Coastal wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico have been experiencing significant shifts in hydrology and salinity levels over the past century as a result of changes in sea level and freshwater drainage patterns. Local land management in coastal zones has also impacted the hydrologic regimes of salt marshes and mangrove areas. Parks and refuges in south Florida that contain mangrove forests have, in some cases, been ditched or impounded to control mosquito outbreaks and to foster wildlife use. And while mangroves dominate the subtropical coastlines of Florida and thrive in saltwater environments, little is known about how they respond to changes in hydrology under managed or variable tidal conditions. USGS researchers designed a study to evaluate the basic hydrological requirements of mangroves so that their health and survival may be more effectively managed in controlled impoundments and restored wetlands.
Mangroves are commonly found in the intertidal zone (between low and high tides) in a rather broad spectrum of hydrologic settings. Because they thrive at the interface of land and sea, mangroves are subject to changes in freshwater flow (flow rate, nutrients, pollutants) and to marine influences (sea-level rise, salinity). Salinity has long been recognized as a controlling factor that determines the health and distribution of mangrove forests. Field and experimental observations indicate that most mangrove species achieve their highest growth potential under brackish conditions (modest salinity) between 10 and 20 parts per thousand (ppt). Yet, if provided with available propagules, successful regeneration, and limited competition from other plants, then mangroves can survive and thrive in freshwater systems as well.
Because little is known about the growthand survival patterns of mangrove species relative to changing hydrology, USGS scientists conducted greenhouse and field experiments to determine how flooded or drained patterns of hydrology would influence growth of the red mangrove, Rhizophora mangle (fig. 1). Red mangrove propagules (recruits) of select sizes and genotypes (i.e., genetically similar groups) were planted both in greenhouses and in the field. Seedling growth was monitored in both studies on a quarterly basis for over a year; measurements included shoot growth, seedling height, and a final harvest of plant biomass.