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Republic of the Marshall Islands Biodiversity Clearing House Mechanism
RMI Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination (OEPPC)

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Flora and other organisms of the Marshalls

Over 700 species of plants are found in the Marshall Islands, with about half of them being native. However, only about 80 of these native species are found on land - the rest are algae, seaweeds and seagrasses. Most of the native species are widespread throughout the tropical Pacific, so were probably well-known to the first inhabitants when they arrived 2,000 years ago. But they were not - and still are not - well-known to the Europeans and Americans who arrived later. Well over half of the plants that are figured to be native have Marshallese names, but only a small percentage of these have an English common name.

Only one species of vascular plant is definitely known to be endemic to the Marshalls, a grass Lepturus gasparricensis. Two plants, another grass, Lepturopetium marshallense, and a false spider lily, Crinum bakeri, are endemic to the Marshalls along with other parts of Micronesia. At the various atoll workshops, over 70 plants were discussed as valuable biological resources, principally for food, but also for medicine, houses, canoe building, and many other purposes. Some attempts have been made over the years to try to develop various non-vascular plants, such as seaweeds, as biological resources. But sea plants are not considered to be extremely important as traditional resources.

However, ecologically, they are among the most valuable. Seagrasses are interesting in that they are part of the marine plants, yet are also vascular in structure. While seagrass beds (or "meadows") are often overlooked, (for instance, a seagrass meadow on the ocean reef by the College of the Marshall Islands in downtown Majuro is not mentioned in other reports), they are actually important forage areas and nursery grounds for many species of fishes, furnish a habitat for algae and bottom-dwelling animals, and prevent coastal erosion. In the Bikini lagoon, one seagrass area plays an important part in traditional beliefs. Throughout the Marshalls, only 3 seagrass species have been reported in the shallow, sandy areas of a limited number of atolls.

Coralline algae, though, are probably the most valuable plants in the Marshall Islands - in fact, without coralline algae, there would likely not be any Marshall Islands! As previously discussed, coral atolls are made of more than the remains of stony corals. Numerous species of coralline algae are found in the Marshalls. These serve as the "cement" to hold the pieces of stony corals, mollusk shells and other materials together, so dry land can be formed. Other coral-like algae, such as the green cactus algae in the genus Halimeda, are major contributors to sandy beaches.

Foraminiferans are of prime importance when it comes to making beaches. Foraminiferans are protozoans, and along with other single-celled living things, are typically classified as neither animals plants. Here, as in other references, they are called other organisms. This vast category also includes viruses, bacteria, fungi, and lichens or "Hit" (which are a symbiotic combination of fungi and algae).

Another less visible role that marine plants/other organism category plays is their vital role in maintaining a healthy coral reef. Dinoflagellates, diatoms, and radiolarians serve as Foraminiferan shells are food to many animals and are major components in the lowest level of the marine food web, the phytoplankton.

Other single-celled plant-like organisms of tremendous importance to the reef are those that live within the tissues of marine animals. Often called symbiotic algae, they are a major reason why coral reefs can thrive only in shallow, clear water. These plant-like organisms require sunlight in order to carry on photosynthesis. Coral reef stony corals gets most of their nutrients, not from plankton, but from the symbiotic algae growing within them, as do giant tridacna clams. It is the symbiotic algae which give the mollusks their vibrant colors.

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