Dennis Whigham and Candy Feller both noticed the mangroves’ odd shape. “They almost looked like bonsais,” said Whigham. The shrubs had mature trunks, but the shoots were all new. Feller and Whigham are ecologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). To their trained eyes, these trees looked like they were recovering from something like a hurricane. These mangroves survived a different kind of storm: camel grazing.
Saudi Arabia conjures images of the desert, but along the Red Sea coast there are pockets of green dominated by mangroves. Feller and Whigham hunted around for these mangroves during a November visit to the country. They are part of a team of ecologists that’s partnering with the staff of the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). The school is located on the Red Sea in city of Thuwal.
KAUST opened its doors to students this past fall and is positioning itself as a leader in environmental sustainability – both in research and practice. Feller and Whigham are members of a consortium of scientists, funded by KAUST, that’s focused on issues related to soil, water and coastal ecosystems. Among other projects, the group is helping the university incorporate mangroves into its wastewater treatment plans. The scientists are also investigating the basic ecology of the Red Sea’s mangroves.
Whigham likes to look for different “expressions” of mangroves. He studies the relationship between the structure of mangroves and processes such as nutrient cycling and growth. The most distinct mangroves he encountered on this trip were on the Farsan Islands, located off of the southeast coast. Pelicans roosted in the treetops, but Whigham was more impressed by the fact that the red and black mangroves were rooted in cracks of the coral substrate. The habitat was very different from the swampier looking mangroves he and Feller have studied in other places.
At 22 degrees north, Thuwal is close to the northern edge of mangrove habitat. This fact alone made the area an important destination for Candy Feller. Feller has developed an international network of mangrove research plots that includes sites in North and Central America, Australia, and New Zealand. She’s investigating how nutrients limit the growth of mangroves and subsequently influence the food web. To explore these questions on a global scale, she needs to have a range of plots north and south of the equator.
Feller and Whigham added two new sites to Feller’s global mangrove network on this trip. The heart of Feller’s experiments involves tagging branches and monitoring their response to nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizer. Because the trees require fertilizer every six months, she’s relying on KAUST scientists for help. Feller and Whigham trained two scientists on the use of their fertilization techniques. These KAUST researchers will also use the new study sites to explore their own questions.
Collaboration is at the heart of international expeditions like this one. Many of the ecologists in the group have been working together on a separate mangrove project in Florida. That work was funded by a grant from the Smithsonian’s Marine Science Network (MSN). Whigham and Feller credit the MSN grant with fostering the relationships from which the KAUST research project grew.
Feller and Whigham plan to continue their work in Saudi Arabia for years to come. Feller expects to get five years of data from her new mangrove plots. Whigham is optimistic that the team of ecologists will help protect the Red Sea from excess nutrients by including mangroves in KAUST’s wastewater treatment plans. They both plan to return in a year.
To find out more about the team of ecologists working with KAUST on water, soil and coastal resources visit: http://www.sowacor.nl .