Tropical Forest Community Ecology

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Historically, tropical ecology has been a science often content with descriptive and demographic approaches, which is understandable given the difficulty of studying these ecosystems and the need for basic demographic information. A mat of plant roots explores the humus beneath the rapidly decomposing surface layer of dead leaves and twigs, and even rotting logs are invaded by roots from below.

Because nutrients are typically scarce at depth but, along with moisture, are readily available in surface layers, few roots penetrate very deeply into the soil.

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This shallow rooting pattern increases the likelihood of tree falls during storms, despite the support that many trees receive from flangelike plank buttresses growing radially outward from their trunk bases. When large trees fall, they may take with them other trees against which they collapse or to which they are tied by a web of lianas and thereby create gaps in the canopy.

Tree growth requires substantial energy investment in trunk development, which some plants avoid by depending on the stems of other plants for support. Perhaps the most obvious adaptation of this sort is seen in plants that climb from the ground to the uppermost canopy along other plants by using devices that resemble grapnel-like hooks.


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Lianas are climbers that are abundant and diverse in tropical rainforests; they are massive woody plants whose mature stems often loop through hundreds of metres of forest, sending shoots into new tree crowns as successive supporting trees die and decay. Climbing palms or rattans Calamus are prominent lianas in Asian rainforests, where the stems, which are used to make cane furniture , provide a valuable economic resource.

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Processes in Tropical Ecosystems

Epiphytes are particularly diverse and include large plants such as orchids , aroids, bromeliads, and ferns in addition to smaller plants such as algae, mosses, and lichens. In tropical rainforests epiphytes are often so abundant that their weight fells trees. Epiphytes that grow near the upper canopy of the forest have access to bright sunlight but must survive without root contact with the soil.

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They depend on rain washing over them to provide water and mineral nutrients. During periods of drought , epiphytes undergo stress as water stored within their tissues becomes depleted. The diversity of epiphytes in tropical deciduous forests is much less than that of tropical rainforests because of the annual dry season see Sidebar: Life in a Bromeliad Pool. Parasitic flowering plants also occur. Hemiparasitic mistletoes attached to tree branches extract water and minerals from their hosts but carry out their own photosynthesis.

Plants that are completely parasitic also are found in tropical rainforests. Rafflesia , in Southeast Asia , parasitizes the roots of certain lianas and produces no aboveground parts until it flowers; its large orange and yellow blooms, nearly one metre in diameter, are the largest flowers of any plant. Stranglers make up a type of synusia virtually restricted to tropical rainforests.


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  • In this group are strangler figs Ficus , which begin life as epiphytes, growing from seeds left on high tree branches by birds or fruit bats. As they grow, they develop long roots that descend along the trunk of the host tree, eventually reaching the ground and entering the soil. Several roots usually do this, and they become grafted together as they crisscross each other to form a lattice, ultimately creating a nearly complete sheath around the trunk.

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    Why are tropical forests so diverse? New study examines role of 'natural enemies'

    Why are there are so many species in tropical forests and what mechanisms are responsible for the maintenance of that vast species diversity? What factors control species coexistence? Are there common patterns of species abundance and distribution across broad geographic scales? What is the role of trophic interactions in these complex ecosystems?

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