Mingling with the Mangroves
Mangroves are a collection of trees and shrubs that live in the coastal intertidal region, and are extremely important for the biodiversity of that place.
Tanishka had mixed feelings one morning when her parents told her that they would be visiting a mangrove forest near Ratnagiri. It didn’t seem very exciting to her as it wasn’t like the other forests where she could go deep within and spot the wild denizens. They would only be moving around its peripheries it would be next to impossible to walk inside on the swampy mud covered in many places with water. But the prospect of navigating the creek by boat cheered her.
Once their boat began slicing its way through the creek, however, Tanishka’s spirits soared. She was thrilled to see silvery fish flying out of the water all around them and diving in once again after tracing an arch. The flying fish used their expanded fins as wings.
Their boat soon drew close to the dense forest that painted rather an eerie picture. Tanishka wondered which creatures lived within. The mangroves, she was told, were extremely hardy, being able to with stand the strongly saline, constantly moving water between the low and hightide region. The ground on which the trees stood was very soft and water-logged, deplete of air. But the trees were well adapted.
Some of them had pencil-sharp peg-like breathing roots growing out of the ground. They were the ‘pneumatophores’ – a big word that Tanishka learnt that day. The pegs were a peculiarity of the Grey Mangroves whose leaves appeared greyish.
Further down there was a grove of trees with stilt like roots that formed a tangled mass and helped the trees to stand firm inspite of the swampy mud. These belonged to the Red Mangroves that had reddish bark. Still further they were fascinated to see trees that had roots bending at right-angles as if they were legs of old men bent at the knees. These grew out of the Orange Mangroves whose young twigs were orange in color. Tanishka also noticed that the mangrove leaves were covered with white salt crystals that shone in the sun. This was the excess salt which the plant exuded from the saline water absorbed by their roots.
Whilst their boat was meandering through the canals amongst the mangroves they heard a sudden “plop” and Tanishka jumped. A new baby plant which was weighted down by a javelin-like structure had fallen straight into the wet mud below and got anchored firmly. It would grow into another mangrove tree. “These are the propagules which help the mangroves produce new plants,” informed their guide.
“Mangrove seeds germinate while they are still on the parent plant and produce these propagules. Their weight ensures that they fall straight into the soft ground below and that is how the young plant gets anchored. Without the propagule the seed would stand no chance of growing into a sapling as it would be tossed about by the moving tides.”Tanishka looked up and was fascinated to see several propagules dangling from the tree like green candles.
But what tickled her to bits was the sight of scores of little red crabs waving one of their claws which was abnormally large. It was as though they were welcoming Tanishka and her entourage to the mangrove forest. They were the Fiddler Crabs.
As if that was not all, added to this comical sight were the quaint little muds kippers that used their large pectoral fins to jump and leap about on the swampy mud bank. They looked at the inmates of the boat with eyes that bulged like those of frogs. Their jowls too appeared exceptionally inflated as if they had over stuffed their mouths with food.
“They have filled their jowls with water,” explained their guide, “to prevent themselves from drying up while they are out of water”. These quaint fishes were actually the predecessors of the amphibians and evolved after hundreds ofy ears into frogs and toads. Tanishka noticed that the water near the mangroves was rather calm, not as choppy as the sea. This is why, she learnt, mangroves are ideal nurseries where young fish are born.
Time passed quickly in this strange wonderland and the tide began ebbing so they had to turn back. A pair of White-bellied Sea Eagles were soaring in the sky and calling out loudly. Perhaps they were bidding Tanishka and her parents a farewell.
Did You Know?
Mangroves are the soldiers of the shoreline, breaking the power of waves and winds during tsunamis and cyclones.
Mangroves form a unique habitat for many fishes, insects, birds, reptiles ,and even mammals. The Sundarbans in West Bengal and Bangladesh are the largest mangrove forests in the world where even the tiger is known to dwell.
This article first appeared in the 2013 November-December issue of Saevus magazine.