Ecologically, tropical mangrove swamp forests share many similarities with salt marshes to the north (although mangroves are woody and salt marshes are generally dominated by grasses and other herbaceous vegetation). Both mangrove swamps and salt marshes occur at the interface of land and sea, protect the coast from storm damage (especially hurricanes), and serve as important nurseries for fish and invertebrates. Mangrove leaves are an important source of energy for marine food webs: fallen leaves are colonized by bacteria, fungi, and protozoans, which are in turn fed upon by zooplankton, which in turn are consumed by juvenile fish and larval invertebrates. (Kricher 1988)
Unlike most plants, Red Mangroves (like some other mangrove species) produce seeds that germinate while still attached to the parent. The Red Mangrove embryo grows into a seedling that may be 25-30 cm long before dropping off the tree into seawater. These elongated seedlings float for several days until the pointed end absorbs enough water to become too heavy to float and sinks. The waxy fruit end (from which the seedling sprouted) still floats, causing the seedling to bob along in the water with the pointed end pointed downward. While still in this state, which can last as long as a year, a few leaves may sprout from the upper end and roots may sprout from the lower end. If the young plant comes into contact with sediment, it will take root. This may occur even far from land, where ocean currents have piled up sand within a few centimeters of the water's surface.
In a year the plant may grow to a meter tall. Within three years it will produce many prop roots, which look like pendulous branches growing down into the water. If other mangoves have rooted nearby, a little forest may form in just a few years. The maze of prop roots slows the currents and tiny suspended particles sink to the bottom in a self-reinforcing process as muddy sand builds up. Mangrove leaves fall and become trapped among the roots, where they are broken down and decomposed by diverse small invertebrates, fungi, and bacteria. The resulting rich organic detritus mixes with the sand to form a rich, densely packed sediment. This is the first stage of a continuous transformation involving a succession of organisms that continue to modify the habitat in which they live. In Florida and the Caribbean, once sufficient sediment has built up, Black Mangrove (Avicennia germinans) becomes established alongside the Red Mangrove and on somewhat higher ground, several meters back from the water's edge, White Mangrove and Gray Mangrove form a mixed forest. Eventually this process of natural succession transforms what was once saltwater into dry land. (Kaplan 1988)
Ball (1980) provides a detailed historical analysis of the development and dynamics of "induced" mangrove forests that developed in response to salinization (by human-driven changes to local hydrology) of areas formerly supporting freshwater marshes along Biscayne Bay in North Miami, Florida, U.S.A.
Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) flowers year-round, but, at least in the southeastern United States, especially in spring and summer (Tiner 1993).
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