On one of our days in Palo Verde, we hopped on the bus for a two-hour bumpy ride to a mangrove. Mangroves have been the common example of environmental services used in my biology and climate change classes in high school and college. I always had difficulty comprehending mangroves’ importance since I had never seen them in person. A field trip that far away seemed a little perplexing considering we were in the midst of designing our independent projects, but seeing the mangroves definitely improved my understanding and appreciation for them.
Mangroves are critical habitat for a variety of arthropods, fish, and reptiles. Arthropods specialized in eating the salty leaves of the mangrove trees are their main herbivores. Mangroves serve as a hiding place for immature fish away from their predators. They also provide a habitat and food for a unique set of snakes, crocodilians, turtles, and birds either passing through or inhabiting the area permanently.
Mangroves also play a critical role in mitigating climate change and its effects. In terms of carbon sequestration, mangroves take up and store more carbon than tropical ocean phytoplankton in a given area. Mangroves also serve as buffers to tropical storms, which are increasing in intensity and frequency with climate change.
Mangroves buffer aquatic systems against human land use. They hold soil in place, preventing it from flowing into rivers and increasing turbidity. Mangrove trees filter through polluted water flowing to the river and also trap trash, preventing it from going into the ocean.
These are just three of the many services mangroves provide. Unfortunately, they are undervalued ecosystems. Local communities do not like the smell of decomposition and the mosquitoes they harbor. For this reason, they overexploit mangroves for charcoal and tannins and convert them to aquaculture areas. Mangroves also sit near the shore, so coastline development has led to deforestation. Hiking through the mangroves and learning how its system works gave me a unique perspective on its value and the importance of conserving them in tropical areas, especially as species extinctions, climate change, and human land use worsens.
Ariek Barakat Norford, Franklin and Marshall College