Given that I’m a graduate student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and that my research focuses on mangroves, it might come as no surprise that I was very excited to learn that there would be a new live mangrove exhibit opening this month just up the hill at Birch Aquarium! But please read on, and I will explain why this is not only exciting for someone who has dedicated his nerdiness to these plants.
I was at Birch on November 14th, opening day for the new exhibit, to talk to visitors about the mangrove ecosystem. It was fun to help promote the new exhibit and to share with the public some of what makes mangrove forests so amazing! Of course, I had to work a little to draw attention to the trees themselves, as practically everyone that walked by noticed the fish and other animals, not the mangrove roots. I wasn’t surprised; there was a great collection of beautiful and unusual fish in the tank, from the colorful dartfish and the busily burrowing goby to the shrimpfish, whose bodies are always oriented downward to help them camouflage.
When I mentioned that the fish species in the tank all live in the wild in habitat created by mangroves, people began to notice the tangle of mangrove roots and could see how these structures could provide protection to small fish from larger predators. That observation opened up the subject of the vital role mangroves play as nurseries for many species, strongly supporting many marine populations, including those that spend their adult lives offshore. Some of these fish that use mangroves nurseries as juveniles are important fisheries species as adults, highlighting a clear link between mangrove forests and human prosperity. A number of visitors were surprised to hear how many other ecosystem services mangroves provide: recycling nutrients and trapping pollutants in terrestrial run-off, stabilizing coastlines from erosion, and taking up and storing carbon from the atmosphere, to name a few. By the end of these conversations, visitors had an eye not only for the fascinating animals on display but also for the remarkable trees that provide fish an underwater home and humans a suite of other important services.
The Hall of Fishes at Birch Aquarium displays many interesting and vital marine habitats from the Pacific Coast of North America. The new mangrove forest exhibit is an excellent addition. It provides visitors a glimpse into a world rich in biodiversity created by a unique tree that bridges the divide between land and sea. In another sense, mangroves can also be a bridge that connects humans to nature, as they provide an exceptional example of the ways in which healthy ecosystems perform essential services for humans, as well as for other organisms. Given the many threats to mangrove forests and other coastal ecosystems around the world, I am glad to know that more people are learning about the indispensable roles that they play.
If I have succeeded at all in convincing you that mangrove forests are worth seeing, come take a look yourself at this unique ecosystem, on display at Birch Aquarium in La Jolla!
Photos taken by Lisa Gilfillan
PhD student, SIO
Matthew Costa is a Regents Fellow 2013-4 and NSF Graduate Research Fellow 2014-present, and is pursuing a Ph.D. in biological oceanography as part of the Gulf of California Marine Program. He is interested in community ecology, biodiversity and functional diversity, and coastal ecosystem processes and services. His research focuses on carbon storage in sediments of the mangrove forests in the southern Gulf of California. Prior to study at SIO, he completed a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University studying mangrove species zonation in Bermuda.