Across the globe, tropical rain forests scatter the equator, but the Aquarium’s Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit is modeled after the rain forests of Central and South America. They represent one of the most diverse and complex ecosystems on Earth. So, what you see here at the Aquarium is only a snapshot of the plants and animals you might find within a natural rain forest.
"The rain forest environment is very competitive," says Ken Howell, Curator of our Rain Forest exhibit. Rain forest rivalry can be fierce, and what unfolds each day is a dramatic, albeit sometimes slow-paced endurance race.
Fortitude on the Forest Floor
Rain forest is not synonymous with jungle, which suggests an impenetrable mass of vegetation. In fact, traversing your average rain forest won’t always require a machete, because the ground cover is not usually very dense. That is because the leaves of trees hundreds of feet above prevent daylight from reaching this part of the forest.
Down here, the air is still. It is dark and incredibly damp. Spiders, insects and frogs make their homes in this dimly-lit habitat.
While water is abundant, sunlight is in short supply, enticing many plants into a race to the top. And the deficiencies are not limited to light. The very soil in which plants root tends to be shallow, with just a few inches to a foot of nutrient-rich lead litter and topsoil.
In the Shadows
Many of us picture the rain forest in four distinct layers: the forest floor, understory, canopy and emergent. Truth be told, they're not so easily distinguished.
"Rain forests are vertically complex and species are adapted to living at specific levels, sometimes changing or transcending these levels throughout their lives," says Howell. Some plants begin life not he ground only to later take up residency in the canopy, or vice versa. That makes the space between difficult to define.
It’s a vast landscape of dense foliage, scraggly shrubs, ferns, twisting vines and juvenile trees, all masked in the shadow for the leafy cover that looms overhead. For plants not well adapted to life on the ground, this is the starting line. And each plant is trying to outperform the next.
The climb is slow and steady for most, but every so often a tree falls creating a gap in the canopy. When sun meets soil, life erupts below. It’s within those disturbed areas that young sours seedlings, cecropia trees and other sun-seeking plants hit their stride. They tend to grow rapidly, vying for a short-lived spot in the sun.
Eyes on the Sky
Plants aren’t out of the woods, so to speak, once they reach the canopy. They face torrential downpours, forceful winds and competition for sunlight. Still, some have found their niche.
The trees that have successfully fought their way to the top average 60 to 150 feet in length, with massive trunks and expansive crowns that cast everything below into shadow. But it’s not only giants that make a life in the canopy.
Walking through the Aquarium’s exhibit brings plants from all altitudes of the forest to eye level. You get a glimpse of the floor, the canopy and that hard-to-define space in between. And you discover that the complexities of a tropical rain forest cannot be divided into four distinct parts, but rather demand to be viewed as intricate layers that overlap and interrelate.
To learn more about the Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit, click here!