Layers of Complexity: Secrets of the Rainforest Canopy

In January, my husband David and I had a rare opportunity to spend almost two weeks in the remote rainforest of the Las Piedras region of South-eastern Peru during the height of the rainy season.

It took Liz Feldman – WildFF founding board member and our daughter – a year to organise this special adventure. Her diligent planning meant that 21 family members and friends could experience the wonders of this totally pristine environment. This area has no roads, so we traveled by boat on the Las Piedras River and walked through the forest. Besides our backpacks, ponchos and boots, we also brought all our food and water supplies.

The biological importance of rainforests

Rainforests cover 1 700 million hectares, 6% of the Earth's surface
Rainforests cover 1 700 million hectares, 6% of the Earth’s surface

A rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse habitats on earth. Whether in Africa, South-east Asia or South America, rainforests behave in the same way. They share several defining characteristics: warm climate; intense precipitation; dense canopy structure; complex symbiotic relationships; and an enormous diversity of species.

Tropical rainforests cover just 6% of the Earth’s surface, but contain more than half of all animal, insect and plant species.

And according to tropical ecologists, 50% of insect species and 30% of plant and animal species remain undiscovered in this abundant environment. The tropical rainforest is the undisputed champion of biodiversity among the world’s ecosystems.

Capuchin monkey in the rainforest
Capuchin monkey in the rainforest

Layer upon layer

Unlike other ecosystems, the rainforest grows 365 days a year. This is due to the enormous volume of rainfall, and temperatures that range from 72-95 degrees all year round. Perfect growing conditions! This creates a dense habitat made up of a unique four layered canopy.

Emergent layer

This is the tallest layer, where the trees sometimes tower 200 feet or more above the forest floor.  In Peru, you will find the ironwood and the ceiba trees with their enormous buttresses. The Brazil nut tree which can reach heights of 160 feet is also in this layer. Sunlight is plentiful and the lofty environment is home to harpy eagles; many monkey species; bats; sloths; and butterflies, including the iridescent blue morpho butterfly with an impressive six inch wingspan.

Sun shining through the huge trees of the emergent layer in the Las Piedras region, Peru
Sun shining through the huge trees of the emergent layer in the Las Piedras region, Peru

Canopy layer

The next layer down forms a dense roof over the two remaining layers. It’s an intricate maze of leaves, vines and branches. Because it provides so many food opportunities, it’s home to an amazing amount of animal and insect species including social spiders, snakes, toucans, macaws, and tree frogs.

Vines at the Las Piedras Amazon Centre
Vines at the Las Piedras Amazon Centre

Understory layer

The next layer down is the Understory Layer. Little sunshine reaches this area so the plants generally stop growing at around 12 feet. They grow large, wide leaves adapted to harvest as much sunshine as possible. This layer is the home of poison dart frogs, and thousands of insect species, including red fire ants, bullet ants, and spiders of all shapes and sizes.

Looking down at the ferns and plants of the understory layer
Looking down at the ferns and plants of the understory layer

Forest floor

The lowest layer is the Forest Floor. This area is very dark because sunlight hardly ever reaches it. As a result, almost no plants grow here. Even on a clear day less than 5% of sunlight reaches the forest floor. This causes all leaf litter to decompose very quickly – it’s gone in as little as 6 weeks!

Helping out with this process are the legions of fungi, bacteria and insects. Here among the leaf litter you’ll find the giant anteater, jaguar, ocelot, tapir (the largest mammal in the rainforest), peccary, and the nine banded armadillo.

A green lizard adapted to live in the forest floor
A green lizard adapted to live in the forest floor

This is the first blog in our Las Piedras series. We’ll bring you closer to the rainforest by sharing the special experiences our guest bloggers have had in this magical place. Next up: David’s story of arriving at the rainforest’s hidden Las Piedras Amazon Centre.



About the Author

Catherine Carney-Feldman

Catherine Carney-Feldman

Catherine Carney-Feldman is a member of the Ipswich Conservation Commission and owner of Shamrock Acres Environmental Landscaping (978 356-7093). She lectures and teaches all components of environmental gardening including the “Web Of Life”. She volunteers every Tuesday morning in the growing season in the gardens at the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary.

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