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What is the Forest Canopy?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The forest canopy is the uppermost layer of a forest, characterized by the crowns of the trees and a handful of emergent specimens with heights that shoot above the canopy. The canopy is critical to a forest's well-being, and it provides habitat to a wide range of plants and animals. In fact, the canopy is so unique that some organisms spend their entire lives there, never venturing down to the ground.

If you've ever walked in a forest and looked up to the area where the crowns of the trees meet, you've looked at the forest canopy. The branches and leaves in the canopy can intercept as much as 95% of the available light, making the understory of the forest deeply shaded. You may also hear the canopy referred to as the topstory, referencing the fact that it comprises the very top of the forest.

Only certain trees reach the height of the canopy. These trees often have suppressed growth as seedlings while they wait in the understory. When a canopy tree falls, a seedling shoots up to take its place, growing rapidly so that it can reach the light. Once the tree reaches the height of the canopy, it tops out, adding girth but not much height. Eventually, it will die or be damaged in a storm, falling to the ground and contributing to the thick layer of decaying organic material on the forest floor while another seedling takes its place.

Epiphytic plants, lichens, and ferns often live in the forest canopy, sometimes in the uppermost layers so that they can take advantage of the light and ample supply of water, and sometimes in lower regions. These plants combine with the trees to create habitat for birds, insects, and mammals large and small. In the tropics, creatures like big cats may frequent the canopy looking for meals, and the canopy also hosts monkeys, snakes, and a variety of other animals.

The forest is quite a unique ecosystem, with a number of microclimates within a mature and healthy forest. These microclimates sustain some very diverse creatures in all shapes, colors, and sizes, making a visit to any forest an interesting expedition, for those who have the patience to wait and observe. Even in a very small area of a forest, it is possible to count numerous organisms, from tiny fungi on the ground to towering canopy trees.

Some researchers work in the forest canopy, studying this unique environment and the animals which call it home. Permanent research stations with tree houses, zip lines, and other equipment may be installed, and it is also possible to explore the canopy simply by climbing into it, assuming one has the equipment to do so. Scientists try to be careful in the forest canopy, as they do not want to disrupt the forest ecosystem by breaking branches, damaging plants, or scaring animals away.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Comparables — On Jan 02, 2011

I thought one of the best scenes in the Planet Earth series was the scene that showed a time lapse of the battle for seedlings to overtake a toppled tree's place in the canopy. It was such a cool sequence, and it made plants seem more alive than they are.

By Glasshouse — On Dec 30, 2010

@ Amphibious54- That sounds like so much fun. I think it would be great to take a tour through the canopy of an old growth forest. As the article stated, the canopy of tropical forest are filled with all kinds of plants and animals, nit just leaves. Some of these creatures never leave the canopy. I can only imagine some of the adaptations that these animals have developed spending their entire lives a couple hundred feet off the ground.

By Amphibious54 — On Dec 27, 2010

My friend is into eco tours and adventure tours. She went to Costa Rica on a sustainable agriculture volunteer trip for a month last year. On her tour, she went on a rainforest canopy tour through the cloud forests of Montverde. She said the tour was a couple hours of climbing hundreds of feet into the air, zip lining from tree to tree, and rappelling down huge trees to the rainforest floor. She said that it was a great way to see the rainforest canopy ecosystem. She said it was also one of the scariest things she has done.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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