The iconic mangroves forest of Bonaire provide the perfect opportunity for visitors and locals alike to escape the Caribbean heat. Towering mangrove trees provide a dense canopy ready to be explored. In addition to their unparalleled beauty, these forest provide a wide range of ecosystem services to the island. Mangrove forests provide important habitat, breeding and hunting grounds for a number of keystone and regionally protected species of birds and fish, Furthermore, mangroves are capable of filtering the water, improving overall water quality for neighboring habitats such as seagrass beds and coral reefs. These forests also provide a vital line of coastal defense against storm surges, waves and rising sea levels. Lastly, mangroves provide a unique area for recreation and exploration, adding to the quality of life for locals and providing and avenue for tourism to support the local economy.
Uses of mangroves
Mangroves have been highly managed ecosystems since the dawn of time. Until the advent of synthetic lines, the roots of the red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) were routinely used to strengthen natural fiber lines used in fishing. Traditionally they were used much more intensively than today, for example in boat building and basket weaving as well as to produce charcoal.
In fact, looking beyond the mud and the mosquitoes, mangroves are fascinating ecosystems. They form dense, often impenetrable forests, choked with tangled prop roots and bathed in mud. Mangroves have evolved the amazing ability to thrive under extremely harsh conditions. Not only can they tolerate high levels of salt but they are also able to cope with more or less constantly waterlogged soil. Needless to say, there are not many of them; in fact, there are only 3 species found here on Bonaire.
Red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) survive by breathing through lenticels (pores) in their prop roots whilst black mangroves (Avecennia germinans) send up a field of pneumatophores (snorkel roots) around the trunk of the tree through which they breath. White mangroves (Laguncularia racemosa) use a combination of these two strategies, and are typically found more inland growing adjacent to dry tropical forests.
All species of mangrove extrude salt through their leaves, which is why the leaves glisten in sunlight. Living as they do, at the interface between land and water, mangroves provide a valuable service in protecting land from the power of the sea, an attribute gaining in significance as global warming threatens to incite harsher storms and rising sea levels.
In addition to resident plants and animals like killifish, tarpon (Megalops atlanticus), snook (Centropomus undecimalis), and mangrove snapper (Lutjanus griseus), mangroves provide a safe haven for nearly every kind of reef fish and many invertebrates at some time during their life.
Snorkeling through mangroves is like visiting the reef in miniature. The young of cardinalfish (Apogonidae), snapper (Lutjanidae), grouper (Serranidae), wrasse (Labridae), pufferfish (Tetradontidae), boxfish (Ostraciidae), butterflyfish (Chaetodontidae), damselfish (Pomacentridae), scorpionfish (Scorpaenidae) and grunts (Haemulidae) all can be found milling around mangroves, darting in and out of the roots. Some species such as the commercially important spiny lobster (Panulirus sp) use the mangrove too as spawning grounds. In all, between 60 and 80 different species of fish can routinely be found in mangroves.
Mangrove prop roots form veritable oases of life. The roots themselves are smothered in encrusting life including mangrove oysters and barnacles, mussels and anemones, sponges, tunicates, stinging hydroids and worms.
Crabs are a ubiquitous feature of mangrove ecosystems. Grapsid crabs live underwater, emerging at low water to feast on the mangrove forest floor. They are herbivores, gobbling up detritus, leaves and seedlings. Fiddler crabs also forage on the mud but they are deposit feeders, scooping up sediment and sifting through it for edible particles. The males have a huge, brightly colored claw which is useless for feeding but vital when defending a territory or attracting a mate.
Above water prop roots often provide foundational structure for a number of bird nests, particularly the green heron (Butorides virescens) who favors hunting for fish within the mangrove channels. Even green iguanas (Iguana iguana) can be found using these roots to soak up the warm Caribbean sun.