Forest ecology

Forest ecology

Forest ecology is the scientific study of the interrelated patterns, processes, flora, fauna and ecosystems in forests. The management of forests is known as forestry and forest management.

Forest ecosystem

An ecosystem is a natural unit consisting of all plants, animals and micro-organisms (biotic factors) in an area functioning together with all of the non-living physical (abiotic) factors of the environment. [Robert W. Christopherson (1996). "Geosystems: An Introduction to Physical Geography". Prentice Hall Inc.] For example,

cope of forest ecology

Forest ecology is one branch of a biotically-oriented classification of types of ecological study (as opposed to a classification based on organizational level or complexity (e.g population or community ecology)). Thus, forests can be, and are, studied at any number of organizational levels, from the individual organism to the ecosystem. However, as the term forest connotes an area inhabited by more than one organism, forest ecology most often concentrates on the level of the population, community or ecosystem. Logically, trees are an important component of forest research, but the wide variety of other life forms and abiotic components in most forests means that other elements, such as wildlife or soil nutrients, are often the focal point. [ [ Smithsonian Forest Ecology Lab] , August 2008.] Thus, forest ecology is a highly diverse and important branch of ecological study.

Unique aspects of forest ecology

Forest ecology studies share characteristics and methodological approaches with other areas of terrestrial plant ecology. However, the presence of trees makes forest ecosystems and their study unique in at least four ways.

Community diversity and complexity

Firstly, since trees grow to much larger sizes than other plant life-forms, there is the potential for a wide variety of forest structures (or physiognomies). The infinite number of possible spatial arrangements of trees of varying size and species makes for a highly intricate and diverse micro-environment in which environmental variables such as solar radiation, temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed can vary greatly over large and small distances. In addition, an important proportion of a forest ecosystem's biomass is often underground, where variations in soil structure, water quality and quantity, and levels of various soil nutrients can vary greatly. Thus, forests are often highly heterogeneous environments compared to other terrestrial plant communities. This heterogeneity in turn greatly affects how forest studies are designed and executed. It also affects the design of forest inventory sampling strategies, the results of which are sometimes used in ecological studies.

Energy potential

Secondly, forests accumulate large amounts of standing biomass, and many are capable of accumulating it at high rates, i.e. they are highly productive. Such high levels of biomass and tall vertical structures represent large stores of potential energy that can be converted to kinetic energy under the right circumstances. Two such conversions of great importance are fires and treefalls, both of which radically alter the biota and the physical environment where they occur. Also, in forests of high productivity, the rapid growth of the trees themselves induces biotic and environmental changes, although at a slower rate and lower intensity than relatively instantaneous disturbances such as fires.

Death in the forest ecosystem

Thirdly, the woody materials in many forests decay relatively slowly in comparison to most other organic materials, due to a combination of environmental factors and wood chemistry (see lignin). Trees growing in arid and/or cold environments do so especially slowly. Thus, tree trunks and branches can remain on the forest floor for long periods, affecting such things as wildlife habitat, fire behavior, and tree regeneration processes. This is also an important factor in the science of dendrochronology.


Lastly, forest trees store large amounts of water because of their large size and anatomical/physiological characteristics. They are therefore important regulators of hydrological processes, especially those involving groundwater hydrology and local evaporation and |rainfall/snowfall patterns. Thus, forest ecological studies are sometimes closely aligned with meteorological and hydrological studies in regional ecosystem or resource planning studies.

ee also

*Old Growth forest
*Earth Science


External links

* [ Smithsonian Forest Ecology Laboratory] at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

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