A Place with Many Levels

By Anna Mazzaro
February 7, 2003

I'm sitting here in the middle of the forest. Earlier in the day, light drizzle fell, wetting the leaves. As I take a break from my walk, I hear a long conversation between parrots. I don't see them because they are very well camouflaged but I can hear them loud and clear. And, with this noise in the background and the refreshing breeze that came after the brief rain, I start paying more attention to the vegetation in the forest.

Now is the dry season. There are lots of dry leaves, branches, and even tree trunks on the forest floor. Even though there's need of water, there is a variety of greens on the trees what makes a very clear distinction of the levels or layers of the rain forest vegetation. It's like a house with several floors.

There are the tall trees that are above the canopy. These trees are the tallest trees in the forest. They are called the emergent layer. They are the ones that get the most sunlight. But they also have to pay a price for this luxury: they are the ones that are more "punished" by the strong winds, the heat, and the low humidity. For this reason they have relatively small leaves.

Right below the emergent trees there's the canopy. The canopy trees with the emergent layer act like a big umbrella that catches most of the sun's rays and rain. Monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and many other animals enjoy the leaves and fruits of these trees.

Waiting to get to the canopy are the small trees that are the understory layer. These trees are waiting for sunlight to grow. I'm sure you have heard that animals fight in order to obtain food, to keep their space, and even to acquire their mates. But have you heard that plants fight? Yes, in order to get to the sunlight, plants fight for the space that will allow them to get there soon. When a big tree falls in the forest, a clearing opens. The small trees that didn't get the sunlight before because the big tree was there, now start growing very fast to get first to the sun's rays. They rise to the sun!! Some of them will make it, others not. All this happens at the understory level.

But wait...let's not forget the forest floor. The bottom of the floor is very different from the canopy. There's very little sunlight, humidity is high, winds are calm, temperature is pretty constant, and these conditions make the vegetation grow sparse.

What a beautiful place this is! I can see the diversity of plants and animals in this place and I think how important it is to protect rain forests.

The parrots are still talking; they don't seem to get tired. I have to continue with my walk. There are many more plants and animals I have to see.

Hasta pronto,

Something to think about...

If you were a tree in the rain forest, in which layer would you like to be?