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Rainforests are forests characterized by high rainfall, with definitions setting minimum normal annual rainfall between 1750–2000 mm (68-78 inches). The monsoon trough, alternately known as the intertropical convergence zone, plays a significant role in creating Earth's tropical rain forests.

From 40 to 75% of all species on Earth are indigenous to the rainforests.[1] It has been estimated that many millions of species of plants, insects, and microorganisms are still undiscovered. Tropical rainforests have been called the "jewels of the Earth", and the "world's largest pharmacy", because of the large number of natural medicines discovered there.[2] Rainforests also supply 28% of the worlds oxygen,[3] processing it through photosynthesis from carbon dioxide.

The undergrowth in a rainforest is restricted in many areas by the lack of sunlight at ground level. This makes it possible to walk through the forest. If the leaf canopy is destroyed or thinned, the ground beneath is soon colonized by a dense, tangled growth of vines, shrubs, and small trees called a jungle. There are two types of rainforest, tropical rainforest and temperate rainforest.



General distribution of tropical rainforest

Many of the world's rainforests are associated with the location of the monsoon trough, also known as the intertropical convergence zone.[4] Tropical rainforests are rainforests in the tropics, found near the Equator (between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn) and present in southeast Asia (Myanmar to Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and northeastern Australia), Sub-Saharan Africa from Cameroon to the Congo (Congo Rainforest), South America (e.g. the Amazon Rainforest), Central America (e.g. Bosawás, southern Yucatán Peninsula-El Peten-Belize-Calakmul), and on many of the Pacific Islands (such as Hawaiʻi). Tropical rainforests have been called the "Earth's lungs," although it is now known that rainforests contribute little net oxygen additions to the atmosphere through photosynthesis.[5][6]


General distribution of temperate rainforest.

Temperate rainforests are rainforests in temperate regions. They can be found in North America (in the Pacific Northwest, the British Columbia Coast, and in the inland rainforest of the Rocky Mountain Trench east of Prince George), in Europe (parts of the British Isles such as the coastal areas of Ireland, Scotland, southern Norway, parts of the western Balkans along the Adriatic coast, as well as in the North West of Spain and coastal areas of the eastern Black Sea, including Georgia and coastal Turkey), and in East Asia (in southern China, Taiwan, much of Japan and Korea, and on Sakhalin Island and the adjacent Russian Far East coast), and also Australia and New Zealand.


A tropical rainforest is typically divided into four main layers, each with different plants and animals adapted for life in that particular area: the emergent, canopy, understory, and forest floor layers.

Emergent layer

The emergent layer contains a small number of very large trees called emergents, which grow above the general canopy, reaching heights of 45-55 m, although on occasion a few species will grow to 70-80 m tall.[7][8] They need to be able to withstand the hot temperatures and strong winds in some areas. Eagles, butterflies, bats, and certain monkeys inhabit this layer.

Canopy layer

The canopy layer contains the majority of the largest trees, typically 30-45 m tall. The densest areas of biodiversity are found in the forest canopy, a more or less continuous cover of foliage formed by adjacent treetops. The canopy, by some estimates, is home to 50 percent of all plant species, suggesting that perhaps half of all life on Earth could be found there. The fauna is similar to that found in the emergent layer, but more diverse. A quarter of all insect species are believed to exist in the rainforest canopy. Scientists have long suspected the richness of the canopy as a habitat, but have only recently developed practical methods of exploring it. As long ago as 1917, naturalist William Beebe declared that "another continent of life remains to be discovered, not upon the Earth, but one to two hundred feet above it, extending over thousands of square miles." True exploration of this habitat only began in the 1980s, when scientists developed methods to reach the canopy, such as firing ropes into the trees using crossbows. Exploration of the canopy is still in its infancy, but other methods include the use of balloons and airships to float above the highest branches and the building of cranes and walkways planted on the forest floor. The science of accessing tropical forest canopy using airships, or similar aerial platforms, is called dendronautics.[9]

Understory layer

The understory layer lies between the canopy and the forest floor. The understory (or understorey) is home to a number of birds, snakes, and lizards, as well as predators such as jaguars, boa constrictors, and leopards. The leaves are much larger at this level. Insect life is also abundant. Many seedlings that will grow to the canopy level are present in the understory. Only about 5 percent of the sunlight shining on the rainforest reaches the understory. This layer can also be called a shrub layer, although the shrub layer may also be considered a separate layer.

Forest floor

The forest floor, the bottom-most layer, receives only 2 percent of sunlight. Only plants adapted to low light can grow in this region. Away from riverbanks, swamps, and clearings where dense undergrowth is found, the forest floor is relatively clear of vegetation because of the low sunlight penetration. It also contains decaying plant and animal matter, which disappears quickly due to the warm, humid conditions promoting rapid decay. Many forms of fungi grow here which help decay the animal and plant waste. It takes up to 20 minutes for rain to actually touch the ground from the trees.

Rainforest in the Blue Mountains, Australia

Flora and fauna

West Usambara Two-Horned Chameleon (Bradypodion fischeri) in the Usambara Mountains, Tanzania.

More than half of the world's species of plants and animals are found in the rainforest.[10] Rainforests support a very broad array of fauna including mammals, reptiles, birds, and invertebrates. Mammals may include primates, felids, and other families. Reptiles include snakes, turtles, chameleons, and other families while birds include such families as vangidae and Cuculidae. Dozens of families of invertebrates are found in rainforests. Fungi are also very common in rainforest areas as they can feed on the decomposing remains of plant and animal life. These species are rapidly disappearing due to deforestation, habitat loss, and biochemical releases into the atmosphere.[11]


Despite the growth of vegetation in a tropical rainforest, soil quality is often quite poor. Rapid bacterial decay prevents the accumulation of humus. The concentration of iron and aluminium oxides by the laterization process gives the oxisols a bright red color and sometimes produces minable deposits such as bauxite. Most trees have roots near the surface as there are not many nutrients below the ground; most of the trees minerals come from the top layer of decomposing leaves (mainly) and animals. On younger substrates, especially of volcanic origin, tropical soils may be quite fertile. If the trees are cleared, the rain can get at the exposed soil, washing it away. Eventually streams will form, then rivers. Flooding becomes imminent.

Effect on global climate

A natural rainforest emits and absorbs vast quantities of carbon dioxide. On a global scale, long-term fluxes are approximately in balance, so that an undisturbed rainforest would have a small net impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels,[12] though they may have other climatic effects (on cloud formation, for example, by recycling water vapor). No rainforest today can be considered to be undisturbed.[13] Human induced deforestation plays a significant role in causing rainforests to release carbon dioxide,[14] as do natural processes such as drought that result in tree death.[15] Some climate models run with interactive vegetation and predict a large loss of Amazonian rainforest around 2050 due to drought, leading to forest dieback and the subsequent feedback of releasing more carbon dioxide.[16]

Human uses

Amazon River rain forest in Peru

Tropical rainforests provide timber as well as animal products such as meat and hides. Rainforests also have value as tourism destinations and for the ecosystem services provided. Many foods originally came from tropical forests, and are still mostly grown on plantations in regions that were formerly primary forest.[17] Also, plant derived medicines are commonly used for fever, fungal infections, burns, gastrointestinal problems, pain, respiratory problems, and wound treatment.[18]

Native peoples

On January 18, 2007, FUNAI reported that it had confirmed the presence of 67 different uncontacted tribes in Brazil, up from 40 in 2005. With this addition, Brazil has now overtaken the island of New Guinea as the country having the largest number of uncontacted tribes.[19] The province of Irian Jaya or West Papua in the island of New Guinea is home to an estimated 44 uncontacted tribal groups.[20]

Central African rainforest is home of the Mbuti pygmies, one of the hunter-gatherer peoples living in equatorial rainforests characterised by their short height (below one and a half metres, or 59 inches, on average). They were the subject of a study by Colin Turnbull, The Forest People, in 1962.[21] Pygmies who live in Southeast Asia are referred to as “Negritos.”


Jungle burned for agriculture in southern Mexico.

Tropical and temperate rainforests have been subjected to heavy logging and agricultural clearance throughout the 20th century and the area covered by rainforests around the world is shrinking.[22] Biologists have estimated that large numbers of species are being driven to extinction (possibly more than 50,000 a year; at that rate, says E. O. Wilson of Harvard University, a quarter or more of all species on Earth could be exterminated within 50 years)[23] due to the removal of habitat with destruction of the rainforests.

Another factor causing the loss of rainforest is expanding urban areas. Littoral Rainforest growing along coastal areas of eastern Australia is now rare due to ribbon development to accommodate the demand for seachange lifestyles.[24]

The forests are being destroyed at a rapid pace.[25][26][27] Almost 90% of West Africa's rainforest has been destroyed.[28] Since the arrival of humans 2000 years ago, Madagascar has lost two thirds of its original rainforest.[29] At present rates, tropical rainforests in Indonesia would be logged out in 10 years and Papua New Guinea in 13 to 16 years.[30]

Several countries,[31] notably Brazil, have declared their deforestation a national emergency.[32] Amazon deforestation jumped by 69% in 2008 compared to 2007's twelve months, according to official government data.[33] Deforestation could wipe out or severely damage nearly 60% of the Amazon Rainforest by 2030, says a new report from WWF.[34]

However, a January 30, 2009 New York Times article stated, "By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics..." The new forest includes secondary forest on former farmland and so-called degraded forest.[35]

See also


  1. ^ "Rainforests.net - Variables and Math". http://www.rainforests.net/variables.htm. Retrieved on 2009-01-04. 
  2. ^ Rainforests at Animal Center
  3. ^ Killer Inhabitants of the Rainforests
  4. ^ Hobgood (2008). Global Pattern of Surface Pressure and Wind. Ohio State University. Retrieved on 2009-03-08.
  5. ^ Broeker, Wallace S. (2006). "Breathing easy: Et tu, O2." Columbia University http://www.columbia.edu/cu/21stC/issue-2.1/broecker.htm.
  6. ^ Moran, E.F., "Deforestation and Land Use in the Brazilian Amazon," Human Ecology, Vol 21, No. 1, 1993"
  7. ^ Bourgeron, Patrick S.. "Spatial Aspects of Vegetation Structure". in Frank B. Golley. Tropical Rain Forest Ecosystems. Structure and Function. Ecosystems of the World (14A ed.). Elsevier Scientific. pp. 29–47. ISBN 0444419861. 
  8. ^ "Sabah". Eastern Native Tree Society. http://www.nativetreesociety.org/worldtrees/sea_ei/malaysia/sabah2005.htm. Retrieved on 2007-11-14. 
  9. ^ Dendronautics - Introduction
  10. ^ Rainforest Facts
  11. ^ Impact of Deforestation—Extinction
  12. ^ http://www.grida.no/CLIMATE/IPCC_TAR/wg1/pdf/TAR-03.PDF
  13. ^ Lewis, S.L. , Phillips, O.L., Baker, T.R., Lloyd, J. et al 2004 “Concerted changes in tropical forest structure and dynamics: evidence from 50 South American long-term plots” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. 359
  14. ^ Malhi, Y and Grace, J. 2000 " Tropical forests and atmospheric carbon dioxide”, Tree 15
  15. ^ Drought may turn forests into carbon producers - Science - www.theage.com.au
  16. ^ http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/hadleycentre/pubs/HCTN/HCTN_42.pdf[dead link]
  17. ^ Myers, N. (1985). The primary source. W. W. Norton and Co., New York, pp. 189-193.
  18. ^ Final Paper: The Medicinal Value of the Rainforest May, 15 2003. Amanda Haidet May 2003
  19. ^ Brazil sees traces of more isolated Amazon tribes
  20. ^ BBC: First contact with isolated tribes?
  21. ^ The Tribal Peoples, thinkquest.org/library
  22. ^ Entire rainforests set to disappear in next decade, The Independent
  23. ^ Talks Seek to Prevent Huge Loss of Species, New York Times
  24. ^ Littoral Rainforest-Why is it threatened?
  25. ^ Thomas Marent: Out of the woods, The Independent
  26. ^ Brazil: Amazon Forest Destruction Rate Has Tripled, FOXNews.com, September 29, 2008
  27. ^ Papua New Guinea's rainforests disappearing faster than thought
  28. ^ Rainforests & Agriculture
  29. ^ Science: Satellite monitors Madagascar's shrinking rainforest, 19 May 1990, New Scientist
  30. ^ China is black hole of Asia's deforestation, Asia News, 24 March, 2008
  31. ^ Amazon deforestation rises sharply in 2007, USATODAY.com, January 24, 2008
  32. ^ Rainforest loss shocks Brazil
  33. ^ Brazil: Amazon deforestation worsens, msnbc.com, August 30, 2008
  34. ^ More than half of Amazon will be lost by 2030, report warns, guardian.co.uk, December 6, 2007
  35. ^ New Jungles Prompt a Debate on Rain Forests, The New York Times, January 30, 2009

Further reading

  • Butler, R. A. (2005) A Place Out of Time: Tropical Rainforests and the Perils They Face. Published online: rainforests.mongabay.com
  • Richards, P. W. (1996). The tropical rain forest. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-42194-2
  • Whitmore, T. C. (1998) An introduction to tropical rain forests. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-850147-1

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