates and juvenile marine species. For example:

  • the algae that collects on the surface of aerial roots (pneumatophores) is food for snails and crustaceans
  • the leaves that drop off the trees are taken into crab burrows to stimulate the growth of algae eaten by the crabs
  • the flooded roots provide protection for juvenile fish, especially Great Barrier Reef species and commercial fish
  • the snails and juvenile fish are food for wading and water birds
  • the lack of large, wandering animals creates a sheltered area for a myriad of spiders and flying-foxes
  • the mud is the perfect medium to create burrows in for crabs and snapping shrimp
  • the trunks and roots which are regularly submerged by tides are a good place for bivalves (such as oysters and mussels) to attach

Mangroves are a living buffer between the land and the sea. The dense silt amassed by their root systems prevents erosion from their landward side while it also minimises erosion from wave activity on the seaward side. The forest itself bears the brunt of storm activity, allowing the coast behind it to remain protected.

So the next time you see a stretch of mangroves and think that they are boring - take a closer look. There's lots of life in there!


More information

You can read lots more detail about mangroves in the sources below:

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