rainforest trek

What is a rainforest?

Want to understand what makes a forest a rainforest before setting off to conquer these fascinating, immense places? We'll help you identify these special places, which are now precious haves of biodiversity.

tropical jungle

1/ Jungle or rainforest, definition

Let's start by specifying the important point: There isn't just a rainforest, but rather rainforests. The jungle is a particular type of rainforest which is characterised by its evergreen vegetation. Rainforests or subtropical forests are also sometimes called equatorial rainforests. They're characterised by relatively stable and high temperatures, and a photoperiod (duration of day and night) which is also stable Let's just say that you won't need to get mixed up with changing the time when you set off to explore a rainforest.

The different types of forest are developed thanks to an element that is essential to the life of an ecosystem: Precipitation. Rain, as it's more commonly called, depending on its volume and rarity, defines the vegetation that will grow and develop - be it lush and abundant or in a drier form. Of course, temperature also plays a role in eco-system development.

humid forest

2/ Rainforest: What are the names of the different tropical biomes?

You're probably already wondering: What is a biome? To simplify things, a biome is a biogeographical unit consisting of a biological community (flora and fauna) that is predominant in that are and that has formed in response to the physical environment in which they are found and a shared regional climate " (source Wikipedia)." Biomes are studied under biogeography. This is a science that combines physics, pedology, ecology, bioclimatology and evolutionary biology, studying life on Earth.

Another word that's useful in the matter is a qualifier that we often find after "forest" when talking about rainforests: "Broadleaf". Okay, so you can just use it to show off, because in reality, you could use the obsolete word to talk about the foliage on the trees in these forests. In other terms, the forests also have trees which lose their leaves, generally in the dry season, which varies in relation to our European forests which follow the pattern of the seasons.

3/ Let's get into the thick of it: The different types of rainforests.

Dry, tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf rainforests (or tropophile forests)
Yep, you read right - "dry"! As we mentioned above, precipitation plays a key role in the development of rainforests. This is a forest type where the humid season is followed by a dry season that can last for 4 to 9 months. The plants that you find there lose their leaves during the dry period, so as to conserve as much of their water as possible. You particularly find this forest type in Madagascar, but also in East India or Indochina… Even if you clearly don't think of them as "rainforests".

Tropical and subtropical humid forests
These are what you think of when you imagine a "rainforest". Their vegetation is lush and green thanks to a hot and - you guessed it - humid climate! For example, equatorial rainforests fall under this biome, as the dry season is practically non-existent. The trees there are evergreen, which means that their foliage is always green. However, they do still lose their leaves gradually, but don't lose them all at the same time, which creates the permanent green aspect. This is the forest type that we often class as a jungle.
These two types of rainforest can also have local variations, depending on the altitude.

The most poetic: Cloud forests
We know, it's a dreamy term! This type of humid forest is found when you reach altitudes of between 1,000 and 3,000 metres in a tropical climate. The trees and plants in these forests grow in a very particular situation, as they're found in a high-humidity atmosphere due to the permanent mist surrounding them. This also limits their exposure to sunlight. Mosses and plants such as orchids, lichen and ferns are particularly happy in this kind of climate. This forest is also called: Nebulous forest or orophile forest (which means "that it's adapted to high mountain regions"), pluvial forest or misty forest.

Mangroves are flooded forests which can also be considered to be rainforests, as well as riverine or gallery forests which grow with their roots in the water. The breaches in gallery forests create a very particular environment: The treetops connect over the water to conceal it. These are a kind of transition between the rainforest and the ocean!

rainforest around the world

4/ Where can you find the different rainforests around the world?

Rainforests and equatorial rainforests develop, to no great surprise, between the two tropics along the thermal equator.
South America, Central South America, South-East Asia, Africa and Australia all have forms of rainforests.

5/ What is the largest rainforest in the world? A clue: It's found in South America!

Yes! You're right, it is indeed the Amazon Rainforest!! This natural region in South America is an incredible haven of biodiversity, and is also brimming with legends and cultures. It's the largest rainforest in the world, and it alone represents 50% of rainforest space around the world. It is home to all types of tropical forests, from savannah to mangrove. It's name comes from the Amazon River which crosses it.

Its surface area covers no less than 9 countries or territories, making its preservation an international political matter. Most of the Amazon Rainforest is in Brazil. Unfortunately, several hectares of this rainforest are under threat of deforestation. The the Amazon Rainforest Forest loses 2.7% of its surface area each year to human activities: agriculture or forest exploitation.

the Amazon Rainforest: Land of forgotten history

The density of the Amazon Rainforest Forest's vegetation has created the impression that no civilisation could live at the heart of it. However, the Chiribiquete site (Colombia) revealed cave paintings dating back to 20,000 years before our era. This artwork reveals a rich cultural and social life: Hunting scenes, rituals, drawings of flora and faun, showing that the Amerindians did indeed live in the forest long before the Europeans arrived on the scene. The the Amazon Rainforest people developed networks, canals and trails… All necessary for life at the heart of the forest and exchanges with other communities. Unfortunately, the colonisation of Brazil in the 15th Century and the arrival of diseases from Europe led to the decimation of the Amazon Rainforest populations, with between 85% and 90% of them disappearing along with their lifestyles and culture.

That's why, in the 19th Century, the explorers discovering the forest believed that it had always been void of human life! Over many years now, archaeologists have been rediscovering the wealth and dynamics of the people that have lived and traded in the Amazon Rainforest.

A haven of biodiversity like no other

Species of trees, animals, insects and plants… the Amazon Rainforest is home to a unique biodiversity. New animal species are regularly discovered at the heart of the forest. In particular, the capybara (or cabiaï as it's also known): The largest rodent in the world which has become famous thanks to its expression which always appears to be smiling. A semi-aquatic mammal, it always lives close to bodies of water, which there are plenty of in the Amazon Rainforest.
You can also find jaguars, an endangered species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which are often found in Amerindian mythology.

Amongst the huge number of fish species living in the rivers and water bodies of the Amazon Rainforest forest, you can find the Amazon Rainforest river dolphin, the largest freshwater dolphin renowned for its unique pink colouring, and of course, the famous piranha, a carnivorous fish that attacks in droves and that occasionally attacks humans.

rainforest deforestation

6/ What are the environmental challenges associated with rainforests 

As we mentioned above, and particularly in regard to the Amazon Rainforest although it goes for all equatorial forests, deforestation and human activities are threatening the biodiversity and functioning of these ecosystems.

Above all, it's the loss of biodiversity due to deforestation which is concerning to governments and non-government organisations. All the moreso given that species are still regularly being discovered in rainforests. We often use the example of orangutans to demonstrate the devastating effects of primary deforestation for farming sugar cane or for palm oil plantations, for example. It's of course all of the species living in the forests who are under threat.

The forests also play a key role in the water cycle by distributing precipitation, through water storage and then evaporation via plants and leaves, avoiding ground erosion during stronger rainfalls. When the forest has been torn up, there are countless landslides or mudslides during the rainy season, destroying everything in their path. They also part a part, to a certain extent, in carbon storage, which could help to limit global warming, although deforestation by burning may well cancel out this effect.

The WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) and UNESCO

(United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation) are actively working with governments to create biosphere reserves within the forests to preserve this fragile heritage which is so crucial to all living beings on the planet. A world without forests, or with fewer forests, wouldn't limit the effects of global warming.

7/ Jungle terminology: Tropical animals and vegetations typically found in humid forests.

Rainforests and jungles are home to species that you don't find anywhere else in the world, and they thus have names that can seem unusual to Europeans, as they're derived from Amerindian languages. Here are a few.

Aï: You know this animal with long claws and a placid vibe as a sloth! Watch out - they may look harmless, but they have deadly weapons in the form of their claws. Aï is a word in Tupi, a language spoken in Brazil.

Cabiai: This is another name for the capybara, derived from the Kali'na "cabiaïca". Kali'na is a Caribe language spoken on the coastal strip stretching from Venezuela to Brazil.

Cassowary: If you hear this word, get ready to run! The cassowary is known as the most dangerous bird in the world. Its name comes from the Indonesian word "casuari". Its claws are particularly deadly, and they can run at up to 50 km/h. Avoiding coming across one is pretty good advice.

Ocelot: This word is derived from Nahuatl, an Uto-Aztec language, describes a large wildcat which resembles a small jaguar and loves dense forests.

There's also very specific vocabulary used to talk about tropical vegetation, such as broadleaf, which we explained earlier.

The canopy is the name for the top part of the forest, the dome of the trees, directly exposed to the sun's rays. This term applies to all forests, but when you're in a rainforest, the canopy is considered to form an ecosystem in its own right.

There are countless epiphytes in rainforests. They are organisms: Lichenised fungi, plants, algae or bacteria which grow on other plants. Unlike a parasite, they don't grow to the detriment of their host. They absorb humidity from the air and generally don't grow roots. Orchids are part of this plant family. In temperate latitudes, you can also find mistletoe, for example.

When you thin of the jungle or rainforest, you surely think of creepers. This plants grow up and over other plants, particularly trees, in order to reach up towards the canopy and sunlight. Yet, did you know that many plants in temperate environments are also creepers? Wisteria, ivy, vines and hops are all also creepers!

trekking in a rainforest

Although rainforests are yet to reveal all their secrets, you've got a good foundation of knowledge on them now. If you ever happen to come across one (or rather deliberately set out to explore one!), we'd love to hear about your experience!

going further

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