Into the Mangal

When we think of South Florida, even those of us who grew up here, I bet this is what we usually picture: the postcard snap-shot of an arching coconut palm framed by a rosy sunset on a wide, sandy beach. Sorry dude, you got the wrong picture.

First of all, that arching coconut palm that seems to symbolize Miami so elegantly…happens to be an import. The buoyant coconuts probably floated over from Malaysia centuries ago. And those broad, sandy beaches…..products of human engineering. So if we took away the coconut palms and all of the sandy beaches sprinkled with sun-burnt tourists, what would the South Florida coast look like in its raw, natural form?

American Croc

Instead of beaches and buildings, the tip of the state was fringed with dense jungles. Instead of graceful coconut palms, the coast was a tangle of mangrove forests…a mangal, as it is called. Wild Florida may not have fit into the contemporary human definition of a sanitized, “beautiful” landscape, but it was a place that was exploding with life.

Mangroves are incredibly important to the health of our coastal regions and beyond. The word “mangrove” has been traced back to the Portuguese (mangue) and Spanish (mangle), whose respective words for the salt-tolerant plants were both borrowed from the Taino Indians. The Tainos, who inhabited the islands of the Bahamas, Lesser Antilles, and Greater Antilles, were then essentially wiped out by these European invaders. We have been left with the word “mangrove,” a ghostly remnant of a once thriving culture. Ironically, we have also been wiping out the trees represented by that word.

 

the large, supportive "prop roots" of a red mangrove tree

Red mangroves with their iconic, looping prop roots are nursery grounds for vast amounts of life. Their branches are often laden with the nests of herons, egrets and anhinga. These noisy rookeries are full of action during the winter months.

Red mangroves are uniquely equipped to venture out into shallow waters. They sometimes appear to be ocean bound in mid-stride, almost “wading out to sea” on their prop-roots. Where submerged, prop-roots become safe havens for marine life, harboring schooling fish and providing structures for sponges, anemones, barnacles and other invertebrates to latch onto. It’s not surprising that these submerged roots also become favorite spawning and nursery zones for many fish. Not only do they have shelter, but also plenty of food. The submerged, decaying remnants of discarded mangrove leaves form the base of the food-web here. When mature enough, a large percentage of these fish will spend their adult lives on the coral reefs and in the open ocean.

inside a tunnel of dwarf red mangroves on the Turner River

sawfish

As you might imagine, the same waters that support huge communities of developing marine life also attract predators. Skulking in shadows of the mangroves and cloaked by the murky waters lurk some of the planet’s most efficient killers. Many of these beasts have thrived since the age of the dinosaurs. The American crocodile is extremely rare in North America, but frequents these mangrove estuaries. Bull-sharks are thick as thieves and always on the prowl. Lemon sharks are equally common and are known for giving live-birth in the mangroves. The pre-historic saw-fish looks like a type of shark, but is actually a type of ray. His bizarre, spiked snout is covered with electromagnetic sensors that allow him to locate prey in the muddy, nutrient-rich water. He wields his saw-toothed bill like a barbarian axe, swinging it blindly back and forth. Nearby fish better give this monster a wide berth.

Our coastal mangroves aren’t just a bunch of tangly eye-sores that block our view of the sunset. They harbor, feed and protect much of the South Florida wildlife that we take for granted. Maybe they don’t compliment the flow of a neatly manicured lawn like a coconut palm, but trust me, we need them around. Yeah, beaches and ocean-front homes are nice, but let’s make an effort to stop “mangling” our mangroves forests.

 

Now this is what I call fun!

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