Mangrove forests, important tropical coastal habitats, are in decline worldwide primarily due to removal by humans. Changes to mangrove systems can alter ecosystem properties through direct effects on abiotic factors such as temperature, light and nutrient supply or through changes in biotic factors such as primary productivity or species composition. Despite the importance of mangroves as transitional habitats between land and sea, little research has examined changes that occur when they are cleared. We examined changes in a number of biotic and abiotic factors following the anthropogenic removal of red mangroves (Rhizophora mangle) in the Panamanian Caribbean, including algal biomass, algal diversity, algal grazing rates, light penetration, temperature, sedimentation rates and sediment organic content. In this first study examining multiple ecosystem-level effects of mangrove disturbance, we found that areas cleared of mangroves had higher algal biomass and richness than intact mangrove areas. This increase in algal biomass and richness was likely due to changes in abiotic factors (e.g. light intensity, temperature), but not biotic factors (fish herbivory). Additionally the algal and cyanobacterial genera dominating mangrove-cleared areas were rare in intact mangroves and included a number of genera that compete with coral for space on reefs. Interestingly, sedimentation rates did not differ between intact and cleared areas, but the sediments that accumulated in intact mangroves had higher organic content. These findings are the first to demonstrate that anthropogenic clearing of mangroves changes multiple biotic and abiotic processes in mangrove forests and that some of these changes may influence adjacent habitats such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. Additional research is needed to further explore the community and ecosystem-level effects of mangrove clearing and their influence on adjacent habitats, but it is clear that mangrove conservation is an important aspect of managing tropical coastal systems.



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