Rainforests are found around the equator in areas that are hot and get a lot of rain. Rainforests get 66-390 inches of rain a year. This much water is able to support the growth of many plants and trees, which in turn supports a huge diversity of animal life.
Rainforests are important for several reasons:
They provide a home for many of the world's plants and animals,
they protect against drought, flooding, and soil erosion,
they provide medicine and food,
and they maintain the world's water cycle.
Rainforests regulate the climate and store water:
The trees in rainforests produce a lot of oxygen (the Amazon rainforest alone produces 20% of the world's oxygen), and store large amounts of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change if released in the atmosphere). Rainforests absorb solar radiation as well. This all helps to stabilize the climate.
The trees draw water from the forest floor and store it (they actually store up to half of the world's fresh water). As the rainforest heats up, this water is released into the atmosphere as clouds and mist. Water travels in clouds around the world. Water generated in the rainforests of Africa actually travel as clouds to rain down on South America. Water that rains down is recycled into rivers and lakes, and this process prevents droughts.
Rainforests contain the greatest amount of the world's biodiversity.
Half of the world's plant and animal species live in rainforests. Within a small area, you can find a huge variety of different species. Many species have evolved to become specialized to a specific niche, which allows many species to live very close to each other because each uses slightly different resources.
One square mile could contain 50,000 species of insects. A single bush could have more ant species than the United Kingdom and Ireland combined.
25% of modern medicine comes from plants in the rainforest. In fact, 70% of plants used to treat cancer come from the rainforest, which is impressive since scientists have analyzed less than 1% of plants to determine their potential use to humans. That means there are quite a few unexplored treatments just waiting to be found!
Rainforests have four layers: the forest floor, understory, canopy, and emergent layer. Each layer has a unique community of plants and animals adapted to live in that particular layer.
The forest floor receives very little sunlight because the densely packed trees in the upper layers block most of the sun. The plants on the forest floor are adapted to low-light conditions, and there aren't generally many plants living in this layer (unless it's in a clearing or along a river where more sunlight gets through). Because this leaves the forest floor relatively open, large animals can easily move through here.
The understory layer also receives very little sunlight, but gets more than the forest floor. Because of the low light, the small trees and shrubs rarely grow taller than 10 feet. They also grow large leaves to absorb as much sunlight as possible.
The canopy layer is the primary layer. This layer contains the majority of the large trees in the rainforest. It also has the most species - birds, sloths, monkeys, and millions of insects. It has many epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), like orchids, mosses, and bromeliads.
The emergent layer contains a few very large trees that grow above the canopy layer. These trees can be over 200 feet tall! The animals that live high up on the unstable top branches of these tall trees are usually animals that fly or glide.
Animals that live in the rainforest
From the forest floor:
Okapi live in the rainforest in Central Africa, and are closely related to giraffes. They are herbivores- eating leaves, grass, fruit, and fungi. They have long black tongues that wrap around leaves and pull them off the trees. The stripes on their hindquarters help them camouflage into foliage.
Tapirs live in Central and South America, as well as Southeast Asia. They are herbivores and use their prehensile (flexible in order to grasp objects) nose to grab foliage.
Gorillas are ground dwelling primates that live in the rainforests of Sub-Saharan Africa. They eat mostly foliage (plants). Gorillas live in troops consisting of an adult male (called a silverback) and several females. The silverback is the center of attention, solves conflicts, and is responsible for the safety of the troop.
From the understory:
Coati live in the rainforests of Central and South America. While they forage on the forest floor, they rest and sleep in the understory. They are related to raccoons, and travel in packs. Coati are omnivores- eating things like fruit, lizards, and birds eggs.
Poison dart frogs come in a wide range of bright colors that help keep them from being eaten. The bright colors tell other animals "I'm toxic!" Poison dart frogs have long, sticky tongues that they shoot out to capture bugs. These frogs are found in Central and South American rainforests.
From the canopy layer:
Jaguars are found in Central and South America, and their preferred habitat is the rainforest, where there is thick vegetation to help them stalk their prey. They are quite good swimmers, and will hunt in the water as well as on land. Jaguars are apex predators (they are at the top of the food chain). They are also a keystone species, meaning they help keep the rest of the ecosystem in balance.
Many birds like toucans can be found in the canopy layer. Toucans live in Central and South America. They often live in small flocks and make their nests in the hallows of trees. Their trademark large bill is used to eat fruit, though they also eat insects, lizards, and other birds' eggs. They also use their bill to fence with other toucans, to get to food that might otherwise be out of reach, and to regulate their temperature. The bill has a network of blood vessels, and moving blood through the bill releases heat. To keep warm, toucans tuck their bill under their feathers while they sleep.
On the branch, you can see some epiphytes - small plants that grow on trees.
Howler monkeys are the loudest of all the monkeys. They make a barking or roaring noise that another group of howler monkeys will answer. They live in Central and South America, and rarely ever leave the tree canopy. They have prehensile tails that they use to grip branches.
Sloths spend almost all their lives safely in the canopy of rainforests. The move very slowly, which makes them hard for predators to find. They also have algae, fungi, and moths that live in their fur, which keep them camouflaged. Some of the species of fungi found on sloths are effective at combating certain bacteria, cancer, and parasites. Sloths have specialized hook shaped fingers that allow them to easily hang from branches without spending energy. They have a great sense of smell and sniff each leaf before they eat it to find the youngest leaves, which have less toxins than older leaves.
From the emergent layer:
Harpy eagles perch on emergent trees in order to hunt. Their main prey are sloths and monkeys. Their talons are the largest of any eagle and can lift an animal equal to their own weight.
Flying foxes are fruit bats that live in the emergent layer. While they mostly eat fruit, they also eat nectar from flowers. They live in Australia, East Africa, and Asia. Flying foxes are valuable to the ecosystem by providing pollination and seed dispersal services.
Threats to the rainforest
Unfortunately, the rainforest is being cut down at an alarming rate. Roughly 36 football fields of land are lost every MINUTE! That means that each year, we lose an area of rainforest roughly the size of the Czech Republic, or South Carolina. Because of this loss of habitat, 135 plant and animal species are lost every day as well.
The chief cause of rainforest deforestation is agricultural development. Land is cleared for palm oil plantations, cattle ranching, and soy fields. Trees are also cleared for logging, and mining for gold and oil. Land is often cleared using slash-and-burn techniques, which can result in out of control wildfires.
Clearing even small tracts of land for roads or buildings reduces habitat and food for animals, and creates barriers to movement. Some animals like sloths are impacted by the loss of even one tree. Sloths avoid walking on the ground because predators can attack them easily. However, if there is a gap in the canopy that makes it impossible to move to the neighboring tree by touching branches, sloths are forced to the ground. Other animals are cut off from finding mates or food because roads or plantations cause gaps in the rainforest. These animals risk harm by attempting to cross these gaps.
Trees store carbon from the atmosphere. When they are cut down, they release the greenhouse gases back out which accelerates climate change. Trees also control the water cycle, and without them less water is returned to the soil. Without trees to help land hold nutrients, topsoil and water, the soil dries out and erodes away. Crops have difficulty growing, and the land is more susceptible to flooding.
Another threat to the biodiversity of the rainforests is the illegal removal of plants and animals. They are sold in other countries as pets, food, and medicine.
How you can help:
Never purchase an exotic pet! Wild animals like sloths and slow lorises belong in the wild where they are happy and can contribute to the ecosystem. Also avoid any holistic medicine made of animal parts. Remember that an animal had to die to make any product you buy with it.
If you are on vacation do not pay to hold, cuddle, or closely interact with these animals either. Animals are stolen from the wild, can be stolen from their mothers, and often treated poorly and die due to these interactions. For example, sloths are pulled out of trees to offer to tourists for photos. This makes the sloths very stressed which is fatal for the sloth.
By eating more of a plant based diet, and reducing the amount of meat you eat, you can actually make a huge impact on the environment. The lower the demand for beef, the less land is cleared for ranching. Eating food that is produced locally also helps reduce the pressure on other countries' ecosystems. The same is true for products that contain palm oil. Palm oil is in many foods, soap, lotion, and cosmetics. By reading ingredient labels, and choosing products without palm oil, you make a difference by avoiding a product that causes significant deforestation.
Reduce your use of products. Water, timber, and minerals are required to make many products. By reducing your consumption, you can help preserve these resources.
Remember that all wild animals need to be left in the wild, and given their space to feel safe.