Animals in the Different Layers of the Tropical Rainforest

Written by ethan shaw | 13/05/2017
Animals in the Different Layers of the Tropical Rainforest
Tropical rainforests are some of the most diverse ecological landscapes of the world. (rainforest image by Aleksander from

The tropical rainforests of Latin America, Africa, Asia and Australasia are famously diverse in biological terms. Nourished by plentiful rainfall and relatively stable, warm temperatures, they are also often very old landscapes. All this equates to a dizzying array of animal life, from leaf-cutting ants and swamp-lurking crocodilians to high-canopy primates and big mammal-hunting eagles. Many tropical rainforests show distinct layers of ecological activity, each with their own roster of regular animal visitors and inhabitants.

Forest Floor

Animals in the Different Layers of the Tropical Rainforest
The jaguar often hunts the forest floor of Central and South American rainforests. (jaguar image by Mat Hayward from

The largest members of a tropical rainforest's fauna community inhabit the forest floor, as do myriad insects, ground-foraging birds and soil organisms. In the rainforests of central Africa, a number of quite hefty creatures frequent this shadowy terrestrial zone: forest elephants, bongo, lowland gorillas, leopards and okapi, to name a few. In South America, jaguars, tapirs, bush dogs and white-tailed deer are a few of the forest-floor large mammals. Smaller mammals like Latin American goutis and African hedgehogs also live here, as do reptiles like the venomous fer-de-lance of South America.

Understory Layer

The understory consists of relatively short trees and shrubs creating a sub-forest within the shade of much larger canopy trees. This is an ecologically rich level, supporting many animals active primarily here, or that range higher into the rainforest canopy or drop down frequently to the forest floor. For example, two kinds of rainforest big cats--the jaguar of the New World and the leopard of the Old World--readily climb trees to hunt and rest. Many possums of Australian rainforests will travel from understory to ground and canopy.

Canopy Layer

Animals in the Different Layers of the Tropical Rainforest
The orang-utan, an arboreal great ape of Southeast Asia, spends much of its time in the canopy layer. (sad orang-utan image by PETER LAKOMY from

A vast array of animals roam the canopy layer, consisting of the tall, mature rainforest trees and their upper branches and crown. Birds like macaws in South America forage here for nuts and fruits; others, like woodpeckers, target insects. Monkeys are common in the canopies of both New World and Old World rainforests; those of the former zone are distinguished by their prehensile tails. While African great apes are as terrestrial as they are arboreal, the rainforests of Southeast Asia support an ape that is essentially a canopy specialist, the orang-utan.

Emergent Layer

Animals in the Different Layers of the Tropical Rainforest
Most of the world's tropical rainforests have at least one species of large eagle. (golden eagle image by Earl Robbins from

The summits of the tallest rainforest trees constitute the emergent layer, which rises above the densest layer of canopy. This lofty zone is patrolled by large raptorial birds. Two of the biggest eagles in the world, the harpy eagle of Latin America and the Philippine eagle of Southeast Asia, hunt monkeys and other large prey in rainforests, cruising and perching in this layer.

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