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The Tropical Rain Forest
General Characteristics
Tropical rainforests are located in a band around the equator. The tropical rainforest is hot and it rains a lot,
about 80 to 180 inches per year. Heavy rainfall increases the risk of flooding, soil erosion, and rapid leaching of
nutrients from the soil (leaching occurs when the minerals and organic nutrients of the soil are "washed" out
of the soil by rainfall as the water soaks into the ground). Plants grow rapidly and quickly use up any organic
material left from decomposing plants and animals. This results in a soil that is poor. The tropical rainforest is
very thick, and not much sunlight is able to penetrate to the forest floor. However, the plants at the top of the
rainforest in the canopy, must be able to survive 12 hours of intense sunlight every day of the year. There is a
great amount of diversity in plant species in the tropical rainforest. They are havens for millions of plants and
animals. Rainforests are extremely important in the ecology of the Earth. The plants of the rainforest generate
much of the Earth's oxygen. These plants are also very important to people in other ways; many are used in
new drugs that fight disease and illness.
Strata of the Rainforest
Different animals and plants live in different parts of the rainforest. Scientists divide the rainforest into strata
(zones) based on the living environment. Starting at the top, the
strata are:
EMERGENTS: Giant trees that are much higher than the
average canopy height. It houses many birds and insects.
CANOPY: The upper parts of the trees. This leafy environment
is full of life in a tropical rainforest and includes: insects,
birds, reptiles, mammals, and more.
UNDERSTORY: A dark, cool environment under the leaves but
over the ground.
FOREST FLOOR: Teeming with animal life, especially insects.
The largest animals in the rainforest generally live here.
The Tropical Rain Forest
Plant Adaptations
In drier, temperate deciduous forests a thick bark helps to limit moisture evaporation from the tree's trunk.
Since this is not a concern in the high humidity of tropical rainforests, most trees have a thin, smooth bark
Lianas are climbing woody vines that drape rainforest trees. They have adapted to life in the rainforest by
having their roots in the ground and climbing high into the tree canopy to reach available sunlight. The leaves
of forest trees have adapted to cope with exceptionally high rainfall. Many tropical rainforest leaves have a
drip tip. It is thought that these drip tips enable rain drops to run off quickly. Buttress roots provide extra
stability, especially since roots of tropical rainforest trees are not typically as deep as those of trees in
temperate zones. Prop and stilt roots help give support and are characteristic of tropical palms growing in
shallow, wet soils. Epiphytes are plants that live on the surface of other plants, especially the trunk and
branches. They grow on trees to take advantage of the sunlight in the canopy. Their leaves form a vase or tank
that holds water.
Plant Adaptations include the following: Tropical Rainforest Plant Adaptations
some plants climb on others to reach the sunlight
some plants grow on other plants to reach the sunlight
plants have shallow roots to help capture nutrients from the top level of soil.
smooth bark and smooth or waxy flowers speed the run off of water
drip tips and waxy surfaces allow water to run off, to discourage growth of bacteria and fungi
buttresses and prop and stilt roots help hold up plants in the shallow soil
flowers on the forest floor are designed to lure animal pollinators since there is relatively no wind on
the forest floor to aid in pollination
plants that live on other plants- instead of collecting water with roots they collect rainwater into a
central reservoir from which they absorb the water through hairs on their leaves
epiphytic orchids have aerial roots that cling to the host plant, absorb minerals, and absorb water from
the atmosphere
Drip-tips on leaves help shed
excess water.
Prop roots help support
plants in the shallow soil.
Some plants collect rainwater
into a central reservoir.
The Tropical Rain Forest
Animal Adaptations
Ridiculously huge numbers of animals live in rainforests, including microscopic animals, invertebrates (like
insects and worms), fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Common characteristics found among
mammals and birds (and reptiles and amphibians, too) include adaptations to a life in the trees, such as the
prehensile tails of New World monkeys. Other characteristics are bright colors and sharp patterns, loud
vocalizations, and diets heavy on fruits.
The different rainforests of the world support different populations of animals. A few animals from each
rainforest include mammals like jaguars, sloths, howler monkeys, orangutans, gorillas, and tigers. Examples of
birds include toucans and macaws. Reptiles like anacondas, iguanas, lizards, boas, and coral snakes make their
home in the rainforest as well as amphibians like poison arrow frogs. Insects make up the largest single group
of animals that live in tropical forests. They include brightly colored butterflies, mosquitoes, camouflaged stick
insects, and huge colonies of ants.
Howler monkey
Red-eyed tree frog
Stink bug