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UNF biology professor discovers northernmost mangroves ever recorded

University of North Florida biology professor Scott Jones recently found mangrove trees in southern Georgia. He said these are the northernmost trees ever recorded.

Back in January, Jones headed north in search of the coastal tree with William Vervaeke, a coastal ecologist for the National Park Service, and Ilka Feller, an ecologist for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

They started at an area near the south side of Amelia Island and discovered more mangroves than expected. The team continued north until they reached the marshes near Cumberland Island, where they found the northernmost mangrove trees.

UNF biology professor Scott Jones (right) celebrates with ecologist Ches Vervaeke (left) next to the northernmost mangrove in southern Georgia. (Photo courtesy of UNF).

Mangroves are tropical plants that typically die when temperatures are below freezing. They are more common in warmer coastal regions like Florida, but due to climate change, mangroves have recently been documented in more northern areas.

Jones said many other factors besides global warming contribute to the northward spread and that mangroves will keep moving up on the map long term.

“Climate change is a big driver of the expansion, but there are a lot of other factors involved, including the timing of storm events that bring mangroves up the coast,” he said.

Jones explained that while mangroves have a different structure than other saltwater marshes in southern Georgia, the tree’s spread may benefit its host environment differently. Mangroves have a more hearty, woody root structure that could prevent erosion.

“[For example], breaking waves as they come in from storms; mangroves do that in a different way than marshes. And they might be better at that, actually. That’s under investigation,” Jones said.

The team used one of UNF’s shallow draft boats to access the marsh’s winding channels for their discovery. Jones said the timing was key during their fieldwork.

“You have to go by boat, and it has to be a small enough boat to get up in the marsh,” he said. “The channel edges where the mangroves are—at low tide, it’s a mud flat; there’s no water. At high tide, you can get in and access.”

Jones is continuing his fieldwork with mangroves and says he and his colleagues are still in the “discovery phase” to understand how they can benefit surrounding ecosystems. The Georgia discovery team is writing a paper about their findings.


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Madelyn Schneider
Madelyn Schneider, News Editor

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