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WHAT IS A TROPICAL RAINFOREST?

A Tropical Rainforest is a hot, humid, and flourishing dense forest, usually found around the equator. Tropical rainforests receive around 100 inches (254 centimeters) of rainfall yearly, and contain tall broad-leaved evergreen trees that form a continuous canopy.

Rainforests hold about 25% of all terrestrial (land) carbon and are the most important land ecosystems for mitigating climate change. The great amassing of trees in the tropics pulls in toxic levels of carbon from the atmosphere, holding it in the trees’ limbs, trunks, leaves and roots. Because tropical forests are moist and receive high levels of rainfall, they release vast amounts of moisture into the air daily. Studies have shown that declines in forest cover is equal to the reduction in the area’s water supply. Cutting down trees in forests affects rainfall and the local and global weather patterns. Research has shown that the reduction of rainfall lessens the amount of moisture crossing the oceans, creating a rise in oceanic temperatures and the intensification of storms.

Rainforests hold about 25% of all terrestrial (land) carbon and are the most important land ecosystems for mitigating climate change.

Tropical Rainforests hold the greatest abundance of species, containing about 90% of Earth’s species while covering less than 10% of the planet’s surface. Rainforests are the healthiest and most adaptable communities in the world. The hot and humid climate of the tropics around the equator yields a higher level of productivity for these ecosystems. It should be no surprise that these areas have higher numbers of species and life in sheer quantity, and have a healthier and stable environment with abundance, interaction, renewal, and complexity. Higher levels of biodiversity creates more resilience and ecosystems stability, which enables the system to withstand and recover from disasters.

Tropical Rainforests hold the greatest abundance of species, containing about 90% of Earth’s species while covering less than 10% of the planet’s surface.

No other type of ecosystem provides more benefits for biodiversity, food, weather patterns, fresh water, and human health than tropical rainforests. Research has shown that in 50 years, one tree can recycle approximately $37,500 worth of water, create $62,000 worth of air pollution control, mitigate $31,250 worth of soil erosion and produce $31,250 worth of oxygen. Trees are one of the world’s most valuable assets.

In 2014, it was estimated that 70,000 miners were operating in the Peruvian Amazon, having destroyed nearly 60,000 hectares of forest.

Originally, rainforests covered approximately 12 percent of the Earth’s surface. Today there is only around 5% of tropical forests left with losses from deforestation being upwards of 80,000 – 100,000 acres of tropical forests daily. Between 2000 and 2012, more than 720,000 square miles (2 million square km) of forests around the world were destroyed. It is estimated that 10,000 species become extinct yearly. At the current rates of destruction, tropical forests worldwide could disappear within the next hundred years. We are destroying the ecosystems that are keeping us healthy.

Tropical Rainforest layers have natural sections/levels. Each layer of the forest has a different habitat, different plants and animals, and occur at different heights above the forest floor.

There are four basic levels from the ground up.

 

  • The Forest Floor
  • The understory
  • The canopy
  • The Emergent Layer
Levels
Roots

THE FOREST FLOOR

It is extremely humid with little light on the forest floor of the Amazon rainforest. There, the vegetation consists of shade tolerant plant life such as ferns, mosses, fungi and small trees, shrubs and herbs. Oftentimes, seedlings and saplings of the larger canopy trees stay small and stunted for years until there becomes a gap in the canopy allowing light to penetrate the ground activating their growth. The majority of the four-legged mammals survive by eating mostly what they find on the ground, including fruits, seeds, insects and each other. There one can see Tapirs, and Agoutis, and the wild boars called Peccaries who sometimes hunt in packs of 100 and can be the most dangerous to encounter on foot. Jaguars and the smaller cats like the beautiful spotted Ocelot, even though rarely seen, are at the top of the food chain as their muscular quickness, claws, strong jaws and sharp teeth make them some of the most successful predators of the Amazon. Smaller mammals such as mice and squirrels run for cover hiding in burrows and crevasses or up the trees to evade becoming a meal. Snakes, like the giant Anaconda and the deadly Bushmaster quietly slither along the forest floor looking for prey. Toads and colorful frogs lay hidden in the leaf litter looking for insects and other small victims to eat. The giant web of biodiversity in the Amazon is one of growth, energy and resilience.

Considering the breadth of species that inhabit the Amazon, its surprising that the soils are extremely poor, thin and lacking in nutrients. Tropical soils are usually very old and sandy with most nutrients quickly leached away by the heavy rains in the forests. Because of the dense canopy, the forest floor is also the darkest of all rainforest layers with only 2% of the sunlight reaching the ground, making it extremely difficult for plants to grow. Areas of dense growth can usually only be found along the riverbanks, clearings, and swamps, while the rest of the forest floor is relatively clear of vegetation because of the low sunlight penetration allowing for easy access and movement of the mammals, amphibians, insects and reptiles.

Forest Floor

Photo by Jon Golden

Forest Floor

Photo by Jon Golden

THE UNDERSTORY

The understory is the layer beneath the rainforest canopy and above the forest floor. Because of the low light the understory plants are shade tolerant and thrive in high humidity and incessant rain. The dense foliage of the tree canopy reduces solar radiation, so the ground does not heat up or cool down as rapidly as areas that have no cover. Consequently, the understory dries out more slowly encouraging moisture-loving plants like epiphytes, ferns, mosses, and fungi to thrive by growing on other plants, especially trees. These plants suck up water and nutrients from the air, often by using aerial roots The Amazon is home to an estimated 40,000 plant species, and 16,000 native tree types. Two-thirds of the world plant species live in the Amazon rainforest, many of them are found living rooted in the trees. Research has shown that one square kilometer of the Amazon Rainforest can hold as much as of 90,000 tonnes of living plants. Each tree in the Amazon is its own thriving ecosystem. In one tree alone scientists found approximately 700 species of beetles.

Forest Floor

Photo by Jon Golden

THE CANOPY

The canopy is the tree crown of a rainforest tree, made of intertwining thick branches and leaves. The canopy catches about 95% of the sunlight and is around 10-40 feet thick. The excellent conditions of the rainforest causes overcrowding and the growth of dense vegetation, creating a tightly woven umbrella-like top that protects animals from the intense sunlight and helps capture rain and moisture. The branches are near the top of the tree, leaving long rods like trunks, which unfortunately makes them easy for loggers to cut. The seasons in the Amazon are not like the seasons in North America, so there is no dependable period for when the trees and plants flower, bear fruit, or shed their leaves. Many trees produce fruit throughout the year, even in times of drought, becoming a feeding oasis for many animals. The branches of rainforest trees are often densely covered with air plants (epiphytes) including colorful and sweet- smelling bromeliads and orchids. The upper leaves of the canopy are small and waxy unlike plants in the understory that have developed darker colored foliage to capture the limited light needed for photosynthesis. The canopy blocks most of the sunlight from reaching the forest floor and traps the moisture underneath keeping the air warm and humid below. Wasps, ants, and spiders, monkeys, Macaws and Toucans, nocturnal animals like bats and the wide eyed Kinkajou, and snakes like the Eyelash Viper and the Green Tree Boa are only a few that can be found roaming the upward branches of trees looking for food and shelter. Scientists estimate that 60-90 percent of life in the rainforest is found in the trees, with the canopy holding the most biodiversity of species.

Canopy

Photo by Jon Golden

THE EMERGENT LAYER

The emergent layer is the tallest layer of the rainforest. Trees that live in the emergent layer are seen sporadically throughout the forest and can grow up to be 200 feet tall. Emergent trees can be so tall that individuals who are at the top of the tree can often observe condensation forming into clouds. From time to time, the tops of these trees can be seen peeking through the lower clouds. Many of these trees have flowers attracting birds, bees, and butterflies. Flying above the trees, beautiful Macaws, parrots, and the giant Harpy Eagles soar. Butterflies become iridescent specks of color glittering in the sun. Below the emerging trees lies the canopy, a solid wall of green, which shades the understory and forest floor of the rainforest. The trees in the emergent layers capture the fiercest heat and is the usually the driest layer of the rainforest. These trees have developed small waxy leaves in order to survive the hot temperatures. The emergent layer has its own weather conditions that include bad rainstorms and strong winds. The strong winds dispatch pollen and seeds across the Amazon to reproduce trees and plants in new areas.

The Emergent Layer

Photo by Jon Golden

The Emergent Layer

Photo by Jon Golden

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
― Chinese proverb.

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