RAINFOREST CANOPY STRUCTURE
By Rhett Butler
| Last updated July 27, 2006
Rainforests are characterized by a unique
vegetative structure consisting of several vertical layers including
canopy, understory, shrub layer, and ground level. The canopy refers to the dense ceiling of leaves and tree branches formed
by closely spaced forest trees. The upper canopy is 100-130 feet above
the forest floor, penetrated by scattered emergent trees, 130 feet or
higher, that make up the level known as the overstory. Below the canopy
ceiling are multiple leaf and branch levels known collectively as the
understory. The lowest part of the understory, 5-20 feet (1.5-6 meters)
above the floor, is known as the shrub layer, made up of shrubby plants
and tree saplings.
The heavy vegetation of the canopy effectively screens light from the
forest floor, and in a true (primary) equatorial rainforest, there is
little jungle-like ground growth to impede movement. Ground vegetation
in primary forest is minimal and usually consists mainly of lianas (vines)
and tree seedlings.
An important characteristic of the canopy system is the presence of
plants known as epiphytes, that grow on canopy trees. Epiphytes are not parasitic because they
draw no nutrients away from the host, but use the host tree only for
support. High in the canopy, epiphytes are better able to access the
strong tropical sunlight, which they require for growth. Epiphytes have
adapted well to their aerial environment, developing various means to
collect nutrients from their surroundings, the mechanisms for which
are discussed in detail in the canopy section.
The rainforest canopy. Image by R. Butler
An additional plant type characteristic of the canopy system is the liana—a sort of woody vine that begins life as a shrub on the forest
floor and makes its way up to the canopy by latching on to canopy trees.
A related plant type, the hemiepiphyte, begins life in the canopy and
grows long roots that eventually reach the forest floor. Once rooted,
hemiepiphytes do not have to rely on capturing nutrients from their
canopy surroundings, but can access nutrients from the forest floor.
Unknown numbers of plants and animals reside in the canopy, the vast
majority of which are specifically adapted to life in this leafy world.
In tropical rainforests, it is estimated that 90 percent of
the species that exist in the ecosystem reside in the canopy. Since
the tropical rainforests are estimated to hold 50 percent
of the planet's species, the canopy of rainforests worldwide may hold
45 percent of life on Earth.
- Most of the plant and animal species live in what level of the rainforest?
- What are epiphytes?
- What is an example of an epiphyte? (Hint: think of a popular kind of flower)
- What are lianas?
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