Mangrove forests are one of the world's most threatened tropical ecosystems with global loss exceeding 35% (ref. 1). Juvenile coral reef fish often inhabit mangroves2,3,4,5, but the importance of these nurseries to reef fish population dynamics has not been quantified. Indeed, mangroves might be expected to have negligible influence on reef fish communities: juvenile fish can inhabit alternative habitats and fish populations may be regulated by other limiting factors such as larval supply or fishing6. Here we show that mangroves are unexpectedly important, serving as an intermediate nursery habitat that may increase the survivorship of young fish. Mangroves in the Caribbean strongly influence the community structure of fish on neighbouring coral reefs. In addition, the biomass of several commercially important species is more than doubled when adult habitat is connected to mangroves. The largest herbivorous fish in the Atlantic, Scarus guacamaia, has a functional dependency on mangroves and has suffered local extinction after mangrove removal. Current rates of mangrove deforestation are likely to have severe deleterious consequences for the ecosystem function, fisheries productivity and resilience of reefs. Conservation efforts should protect connected corridors of mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    , & Mangrove forests: One of the world's threatened major tropical environments. Bioscience 51, 807–815 (2001)

  2. 2.

    & Diel, lunar and seasonal changes in a mangrove fish assemblage off southwestern Puerto Rico. Bull. Mar. Sci. 49, 684–698 (1991)

  3. 3.

    & Estructura de las communidades de peces asociados a los manglares del groupo insular sabana-camaguey. Cuba. Avicennia 10, 60–83 (1993)

  4. 4.

    , & Fishes in mangrove prop-root habitats of northeastern Florida bay: distinct assemblages across an estuarine gradient. Estuar. Coast. Shelf Sci. 48, 701–723 (1999)

  5. 5.

    et al. Dependence of Caribbean reef fishes on mangroves and seagrass beds as nursery habitats: a comparison of fish faunas between bays with and without mangroves/seagrass beds. Mar. Ecol. 214, 225–235 (2001)

  6. 6.

    et al. Recruitment and the local dynamics of open marine populations. Annu. Rev. Ecol. System. 27, 477–500 (1996)

  7. 7.

    & Movements of fishes within and among fringing coral reefs in Barbados. Environ. Biol. Fish. 57, 11–24 (2000)

  8. 8.

    & The Belize margin revisited: 1. Holocene marine facies. Int. J. Earth Sci. 92, 532–551 (2003)

  9. 9.

    & Setting Geographic Priorities for Marine Conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean (Arlington, VA, The Nature Conservancy, 1999)

  10. 10.

    Non-parametric multivariate analyses of changes in community structure. Aust. J. Ecol. 18, 117–143 (1993)

  11. 11.

    et al. How important are mangroves and seagrass beds for coral-reef fish? The nursery hypothesis tested on an island scale. Mar. Ecol. 244, 299–305 (2002)

  12. 12.

    in Life and Death of Coral Reefs (ed. Birkeland, C.) 288–297 (Chapman and Hall, New York, 1997)

  13. 13.

    & Why do juvenile fish utilise mangrove habitats? J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 257, 229–253 (2001)

  14. 14.

    The Design and Analysis of Research Studies (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 1992)

  15. 15.

    Food habitats of reef fishes of the West Indies. Stud. Trop. Oceanogr. 5, 665–847 (1967)

  16. 16.

    International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) 2002 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species〉 (2002)

  17. 17.

    , & Mangrove shoreline fishes of Biscayne bay (Bull. Mar. Sci., Florida

  18. 18.

    et al. Global trajectories of the long-term decline of coral reef ecosystems. Science 301, 955–958 (2003)

  19. 19.

    Ecological resilience—in theory and application. Annu. Rev. Ecol. System. 31, 425–439 (2000)

  20. 20.

    The selection and design of marine protected areas: Australia as a case study. Biodiv. Conserv. 3, 586–605 (1994)

  21. 21.

    The future of coral reefs. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 98, 5419–5425 (2001)

  22. 22.

    & Comparative accuracies of visual assessment methods for coral reef fishes. Bull. Mar. Sci. 44, 899–912 (1989)

  23. 23.

    , , , & Importance of shallow-water biotopes of a Caribbean bay for juvenile coral reef fishes: Patterns in biotope association, community structure and spatial distribution. Mar. Ecol. 202, 175–192 (2000)

  24. 24.

    & Length-Weight Relationships of Selected Marine Reef Fishes from the Southeastern United States and the Caribbean Technical Memorandum NMFS-SEFC-215 (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Miami, Florida, 1988)

Download references


We thank T. Green for help with the online figures; B. Cowen, J. Pandolfi, S. Palumbi, D. Snyder, F. Micheli, B. Brown and J. Bythell for comments on the manuscript. We thank the National Geographic Society, the US World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US) and The Royal Society for funding. Field work was supported in part by the Lighthouse Reef Resort.

Author information


  1. Marine Spatial Ecology Laboratory, School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, University of Exeter, Prince of Wales Road, Exeter EX4 4PS, UK

    • Peter J. Mumby
    • , Alastair R. Harborne
    •  & Henk Renken
  2. School of Biology, Ridley Building, University of Newcastle, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK

    • Alasdair J. Edwards
    • , Angela Gall
    • , Malgosia I. Gorczynska
    •  & Claire L. Pescod
  3. Laboratorio Ecología de Ecosistemas de Arrecifes Coralinos, Departamento Recursos del Mar, CINVESTAV Unidad Mérida, AP73 Cordemex, CP97310 Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico

    • J. Ernesto Arias-González
  4. Environmental Defense, Caribbean Field Office, Miami, Florida 33186, USA

    • Kenyon C. Lindeman
  5. Department of Probability and Statistics, University of Sheffield, Hicks Building, Sheffield S3 7RH, UK

    • Paul G. Blackwell
  6. Fisheries Centre, Lower Mall Research Station, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T1Z4, Canada

    • Colette C. C. Wabnitz
  7. Conservation Science Program, WWF-US, 1250 24th Street Northwest, Washington DC 20037, USA

    • Ghislane Llewellyn


  1. Search for Peter J. Mumby in:

  2. Search for Alasdair J. Edwards in:

  3. Search for J. Ernesto Arias-González in:

  4. Search for Kenyon C. Lindeman in:

  5. Search for Paul G. Blackwell in:

  6. Search for Angela Gall in:

  7. Search for Malgosia I. Gorczynska in:

  8. Search for Alastair R. Harborne in:

  9. Search for Claire L. Pescod in:

  10. Search for Henk Renken in:

  11. Search for Colette C. C. Wabnitz in:

  12. Search for Ghislane Llewellyn in:

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter J. Mumby.

Supplementary information

About this article

Publication history





Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.