Esmeraldes-Pacific Colombia mangroves


caption Utria National Park, Colombia. (Photograph by WWF/ Alan Watson)

The mangrove forests constitute one of the most productive and important groups in maintaining the food chain of coastal ecosystems, residing in the transition zone between the aquatic and land environments. The biogeography of the mangrove forest indicates they are present in nearly all countries of tropical America. On the Pacific Coast they are found from the State of Baja California, Mexico, in Central America and south to northern Peru in South America. The mangrove zones representative of this ecoregion in Panama and Ecuador correspond for the most part to tropical very wet forest with temperatures above 24°C and high precipitation. In addition, they lie within the influence of the Intertropical Convergence Zone.

Location and General Description

This extensive mangrove ecoregion follows along the Pacific Coasts of Colombia and Ecuador encompassing stands of mangrove ecosystems along the way. Some of the larger stands are found in Tribugo Bay at the northern extent of the ecoregion then working south through the mouth of the San Juan River, Naya River, Guapi River, Mira River, Esmeraldas River finally ending at just south of the Mompiche Bay.

The ecoregion generally has two large mangrove zones divided by Cabo Corrientes in Colombia. Toward the north there is a predominance of the narrow continental platform, rugged coastal topography with elevations rising up to 1500 meters (m), strong low-intensity coastal current upwellings and high annual precipitation, between 4000 and 8000 millimeters (mm). The mouths of numerous small and clear water rivers empty into this northern part of the ecoregion throughout the year affecting vegetation structure. Toward the southern part of this ecoregion lies the sedimentary basin and the great coastal plain, with the dominant broad continental platform, flat coastal topography, no coastal current upwellings and lower annual precipitation of between 1000-4000 mm. The mouths of some large rivers including the Mataje, Mira, Patía, Sanquianga and Guapi River Deltas and about 25 minor rivers produce higher influx of freshwater but it is frequently much more turbid than the waters of the north. The lithology of the terrain consists primarily of lutites, sandstones, conglomerates and a lower proportion of limestones.

The environmental parameters together with the microtopography lead to different types of mangrove forests: bar, inverted, coastal, dwarf, border and small island. Five families of vegetation with about 10 species have been identified for the mangrove ecosystems. These include Rhizophoraceae with Rhizophora harrisoni, R. Mangle, R. racemosa and R. samoensis; Caesalpinaceae with Mora oleifera; Avicenniaceae with Avicennia germinans and A. tonduzzi; Cambretaceae with Conmocarpus erecta, Laguncularia racemosa and Pellicieraceae with Pelliziera rhizophorae. Mangrove forests cannot be considered as an ecosystem separate from their surroundings due to the extensive areas they cover which are influenced by surface waters, sea water column and estuaries, soil and surrounding landscape vegetation. The most significant, large groups of organisms associated with the ecoregion are: microorganisms (bacteria and fungi), algae communities (chlorophytes, rhodophytes and phaeophytes); invertebrates, polyquetae, molluscs (gastropods and bivalves); arthropods (amphipods, decapods and cirripedes); sinpunculids and priapulids; bryozoans; vertebrates; fish; reptiles (iguanas, "basiliscos"); birds and mammals (tigrillo, nutria, "venado", "guagua", "tatabro"). The mangrove forest is generally a transition zone dominated by the nato mangrove (Mora oleifera) and the naidisales (Euterpes spp.). The ferns Acrostichum aureum or "Ranconcha" that form the true freshwater marshes appear later, as succession progresses. The communities that occupy this zone are generally known by the name guandales or cuangarales consisting of forests with cuángare (Virola spp.), "Sajo" (Compnosperma panamensis), "Sande" (Brosimun utile) and others. Communities of palms such as Mauritiella pacifica, Manicaria saccata, and Euterpe cuatrecasa also appear in these swamps.

Biodiversity Features

The mangrove forest reflects the origins and reproductive potential of two-thirds of the species of fish in the world. Its dual status as a nursery and food source make high fish productivity. Also notable are its action in the accretion or formation of soils, its role as a protective barrier defending the coast line against the permanent action of the tides and even against some natural phenomena like tsunamis and sea swells. The species Mora oleifera is a species endemic to the Pacific coast in the Americas; it is found from Parrita, Costa Rica to Esmeraldas, Ecuador.

Mangrove species are characterized by adaptations for terrain that is unstable, anaerobic and inundated with saline influence (stilt or plank roots with lenticels and pneumatophores in some species). Mangroves also have reproductive strategies for coastal areas such as the high rate of reproduction and viviparous seedlings designed to float for great distances. Species of Rhizophora have a high plant reproduction rate allowing them to colonize very unstable terrain by opening their supporting surface. Samples with as many as five different stems interconnected by stilt roots are seen. In some species of Rhizophora, the cut trunks easily sprout again. The ecological factors limiting the mangrove forests are high average temperature with little variation, abundant rains throughout the year, intermittent flooding caused by the tides and producing a mix of salt water and river water at river mouths and deltas. The mangrove forest floods periodically at high tide and is dry with the same frequency at low tide creating a source of natural selection for the vegetation capable of living with these conditions such as mangrove species and some palm species.

The development of the vegetation typical of mangrove ecosystems reflects in a general way the balance and interaction of all the factors that favor its development including temperature, wind and subsiquent evaporation rates, type of soil, salinity and fresh water sources and drainage and aeration of soils. For this reason, any one of them produces beneficial effects or destructive and limiting effects if they are much outside the range of resource tolerance of the species. Due to their open system characteristics, mangrove forests are able to release from 8 to 15 tons/hectare/year of organic matter, providing raw material to maintain a broad range of associated organisms, given the direct relationship with the marine and land system, necessarily favoring balance in the trophic chain.

Of the species associated with the mangrove ecosystem, the piangua hembra (Anadara tuberculosa) is the basis for exclusively small-scale fishing developed primarily by the communities located in the south-central part of the ecoregion and currently over-exploited.

Current Status

On the continent, Colombia has two Natural National Parks (Sanquianga and Ensenada de Utría) that based on their status as protected areas promote mangrove development and positively reduce the effects of human action on the ecosystem. In addition, positive expectations have been created with the implementation of Civil Society Natural Reserves. Three reserves have been established in northern Colombia and efforts to increase this number are ongoing.

Types and Severity of Threats

These species have traditionally been used for construction, firewood, poles, coal, piles, pulp, to obtain tannin, and for fishing gear, cattle pens, etc. Definitive losses or reduction of the mangrove forest are due to man-made and natural causes. As a group the human activities that in one way or another have played a part in the loss of the forest would include the construction of infrastructure for expanding towns, airfields, aquiculture pools, cutting and utilization of trees in unsustainable ways, exploitation of fishing resources associated with the mangrove (piangua), cutting of trees to change soil use and establishment of coconut crops. Natural effects reduce the mangrove forest through fluviomarine erosional processes, geomorphological processes and desalination of mangrove soils, allowing the invasion of non-halo-helophytic species.

Other factors have also played a part in recent decades, leading to the death of mangrove forests, and are directly related to the contamination of water with domestic and industrial waste, particularly the spilling of hydrocarbons.

The most numerous habitat block is a continuous strip from the Mataje river to Chanzará bay near Guapi; it is interrupted only to the north of Ensenada de Tumaco.

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation

Classification and linework for all mangrove ecoregions in Latin America and the Caribbean follow the results of a mangrove ecoregion workshop and subsequent report.


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Additional information on this ecoregion

Disclaimer: This article is taken wholly from, or contains information that was originally published by, the World Wildlife Fund. Topic editors and authors for the Encyclopedia of Earth may have edited its content or added new information. The use of information from the World Wildlife Fund should not be construed as support for or endorsement by that organization for any new information added by EoE personnel, or for any editing of the original content.



Fund, W. (2007). Esmeraldes-Pacific Colombia mangroves. Retrieved from


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