Rainforest structure

What makes a rainforest?

Ferns - Upper Mossman Creek
Photographer: Kerry Trapnell

The rainforest page describes lots of different types of rainforest, often distinguished by their structure and leaf size, rather than

individual species.

So what makes a rainforest? What qualities does a rainforest have? In general, as their names suggests,  they are wet and misty, with high rainfalls. They are warm or hot. They are shady, with closely spaced trees forming a canopy like an umbrella. They are full of diverse plants such as trees, shrubs, vines and epiphytes. Tree roots often form buttresses. The forest floor is a moist and decomposing layer of litter with lots of fungi and bacteria. Tropical rainforests usually have large number of plant and animal species, mixed and spread throughout the forest. The more fertile the soils and higher the rainfall, the more complex the rainforest structure and diversity.

A good way to understand how rainforest ecosystems work is to look at their structure. We can divide the forest into layers from top to bottom and look at some different plants and animals that live there. It is interesting to watch a newly planted rainforest over time as it grows and develops a canopy and understorey and a variety of rainforest plants such as vines and epiphytes. The four rainforest layers shown in the structure diagram are:

  • Emergents (large trees which poke out of the canopy)
  • The canopy (exposed to the sunlight and providing shade below)
  • The understorey (a shady, moist place)
  • The leaf litter or cryptoshere (providing a rich layer of decomposing leaves and wood) for the soil.

Rainforest structure diagram
Photographer: WTMA


Wet Tropics Management Authority


More information

There is a wealth of information and activities in Rainforest Explorer (Years 4 to 7, Unit 1) about rainforest structure and plants.

You download a copy of the:

You can download factsheets about different aspects of rainforest structure here::

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