|Mangrove swamps, mangrove forests|
One of the most important, but under-rated environments
Here is the nursery of countless marine species, from prawns to large fish
But again human encroachment is destroying these critical environments, and thus the many food species that breed here, at an alarming rate
Where else can one find trees that walk out over the water and grow roots upward, seeds that germinate before they fall from their parent tree, fish that hop or walk about in the mud, monkeys that eat crabs or snakes that swim and climb trees? These bizarre-sounding creatures are not figments of a fertile imagination but some of the species that make up one of southern Thailand’s most intriguing ecosystems, the mangrove swamps.
Nowhere but in the mangroves can one find such an astonishing overlap of marine and terrestrial species. The mangrove trees themselves were once land-based plants that have evolved unique features allowing them to colonize the edge of the sea. Among these features are special adaptations that help the trees shed salt and breathe in the oxygen-deficient mud. The tangle of aerial roots that characterize mangrove estuaries are thought to serve several important functions: they trap and retain sediments allowing the mangrove forest to expand seaward, they diffuse wave action that can threaten to uproot the tree, and they prevent the floating seeds of competing species from getting established. They also make it a hell of a place for humans to get about. But the impenetrable, uninhabitable appearance of the mangrove forests is deceiving, as a great range of fauna actually thrive here.
Southern Thailand’s mangroves have lost their two largest predators, the tiger and the huge estuarine crocodile, but many smaller species can still be found. Among the species most commonly observed are langurs, civets, crab-eating macaques, monitor lizards, cobra, the black-and-yellow mangrove snake, the small-clawed and hairy-nosed otters, fishing cats, brown-winged and ruddy kingfishers, masked finfoot, chestnut-bellied malkoha, buffy fish-owl, brahminy kites and the rare mangrove pitta.
But the richest, most important life inhabits the mud. Mangroves play their most prominent role as the ocean’s nursery for shrimp larvae, oysters, crabs and a wealth of juvenile fish species.
With the advent of tourism, mangroves also serve as just one more attraction for visitors. The mysterious, labyrinthine channels of the mangrove forests beg for exploration by canoe or dinghy.