Rainforest Layers

Rainforest Layers

On this page, we’ll be looking at rainforest layers. You’ll find out exactly what the layers of the rainforest are, and learn about the animals and plants that live in each of them.

You’ll also see pictures of each rainforest layer and the animals that call them home.

Part of our Rainforest Information Series.

Rainforest Layers:

The layers of a rainforest, from the highest to the lowest, are:

  • Emergent layer (the tops of the highest trees)
  • Canopy layer (the branches and leaves of most of the rainforest trees; where most of the rainforest’s species are found)
  • Understory layer (small trees and shrubs able to live in low-light conditions)
  • Forest Floor layer (the dark, damp ground layer, where the rainforest’s largest animals are found)

What Are The Layers Of A Rainforest?

Layers Of A Rainforest

The layers of a rainforest are natural divisions that occur at different heights from the ground.

Rainforests are incredible places, full of life in many different shapes and sizes. In fact, over half of the world’s animal and plant species live in rainforests!

One characteristic of rainforests that you’ll often hear about is that they have layers.

As we’ve seen, there are four main layers, the emergent, canopy, understory and forest floor (from highest to lowest).

Rainforest layers are natural divisions that occur at different heights above the forest floor. Each layer of the rainforest forms a habitat for a different group of plants and animals.

However, the layers aren’t completely separate from each other. They sometimes merge into each other, animals can move between them, and their boundaries aren’t always clearly defined.

As much as anything else, rainforest layers provide a useful way for naturalists to talk about a rainforest, and to study (and explain) how it works.

We’re now going to take an in-depth look at the layers of a rainforest, and see what animals and plants live in each one!

We’re going to start at the bottom layer (the forest floor), and make our way right up to the emergent layer at the very top!

Forest Floor

Forest Floor Layer Rainforest

The forest floor is where the largest rainforest animals are found. Notice the wide roots, known as ‘buttress roots’.

The forest floor is a dark, damp and hot place. Only 2% of the sunlight that falls on a rainforest reaches the forest floor.

Surprisingly, rainforest soil isn’t very rich in nutrients. This is why rainforest trees need wide – rather than deep – roots. They provide stability in the thin rainforest soil, and also help the trees to find the nutrients they need.

(You can find out more about rainforest plants here: Tropical Rainforest Plants List.)

Living among the soil and leaf litter (dead leaves) are some of the rainforests most industrious animals: leafcutter ants. These incredible insects are found in the rainforests of Central and South America. They live in colonies of over a million insects, and grow their own food.

Leafcutter ants on the forest floor

Leafcutter ants collecting leaves

You can learn more about leafcutter ants here: Leafcutter Ant Facts.

Small but deadly Poison Dart Frogs live on the forest floor. There are many species of these brightly-coloured amphibians. Some are harmless, others are among the most poisonous of all animals! Find out more here: Poison Dart Frog Facts.

The forest floor is home to many of the rainforest’s biggest animals. In South American rainforests, Tapirs, Jaguars and Anteaters may be found wandering through the trees. Caimans, Capybaras and Green Anacondas might be found in or near rainforest rivers and lakes.

In Asian rainforests, tigers take the place of jaguars, and you might even see an Asian elephant.

In Africa, leopards hunt in the forests, and troops of gorillas roam through the undergrowth.

Understory Layer

Rainforest Understory Layer

The understory layer is dark and hot. Keep an eye out for boa constrictors and jaguars!

The understory is a ‘halfway house’ between the forest floor and the canopy layer. The understory consists of leafy bushes, small trees, saplings (young trees) and vines. The plants that grow here tend to have large leaves, to capture what little light is available to them; the understory layer only gets 5% of the rainforest’s sunlight.

You may see lines of leafcutter ants marching up and down the branches of the understory. It’s also here where boa constrictors lie in wait, ready to drop down onto their prey as it passes by beneath them.

Boa Constrictor in the understory layer

The boa constrictor hangs around in the understory layer.

Jaguars (or, if in an African rainforest, Leopards) may also climb into the understory layer, ready to pounce on their prey.

Butterflies such as the colourful Blue Morpho might fly through the understory, searching for the rotting fruit on which they feed.

Canopy Layer

Rainforest Canopy Layer

The canopy layer of the rainforest is where most of the plant and animal species are found.

The canopy layer is made up of the branches and leaves of most of the rainforest’s trees. It’s between 30 and 45 metres (100 and 150 ft.) from the ground. More plant and animal species live in this layer than anywhere else in the rainforest.

Because up to 99% of the sunlight that falls on a rainforest reaches the canopy layer, many plants are found here. Epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) grow on the branches of trees. Lianas –rainforest vines – also try to reach the valuable sunlight by wrapping themselves around the trunks and branches of trees. In doing so they create walkways that allow animals such as monkeys to reach the canopy layer.

Howler Monkey in the rainforest canopy

A Howler Monkey in the rainforest canopy.

Animals that live in the canopy layer of South American rainforests include: Red-Eyed Tree Frogs, Howler Monkeys (and many other rainforest monkeys), Coatis, Sloths, Toucans and Iguanas.

Animals that live in the rainforest canopy layer in other parts of the world include Orangutans, Aye-Ayes, and Sugar Gliders.

Emergent Layer

Rainforest Emergent Layer

The branches of the tallest rainforest trees create the emergent layer.

Only the very tallest rainforest trees break through the canopy to form the emergent layer. The emergent layer is over 45 m (150 ft.) from the ground (in some areas, the tallest trees are over 70 m (230 ft.)), and is the highest of the rainforest layers.

The emergent layer is breezy, wet and lacks shelter. It can also be extremely hot, and is a rather inhospitable place. It doesn’t provide a suitable habitat for many plant or animal species.

Harpy Eagle

Harpy Eagles perch in the emergent layer, searching for their next meal.

Animals that are found in the emergent layer include birds such as harpy eagles (when they’re not hunting in the canopy layer) and scarlet macaws.

Blue Morpho butterflies can be seen flying through the emergent layer by pilots flying over the rainforest. Some monkeys also enter the emergent layer.

Rainforest Layers Conclusion

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this guided tour of the layers of a rainforest. Now that you know all about the rainforest habitat, why not find out more about rainforests? What would you like to learn?