Forest Ecosystems


Forest ecosystems cover a large fraction of the Earth's land area and account for most of its terrestrial biological productivity. The structure and function of forests are regulated by an elegant series of feedbacks between the physical environment, plant growth strategies, successional processes, biogeochemical cycles and mechanisms of disturbance.

Keywords: forest ecosystem; nutrient cycling; succession; water stress; photosynthesis

Figure 1.

The global distribution of major ecosystems, including (a) a generalized map of the world's major biomes and (b) the location of ecosystems with respect to mean annual temperature and precipitation. Figure a was based on the predictions generated by the (MAPSS) biogeography model, courtesy of Ronald Neilson. Some degree of inaccuracy should be expected as a result of errors that are inherent to this type of model analysis. Figure b was modified from Whittaker, .

Figure 2.

Photosynthetic light response curves for three hypothetical species with varying light requirements. Note the trade‐off between maximum photosynthesis at light saturation and the minimum amount of light that can be tolerated (the light compensation point). The shaded regions correspond to the light levels at which each species has the highest growth rate among the three and is likely to out‐compete the others. In an ideal forest, the result would be a stratified canopy where total photosynthesis was optimized by species coexistence.

Figure 3.

Conceptual diagram showing the major fluxes of nutrients through and within a forest ecosystem. Nutrients enter the system through fixation (N2), weathering and atmospheric deposition and are lost through leaching and conversion to gaseous phases. The importance of each mechanism varies substantially among nutrients. Cycling within the system is controlled by reabsorption from senescent tissues, production of litterfall, decomposition and uptake. Other mechanisms that facilitate nutrient loss or turnover can include fire and herbivory.

Figure 4.

Potential feedbacks between site resource availability, foliar nitrogen concentrations, photosynthesis, leaf lifespan, investment in defence compounds and litter turnover rates. Although these feedbacks can impose strong controls on forest ecosystem dynamics, external forces resulting from disturbance or succession can interrupt and even reverse these cycles.



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Ollinger SV, Smith ML, Martin ME, Hallett RA, Goodale CL and Aber JD (2002) Regional variation in foliar chemistry and soil nitrogen status among forests of diverse history and composition. Ecology 83(2): 339–355.

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Further Reading

Aber JD and Melillo JM (2001) Terrestrial Ecosystems, 2nd edn. San Diego: Academic Press.

Mooney HA and Gulmon SL (1982) Constraints on leaf structure and function in relation to herbivory. Bioscience 32: 198–206.

Odum EO (1969) The strategy of ecosystem development. Science 164: 262–270.

Pastor J, Aber JD, McClaugherty CA and Melillo JM (1984) Aboveground production and N and P cycling along a nitrogen mineralization gradient on Blackhawk Island, Wisconsin. Ecology 65: 256–268.

Schlesinger WH (1997) Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change, 2nd edn. San Diego: Academic Press.

Tillman D (1988) Plant Strategies and the Dynamics and Structure of Plant Communities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

van Cleve K, Chapin III FS, Dyrness CT and Viereck LA (1991) Element cycling in Tiaga forests: state‐factor control. Bioscience 41: 79–88.

Vitousek PM and Reiners WA (1975) Ecosystem succession and nutrient retention: a hypothesis. Bioscience 25(6): 376–381.

Waring RH and Running SW (1998) Forest Ecosystems: Analysis at Multiple Scales. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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How to Cite close
Ollinger, Scott V(Mar 2003) Forest Ecosystems. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0003190]