Tropical Forests


Tropical forests occupy approximately 10% of the world's total land area, but they play a disproportionate role in global carbon and water cycles, and are believed to house more than half of the world's species. Tropical forests occupy a wide range of environments, and the structure and species composition vary with dry season length, altitude above sea level, and the occurrence of extreme soil types or regular inundation by fresh or saline water. Lowland evergreen rain forests are the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, but the processes that generated and maintain this diversity are not fully understood. Forests are under threat throughout the tropics from clearance for agriculture, logging for timber, hunting, fires, climate change and other human impacts. Major conservation priorities include protecting large areas of intact forest ecosystems where still possible, improving the management of logged forests, controlling hunting, and reconnecting isolated forest fragments by restoring forest between them.

Key Concepts:

  • Tropical forests house the majority of the world's species.

  • Tropical forests have a large role in global carbon and water cycles.

  • Distinctive types of tropical forests occur in different climates, on extreme soil types, and in areas subject to flooding by fresh or saline water.

  • Forests in similar environments but different tropical regions also differ, because the forest communities in each region have different evolutionary histories.

  • Lowland rain forests are far more diverse than any other terrestrial ecosystem, at least partly because of the age and continuity of warm, wet tropical climates.

  • The most important commercial product from tropical forests is timber, but these forests also provide many other products and services to local human communities.

  • The biggest threats to tropical forests and their species are conversion to agriculture, hunting and unsustainable logging.

  • Legally protected areas are still the cornerstone of tropical forest conservation, but sustainable exploitation for timber and other products offers an alternative in countries with good governance capabilities.

Keywords: climate change; conservation; forests; species diversity; tropical forests; vegetation

Figure 1.

Global distribution of tropical forests.

Figure 2.

Latitudinal gradient in species richness of bird and tree species, in both cases showing a peak in tropical forest areas near the equator. Data adapted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd. Gaston (). Data for the 0.1 ha forest plot from the archive of Alwyn Gentry (Gentry, and unpublished data).

Figure 3.

Lowland evergreen rain forest in the Amazon region. Photograph by Iubasi, Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution‐Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.

Figure 4.

Mangrove forest in Cambodia. Photograph by Leon Petrosyan, Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution‐Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Figure 5.

Deforestation in Sumatra for an oil palm plantation. Photograph by Aidenvironment, Wikimedia Commons, reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution‐Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence.



Bagchi R, Gallery RE, Gripenberg S et al. (2014) Pathogens and insect herbivores drive rainforest plant diversity and composition. Nature 506: 85–88.

Basset Y, Cizek L, Cuenoud P et al. (2012) Arthropod diversity in a tropical forest. Science 338: 1481–1484.

Blaser J, Sarre A, Poore D and Johnson S (2011) Status of Tropical Forest Management 2011. ITTO Technical Series No. 38. Yokohama: International Tropical Timber Organization.

Brando PM, Balch JK, Nepstad DC et al. (2014) Abrupt increases in Amazonian tree mortality due to drought‐fire interactions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111: 6347–6352.

Cannon CH, Morley RJ and Bush ABG (2009) The current refugial rainforests of Sundaland are unrepresentative of their biogeographic past and highly vulnerable to disturbance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106: 11188–11193.

Cernusak LA, Winter K, Dalling JW et al. (2013) Tropical forest responses to increasing atmospheric CO2: current knowledge and opportunities for future research. Functional Plant Biology 40: 531–551.

Chambers JQ, Negron‐Juarez RI, Marra DM et al. (2013) The steady‐state mosaic of disturbance and succession across an old‐growth Central Amazon forest landscape. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110: 3949–3954.

Corlett RT (2014) The Ecology of Tropical East Asia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Corlett RT and Primack RB (2011) Tropical Rain Forests: an Ecological and Biogeographical Comparison. Oxford: Wiley‐Blackwell.

Corlett RT and Westcott DA (2013) Will plant movements keep up with climate change? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 28: 482–488.

Döbert TF, Webber BL, Barnes AD et al. (2014) Forest fragmentation and biodiversity conservation in human‐dominated landscapes. In: Kettle C and Koh LP (eds) Global Forest Fragmentation, pp. 28–49. Wallingford: CABI International.

Edwards DP, Larsen TH, Docherty TDS et al. (2011) Degraded lands worth protecting: the biological importance of Southeast Asia's repeatedly logged forests. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 278: 82–90.

Gaston KJ (2000) Global patterns in biodiversity. Nature 405: 220–227. doi:10.1038/35012228.

Gentry AH (1988) Changes in plant community diversity and floristic composition on environmental and geographical gradients. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 75: 1–34.

de Groot R, Brander L, van der Ploeg S et al. (2012) Global estimates of the value of ecosystems and their services in monetary units. Ecosystem Services 1: 50–61.

Harrison RD, Tan S, Plotkin JB et al. (2013) Consequences of defaunation for a tropical tree community. Ecology Letters 16: 687–694.

Huntingford C, Zelazowski P, Galbraith et al. (2013) Simulated resilience of tropical rainforests to CO2‐induced climate change. Nature Geoscience 6: 268–273.

Junk WJ, Fernandez Piedade MT, Schoengart J et al. (2011) A classification of major naturally‐occurring Amazonian lowland wetlands. Wetlands 31: 623–640.

Lamb D (2011) Regreening the Bare Hills: tropical Forest Restoration in the Asia‐Pacific Region. Dordrecht: Springer.

Malhi Y (2012) The productivity, metabolism and carbon cycle of tropical forest vegetation. Journal of Ecology 100: 65–75.

Martin PA, Newton AC and Bullock JM (2013) Carbon pools recover more quickly than plant biodiversity in tropical secondary forests. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280. doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.2236.

Posa MRC, Wijedasa LS and Corlett RT (2011) Biodiversity and conservation of tropical peat swamp forests. Bioscience 61: 49–57.

Richter D and Houghton RA (2011) Gross CO2 fluxes from land‐use change: implications for reducing global emissions and increasing sinks. Carbon Management 2: 41–47.

Romdal TS, Araújo MB and Rahbek C (2013) Life on a tropical planet: niche conservatism and the global diversity gradient. Global Ecology and Biogeography 22: 344–350.

Swamy V, Terborgh J, Dexter KG et al. (2011) Are all seeds equal? Spatially explicit comparisons of seed fall and sapling recruitment in a tropical forest. Ecology Letters 14: 195–201.

Wright SJ (2002) Plant diversity in tropical forests: a review of mechanisms of species coexistence. Oecologia 130: 1–14.

Further Reading

Kettle C and Koh LP (2014) Global Forest Fragmentation. Wallingford: CABI.

McShea WJ, Davies SJ and Bhumpakphan N (2011) The Ecology and Conservation of Seasonally Dry Forests in Asia. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press.

Morley RJ (2011) Cretaceous and Tertiary climate change and the past distribution of megathermal rainforests. In: Bush MB, Flenley JR and Gosling WD (eds) Tropical Rainforest Responses to Climate Change, 2nd edn, pp. 1–34. Berlin: Springer‐Verlag.

Sanchez-Azofeifa A, Powers JS, Fernandes GW and Quesada M (2013) Tropical Dry Forests in the Americas: Ecology, Conservation, and Management. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Sodhi NS, Gibson L and Raven PH (2013) Conservation Biology: Voices from the Tropics. Oxford: Wiley‐Blackwell.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Corlett, Richard T(Nov 2014) Tropical Forests. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003179.pub2]