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A forest is a large area dominated by trees. Hundreds of more precise definitions of forest are used throughout the world, incorporating factors such as tree density, tree height, land use, legal standing and ecological function. According to the widely used Food and Agriculture Organization definition, forests covered 4 billion hectares (9.9Ô109 acres) (15 million square miles) or approximately 30 percent of the world's land area in 2006.
Forests at different latitudes and elevations form distinctly different ecozones: boreal forests around the poles, tropical forests around the Equator, and temperate forests at the middle latitudes. Higher elevation areas tend to support forests similar to those at higher latitudes, and amount of precipitation also affects forest composition.
There are three broad categories of forest definitions in use: administrative, land use, and land cover. Administrative definitions are based primarily upon the legal designations of land, and commonly bear little relationship to the vegetation growing on the land: land that is legally designated as a forest is defined as a forest even if no trees are growing on it. Land use definitions are based upon the primary purpose that the land serves. For example, a forest may be defined as any land that is used primarily for production of timber. Under such a land use definition, cleared roads or infrastructure within an area used for forestry, or areas within the region that have been cleared by harvesting, disease or fire are still considered forests even if they contain no trees. Land cover definitions define forests based upon the type and density of vegetation growing on the land. Such definitions typically define a forest as an area growing trees above some threshold. These thresholds are typically the number of trees per area (density), the area of ground under the tree canopy (canopy cover) or the section of land that is occupied by the cross-section of tree trunks (basal area). Under such land cover definitions, an area of land can only be known as forest if it is growing trees. Areas that fail to meet the land cover definition may be still included under while immature trees are establishing if they are expected to meet the definition at maturity.
The first known forests on Earth arose in the Late Devonian (approximately 380 million years ago), with the evolution of Archaeopteris. Archaeopteris was a plant that was both tree-like and fern-like, growing to 10 metres (33 ft) in height. Archaeopteris quickly spread throughout the world, from the equator to subpolar latitudes. Archaeopteris formed the first forest by being the first known species to cast shade due to its fronds and forming soil from its roots. Archaeopteris was deciduous, dropping its fronds onto the forest floor. The shade, soil, and forest duff from the dropped fronds created the first forest. The shed organic matter altered the freshwater environment, slowing it down and providing food. This promoted freshwater fish.
Forests account for 75% of the gross primary productivity of the Earth's biosphere, and contain 80% of the Earth's plant biomass. Forest ecosystems can be found in all regions capable of sustaining tree growth, at altitudes up to the tree line, except where natural fire frequency or other disturbance is too high, or where the environment has been altered by human activity.
Forests sometimes contain many tree species within a small area (as in tropical rain and temperate deciduous forests), or relatively few species over large areas (e.g., taiga and arid montane coniferous forests). Forests are often home to many animal and plant species, and biomass per unit area is high compared to other vegetation communities. Much of this biomass occurs below ground in the root systems and as partially decomposed plant detritus. The woody component of a forest contains lignin, which is relatively slow to decompose compared with other organic materials such as cellulose or carbohydrate.
Forests can also be classified according to the amount of human alteration. Old-growth forest contains mainly natural patterns of biodiversity in established seral patterns, and they contain mainly species native to the region and habitat. In contrast, secondary forest is regrowing forest following timber harvest and may contain species originally from other regions or habitats.
Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests include a substantial component of trees in the Anthophyta. They are generally characteristic of the warmer temperate latitudes, but extend to cool temperate ones, particularly in the southern hemisphere. They include such forest types as the mixed deciduous forests of the United States and their counterparts in China and Japan, the broadleaf evergreen rainforests of Japan, Chile and Tasmania, the sclerophyllous forests of Australia, central Chile, the Mediterranean and California, and the southern beech Nothofagus forests of Chile and New Zealand.
Sparse trees and savanna are forests with lower canopy cover of trees. They occur principally in areas of transition from forested to non-forested landscapes. The two major zones in which these ecosystems occur are in the boreal region and in the seasonally dry tropics. At high latitudes, north of the main zone of boreal forest, growing conditions are not adequate to maintain a continuous closed forest cover, so tree cover is both sparse and discontinuous. This vegetation is variously called open taiga, open lichen woodland, and forest tundra. A savanna is a mixed woodland grassland ecosystem characterized by the trees being sufficiently widely spaced so that the canopy does not close. The open canopy allows sufficient light to reach the ground to support an unbroken herbaceous layer consisting primarily of grasses. Savannas maintain an open canopy despite a high tree density.
Some researchers state that forests do not only provide benefits, but can in certain cases also incur costs to humans. Forests may impose an economic burden, diminish the enjoyment of natural areas, reduce the food producing capacity of grazing land and cultivated land, reduce biodiversity reduce available water for humans and wildlife, harbour dangerous or destructive wildlife, and act as reservoirs of human and livestock disease.