On this page we’ll be looking at rainforest layers. You’ll find out what the different layers of the rainforest are, and meet the animals and plants found in each of them.
- This page is part of our Rainforest Series.
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’s trees. This is the layer in which the largest number of rainforest species are found)
- Understory layer (small trees and shrubs that are 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?
One characteristic of rainforests that you’ll often hear about is that they have layers.
As we saw above, a rainforest has four main layers. They are (from highest to lowest) the emergent, canopy, understory and forest floor.
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.
Rainforest layers provide a useful way for scientists to talk about a rainforest, and to study (and explain) how it works.
The different 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.
We’re now going to take an in-depth look at the layers of a rainforest, and find out what animals and plants live in each one.
We’ll start at the lowest layer (the forest floor), and make our way up to the emergent layer at the very top!
The forest floor is a dark, damp and hot place. Only 2% of the sunlight that falls on a rainforest reaches the forest floor.
You may be surprised to learn that rainforest soil isn’t very rich in nutrients. This is why many rainforest trees have roots that spread out over a wide area instead of growing deep into the soil. (See the picture above for an example.)
Wide roots provide stability in the thin rainforest soil, and also help the trees 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 rainforest’s 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 – amazingly – grow their own food.
- You can find out more about leafcutter ants here: Leafcutter Ant Facts.
Poison dart frogs also live on the forest floor. There are over 170 species of poison dart frog. Although many of these small, brightly-colored amphibians are harmless, some, such as the golden poison frog, are among the world’s most poisonous animals!
- Find out more here: Poison Dart Frog Facts.
The forest floor is home to the rainforest’s biggest animals.
Large species such as tapirs, jaguars and anteaters may all be found wandering through the trees of South American rainforests. In the lakes and rivers of this region are found large reptiles such as green anacondas and caimans.
In Asian rainforests, tigers take the place of jaguars, and you might even see an Asian elephant.
Leopards, gorillas and pygmy hippos are among the large animals found on the forest floor of African rainforests.
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. This helps them capture what little light is available in this dark environment; 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 snakes such as boa constrictors lie in wait, ready to drop down onto their prey as it passes by beneath them.
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 fly through the understory, searching for the rotting fruit on which they feed.
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.
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.
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.). It is the highest of the rainforest layers.
The emergent layer is breezy, wet, and lacking in 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.
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. Some monkeys also enter the emergent layer.
The bright blue wings of swarms of blue morpho butterflies in the emergent layer are visible by pilots flying over the rainforest.
Rainforest Layers Conclusion
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this guided tour of the layers of a rainforest. Take a look at the following pages to discover more about the world’s rainforests…
- Become a rainforest expert with our main rainforest page: Rainforest Facts
- Discover amazing animals that live in rainforests: Rainforest Animals List with Pictures & Facts.
- Find out about the amazing plants that grow in rainforests: Rainforest Plants.
- Discover more about the world’s biggest – and most famous – rainforest: The Amazon Rainforest.
- Help a rainforest charity such as the Orangutan Foundation.
- Download our awesome Rainforest Worksheets.
29 thoughts on “Rainforest Layers: Discover The Different Layers Of A Rainforest (And The Animals That Live In Them)”
Thank you i finished my homework in only 2 minutes so thank you soo much.
You’re welcome! 😀
do the layers overlap or are they separate.
That’s a great question. There is some overlap in the layers; it’s more of a “general” way of looking at a rainforest than exact boundaries at certain levels.
The Active Wild Team
Can you tell me the published date of this page
Hi, the page was first published on Feb 11, 2016, and is updated regularly.
The Active Wild Team
Yeah, that would be helpful to add more animals because I am doing an assignment and I love this site.
I love this. It helped me so much. Thanks. :):):):)
Could you please add the types of trees found? that would be very useful in my opinion. Thank you. 😀
Tysm I did my home work so fast!
thank you my teacher assigns this to me it is EPIC!!!!💗
i also love these animales
This website really helped
You’re welcome! Thanks for visiting! 🙂
Epic, this helped a lot. 🤩🥳
Thank for the info it’s great to use
I love this website it is so easy to find stuff and so easy for quick research.
Thank you so much.
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The article is good for studies just a little suggestion maybe add how the layers got its name? BUt the article is great nice job
hi this is just small comment but can u plz add the plants that r in that layer.
i’m in middle school and i used this site for a project and got everything i needed amazing site.
That’s great to hear – thanks for letting us know! Good luck with your project 🙂
Active Wild Admin
I love these animals.
Can we have a lot more info on snakes please
hey Im commenting becuase I would like more animals and more facts about it even though it has facts just I would like more animals Thanks
Wonderful, I teach pre-k and this website is perfect. Just the right amount of information. Jacqueline R.
Thank you for your comment, we’re really pleased that you’re finding the site useful!
All the best to you and your students.
The Active Wild Team
It was very informative and I thank you very much for it. To improve, please could you add more species of the animals and plants that live there?
Thank you for your comment, we’ll see what we can do!
The Active Wild Team
yeah that would be interesting