- Issue: Winter 2016
Anatomy of a Mangrove Tree
Mangroves are of two worlds. Found along about two-thirds of the planet’s tropical coastlines, these semi-aquatic plants constitute some of the most dynamic and biologically complex ecosystems on Earth. Like their roots, mangrove forests form intricate networks that bridge life between land and sea. And with their amazing capacity to store carbon, they might be one of nature’s best defenses against a changing climate. But they’re disappearing far too fast. Click on a part of the tree to learn more.
While many plants struggle to survive in too-salty environments, mangroves have an unusual ability to flourish in saline, oxygen-poor soil. Their roots can filter out as much as 90% of salt from seawater, and their thick, waxy leaves store and seal in fresh water.
Mangrove forests are important nesting and migratory sites for hundreds of bird species, as well as home to a wide array of reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. In Madagascar, they provide vital habitat for the critically endangered Madagascar fish-eagle, one of the world’s rarest birds of prey.
Prop roots make mangroves appear as though they’re on stilts. But those roots do serious business: They sequester carbon, stabilize shorelines with trapped sediment, and buffer coasts against erosion from storm waves, tides, and sea-level rise.
Mangroves act as protective breeding grounds and nurseries for important species of fish, crustaceans, mollusks, and more. For thousands of coastal communities, these biodiverse fisheries offer an essential source of daily protein.
With about 60 species in the mangrove family, these plants are an integral part of coastal, terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems. Unfortunately, more than 35% of the world’s mangroves are already gone, cleared for agriculture or industry, or harvested for timber.
COAST TO COAST
Millions of people worldwide depend on coastal ecosystems for food and livelihoods. Mangroves keep these systems healthy, protecting resources—from fisheries to firewood—that support human populations.
The Sundarbans, or “beautiful forest” in the Bengali language, is the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem. Home to 4 million people in India and Bangladesh, the Sundarbans also harbor many rare and threatened species, including tigers that swim from mangrove island to mangrove island to hunt prey.
Protecting mangrove forests would pack a big punch in the fight against climate change: They’re among the most carbon-rich habitats on Earth, able to store carbon for hundreds—even thousands—of years. Some studies estimate that mangrove forests are up to four times more effective than tropical rain forests at sequestering carbon.
WWF is working with various partners, including fisheries and coastal communities, to promote mangrove conservation worldwide. In Pakistan, for example, WWF is helping to restore mangrove forests while encouraging improved sustainable fishing practices, and we have projects in the Sundarbans (India), Coastal East Africa, Mexico, Madagascar, Colombia, and Belize.