Mangroves Are Nurseries for Reef Fish, Study Finds

John Roach
for National Geographic News
February 4, 2004

Mangroves—forests of tropical trees and shrubs rooted in saltwater sediments between the coast and the sea—are crucial nurseries for coral reef fish, according to a new study.

The finding highlights the importance of the rapidly dwindling habitats to reef communities.

"Beyond showing they are important, we showed they are much more important than even assumed," said Peter Mumby, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter, England.

Mumby and his colleagues found that mangroves serve as a vital, intermediate nursery as coral reef fish journey from their cribs in seagrass beds to the large coral reef ecosystems that fringe coastal communities.

Coral reef fish were up to twice as abundant on reefs adjacent to mangrove forests compared to reefs that weren't, researchers found. They also learned at least one species, the rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia), depends on mangroves for its very survival.

The study will appear in tomorrow's issue of the science journal Nature and was supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.

Mangrove Conservation

Mumby and his colleagues believe that conservation efforts are necessary to protect connected corridors of mangroves, seagrass beds, and coral reefs to maintain the resiliency of coral reef ecosystems—and their productivity for fisheries.

Ivan Valiela, a marine biologist with Boston University's Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, agrees. He said the research reinforces the concept that individual ecological units—mangroves, reefs, land—are crucially intertwined.

"Maintenance of these important environments therefore has to be done from a wider perspective," he said. "This whole set of concepts bears on the issue of setting up coastal reserves, national parks, maintaining commercial stocks, and a host of other management issues."

Nursery School

Mangrove forests are home to an abundance of wildlife. Above water, butterflies, birds, and mosquitoes zip around the canopy. Snakes, crocodiles, and crabs scurry and swim about the forest floor. And in India, Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris) laze in forest branches.

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