Frequently Asked Questions About the Rainforest
We receive many letters from students who want to know more about rainforests and the plants and animals that live there. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.
More than half of the world's plant and animal species live in rainforests and some animals can only be found in rainforests, which means that if rainforests are destroyed, these incredible animals will lose their homes.
In every environment plants and animals depend on each other for food and shelter, protection, reproduction and community. The survival of individual species depends on the health of other species and the environment as a whole. For example, many flowers are designed to attract a certain species of insect, bird or bat. The complex relationships within an ecosystem can be thrown out of balance when one of the components is threatened or one of the species becomes extinct.
Plants are an important part of rainforests, providing animals and people with food, shade and shelter. Some animals, like tree frogs, live inside a type of plant called a bromeliad. Many bromeliads have stiff, overlapping leaves that, like buckets, hold rainfall inside them. Bromeliads are like small ecosystems where animals such as tree frogs, snails, flatworms, tiny crabs and salamanders can spend their entire lives.
One way that scientists categorize animals is by analyzing their diets. Herbivores feed only on plants, carnivores on other animals and omnivores on both plants and animals. Some animals, like howler monkeys, are vegetarians. Other animals, like jaguars, are hunters and are known to eat more than 85 species of prey.
Sloths are among the slowest-moving animals on Earth; they can swim but are virtually unable to walk. They have long, coarse fur that is light brown in color, but often appears green due to the blue-green algae that grow there. Instead of toes, their front and hind feet have three curved claws that allow them to easily hook onto tree branches and hang upside-down. Sloths move too slowly to hunt. They are herbivorous, which means they eat only plants. Their low-energy diet consists of leaves, twigs and fruit. Because of their slow movement and metabolism, it can take up to a month for a sloth to digest a single meal.
Many birds that spend the summer in North American back yards migrate to tropical rainforests in the winter. The Baltimore oriole travels from the eastern coast of the United States, more than 3,000 miles to winter in the warm forests of Central and South America, where they often find refuge in shade-grown coffee farms. Not only do the trees on these farms provide habitat for the birds, they protect the coffee crop from the harsh rays of the sun. The birds do their part by eating insects that attack the coffee plants
Scientists are continuing to discover new species of plants and animals. Many rainforest plants provide us with food and medicine. One quarter of the Western medicines that we use today are derived from plants, yet less than one percent of these tropical trees and plants have been screened by scientists for pharmaceutical properties. Tropical forests have given us chemicals to treat or cure inflammation, rheumatism, diabetes, muscle tension, surgical complications, malaria, heart conditions, skin diseases, arthritis, glaucoma and hundreds of other maladies.
Rainforests are one of the world's primary carbon reservoirs. By absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, storing the carbon and giving us oxygen to breathe, tropical forests act as the Earth's thermostat, regulating temperatures and weather patterns. The loss of our forests contributes to between 12 and 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions each year -- to put that in perspective, trains, planes and automobiles combined contribute to about 13.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
Around the world, people are clearing land to grow crops. While people need to grow food, in many countries, there are no laws to prevent people from entering a forest, cutting it down, burning the dry vegetation, and planting seeds. Because most of a rainforest's nutrients are found in its diverse flora, the soils that support so much biodiversity are actually quite thin and poor. The farmers can grow crops in the ashes of burned forests for a few years, but eventually, the nutrient-poor soils give out, and the colonists must move farther into the forest and start over. The abandoned lands are often used by ranchers to graze livestock. On average, six acres of pastureland in the tropics are needed to feed just one cow. People who need wood for fuel also cause deforestation. When timber companies cut down valuable hardwoods in a forest in an irresponsible way, the process usually destroys all surrounding vegetation and jeopardizes the wildlife that depended on that lost vegetation. Illegal logging is also a problem. Development projects like dams, new settlements, highways and large-scale mining and petroleum projects are also leading causes of deforestation.
The Rainforest Alliance helps companies that depend on forest resources run their businesses in ways that are safer for the forests and better for the workers. We work to make sure farmers and foresters are following good practices through on-site investigation and certification; promoting government policies that support the good work these companies are doing; and teaching industry and consumers about how we all can help conserve natural resources. That way we can still have our chocolate and keep the forests intact too!
If deforestation continues at the current rate, there could be a time when rainforests around the world disappear. It is up to all of us to act responsibly. You can help protect ecosystems and the people and wildlife that depend on them by holding an Adopt-A-Rainforest fundraiser and buying responsibly produced foods, wood and paper products. Most importantly, keep learning about rainforests and teach your friends and family how important they are.
If you have more questions, you can write to the Education Program at 233 Broadway, 28th Floor New York, NY 10279 USA, or email us at [email protected]