globe rain forest

The world's largest rain forests occur in tropical regions of the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Smaller areas of rain forest exist on many Pacific Islands and in parts of Australia's northeastern coast. People have also applied the term rain forest to such woodlands as those in North America's Pacific Northwest. However, the plant life in these forests is much less diverse than that found in tropical rain forests. For example, only a few species of large conifers (cone-bearing trees) dominate Pacific Northwest forests.

The Americas. About half of the world's rain forests grow in the American tropics. The largest expanse of forest-about 2 million square miles (5.2 million square kilometers)-lies in the Amazon River basin. Rain forests also occur in coastal areas from Ecuador and Brazil to southern Mexico, and in patches on many of the Caribbean islands.

rain forest map

American tropical rain forests support a rich assortment of plant species. More than 500 kinds of large plants may inhabit only 5 acres (2 hectares) of forest. Valuable hardwood trees include mahogany and rosewood. Over 150 species of trees produce edible fruits. Avocados, cocoa, rubber, and vanilla also grow there.

The rain forests of tropical America support more than 1,500 species of birds, 500 species of mammals, and 2,000 species of butterflies. More bats live there than live anywhere else. Monkeys, sloths, and toucans feed in the forest canopy and sub-canopy. Capybaras, the world's largest rodents, as well as ocelots and tapirs, forage along the forest floor. Emerald tree boas and arrow-poison frogs hide among foliage in the understory. The Amazon River contains more than 2,000 species of freshwater fish, including the dangerous piranha.

American rain forests provide homes to a variety of peoples. They include the Kuna of Panama, the Maya of Mexico and Central America, the Shipibo of Peru, and the Yanomami of Brazil and Venezuela. Such forest groups survive primarily by farming, but they also hunt animals and gather edible wild plants from the forest.

Asia. Rain forests cover about 1 million square miles (3 million square kilometers) of the Asian tropics. The forests grow in western and southern India and extend eastward through Vietnam. Large blocks of forest also occur in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

A single family of trees, the dipterocarps, forms a dominant part of the Asian rain forest canopy. About 380 species of dipterocarps grow in these forests. Dipterocarp trees produce valuable wood and resins. Resins are sticky substances that people use for varnishing and caulking (making objects watertight). Other important plants include the pitcher plants, which feed on animal life, and the rafflesia, the world's largest flower. A single rafflesia may grow more than 3 feet (90 centimeters) wide. Such fruits as bananas, durians, litchis, and mangoes also flourish in Asian rain forests.

Some of the best-known rain forest mammals in Asia include elephants, gibbons, orangutans, and tigers. The forests also support hundreds of reptile and amphibian species and thousands of bird and beetle species.

Rain forest peoples of Asia include the Penan of Borneo. They rely on rain forest plants and animals for subsistence and rarely farm the land. Another Bornean group, the Lun Dayeh, clear small areas of forest to make rice farms. The T'in people of Thailand and Laos harvest hundreds of wild plant species from the rain forest for food and other purposes.

Africa. Africa's tropics have about 810,000 square miles (2.1 million square kilometers) of rain forest. The forested area extends from Congo (Kinshasa) westward to the Atlantic Ocean. Patches of rain forest also occur on the east coast of Madagascar.

African rain forests do not house as many plant species as do the forests of South America or Asia. Small areas of African rain forest support from 50 to 100 species of trees. Many of these trees have their fruits dispersed by elephants. A number of valuable woods, including ebony, mahogany, and sipo, flourish in the African tropics. Other well-known plants from the region include oil palms and coffee plants.

Diverse animal life characterizes Africa's tropical rain forests. Squirrels and monkeys share the canopy and sub-canopy with other small mammals, including galagos and golden pottos, as well as hundreds of species of birds. The mandrill, a brightly colored relative of the baboon, and the okapi, a horselike relative of the giraffe, roam the forest floor. Congo peacocks and wild hogs called bush pigs also dwell on the ground. Gorillas and chimpanzees live on the ground and in trees. The forests of Madagascar support animals found almost nowhere else, including long-tailed, monkeylike lemurs.

Forest-dwelling people in the African tropics are collectively known as Pygmies. Traditionally, they have survived by hunting and gathering wild animals and plants. Pygmies live in such countries as Burundi, Cameroon, Congo (Brazzaville), Congo (Kinshasa), Gabon, and Rwanda.

Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Tropical rain forests cover about 145,600 square miles (377,000 square kilometers) in northeast Australia and on many Pacific Islands. Rain forest trees of these regions include several kinds of figs, as well as the smaller lilly-pilly and brush cherry. The lacewood and Queensland maple trees produce valuable hardwoods. Coachwood and Moreton Bay chestnut trees develop brilliantly colored flowers.

Rain Forest
Characteristics of rain forests
Rain forests around the world
The value of rain forests
The future of rain forests
Tropical Rain Forest Ecosystem
The history of forests
E c o l o g y
Populations and Communities
Applied Ecology

Rain forests of Australia and New Guinea house unique wildlife. Such marsupials as cuscuses, sugar gliders, and tree kangaroos make their homes in the trees. Several kinds of parrots and numerous species of snakes also reside in the forests.

Rain forest peoples of this area include Australian Aborigines and Melanesian peoples from such islands as New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. Many of these cultures hunt and gather food from the rain forest. They also raise crops.

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Charles M. Peters, Ph.D., Kate E. Tode Curator of Botany, The New York Botanical Garden.

probocis nasalis orangutan rain forest