The Structure of a Forest

The Layers of Vegetation in a Forest

Forests are structured in vertical layers.
Forests are structured in vertical layers. Photo © Kaspars Grinvalds / Shutterstock.

Forests are habitats in which the trees are the dominant form of vegetation. They occur in many regions and climates around the globe—the tropical rainforests of the Amazon basin, the temperate forests of eastern North America, and the boreal forests of northern Europe are just a few examples.

The species composition of a forest is often unique to that forest, with some forests consisting of many hundreds of species of trees while others consist of just a handful of species. Forests are constantly changing and progress through a series of successional stages during which species composition changes within the forest.

Thus, making general statements about forest habitats can be difficult. Yet despite the variability of our planet's forests, there are some basic structural characteristics that many forests share—characteristics that can help us to better understand both forests and the animals and wildlife that inhabit them.

Mature forests often have several distinct vertical layers. These include:

  • Forest floor layer - The forest floor is often blanketed with decaying leaves, twigs, fallen trees, animal scat, moss, and other detritus. The forest floor is where recycling occurs, fungi, insects, bacteria, and earthworms are among the many organisms that break down waste materials and ready them for reuse and recycling throughout the forest system.
  • Herb layer - The herb layer of the forest is dominated by herbaceous (or soft-stemmed) plants such as grasses, ferns, wildflowers, and other ground cover. Vegetation in the herb layer often gets little light and in forests with thick canopies, shade tolerant species are predominant in the herb layer.
  • Shrub layer - The shrub layer is characterized by woody vegetation that grows relatively close to the ground. Bushes and brambles grown where enough light passes through the canopy to support shrub growth.
  • Understory layer - The understory of a forest consists of immature trees and small trees that are shorter than the main canopy level of the tree. Understory trees provide shelter for a wide range of animals. When gaps form in the canopy, often times understory trees take advantage of the opening and grow to fill in the canopy.
  • Canopy layer - The canopy is the layer where the crowns of most of the forest's trees meet and form a thick layer.
  • Emergent layer - Emergents are trees whose crowns emerge above the rest of the canopy.

These different layers provide a mosaic of habitats and enable animals and wildlife to settle into various pockets of habitat within the overall structure of a forest. Different species use the various structural aspects of the forest in their own unique ways. Species might occupy overlapping layers within a forest but their use of those layers might occur at different times of day so that they do not compete with one another.