The Coniferous Forest – An Eco System of Incredible Diversity
It is not quite Christmas yet, but the coniferous forest does not know that. Also known as the evergreen tree, coniferous trees have beautiful variety and numerous fun characteristics which make them a crucial ecosystem. These forests are made up mostly of the conifer tree, just part of the forest’s biology.
The Beginning of The Forests
The first trees grew from clubmosses, ferns, and other prehistoric plants. Over some time the plants adapted to their environments and became more treelike. Trees that adapted to warmer climates grew first. When these forests began to become well adapted, gradually the plants began to adapt to the drier colder weather.
Coniferous forests thrived during the Jurassic Period about 160 million years ago. The Ice Age killed off a large majority of the trees that had covered the earth. Only about 12 thousand years ago did the earth begin to repopulate its tree coverage. Thanks to the trees that had adapted to the cooler weather, coniferous trees opened the path to trees beginning to grow again.
The Coniferous Forest
There are numerous types of coniferous forests; boreal, mountain coniferous, temperate evergreen forest, temperate pine forest, and the southern hemisphere coniferous forest. The spruce, pine, and fir are the tough guys that live in this area.
These forests are tough! Boreal means “northern” and is a Russian word meaning “little sticks.” The boreal forests are found in the Arctic tundra. This land is a very dry and cold place, making an environment where many plants and animals cannot live. Surprisingly, the boreal forest is thriving and makes up about 11% of the world’s land surface coverage.
Mountain Coniferous Forest
These trees battle the snowy regions of the world, usually found under permanent layers of snow. Such forests are located in the Rockies, the Alps, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada’s. At the higher elevations are the subalpine forests. They grow at really high elevations where the weather is the harshest. Lodgepole pines and the bristlecone pine grow well in this type of location but are stunted in growth. Alpine firs also grow in the subalpine forest region but remain close to the ground.
Moving down the mountain just a bit are the montane forests. In this more moderate climate, conifers grow taller and stronger.
Temperate Evergreen Forest
These forests grow in areas with moderately humid climates. Summers in these areas are normally warm with some cool winters. Winters are not normally extreme in these locations, making growth easier. Sometimes, due to the humidity, these forests are called temperate rain forests. Commonly found in the forests are hemlock, western red cedar, Douglas fir, and coast redwood.
The giant redwoods in California grow straight up into the air and live for hundreds of years! Redwoods grow to be 300 feet or higher with a circumference of 22 feet. Hyperion is the tallest redwood in California, measuring 379.1 feet and is estimated to be about 2,000-2,300 years old. With such a high forest canopy, there is not a lot of growth on the forest floor, but some ferns and little shrubs manage to find some sunlight.
Temperate Pine Forest
Pine trees love growing in hilly or upland regions where it is warm and dry. These trees are usually found following from New Jersey all the way to Florida and across the way to Texas. Basically, if it is warm and dry, a temperate pine forest could be found.
Southern Hemisphere Coniferous Forest
This region includes Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. In these locations, the trees are smaller and have different leaves. The monkey-puzzle is a commonly found tree in these locations, and are seen growing in the high plateaus or mountains.
Overview of the Coniferous Trees
There are over 600 living species of conifer trees. Much debating goes on in determining the origin of the trees, but only 60 of those 600 live in Canada. To name a few of these species there are the balsam firs, black spruces, eastern hemlocks, jack pines, northern white cedars, red pines tamaracks, and eastern white pines. These trees usually keep their foliage year round, but it is not completely unusual for them to shed their needles a bit. All are softwoods and can survive very cold temperatures and acidic soil levels. Conifers are found in the northern hemisphere but there are some that grow in the south as well.
Conifers are one of the oldest growing trees on the planet. The Bristlecone pine, native to California, can live to be almost 5,000 years old and can grow to 100 meters high. Paper, lumber, furniture and some anti-cancer drugs are made from these trees. Although these trees grow for long periods of time, they are in danger. Deforestation and habitat destruction have put the conifer trees at risk of extinction. Only about 34% of conifers are alive today.
Coniferous trees are cone-bearing trees and shrubs, so they are considered resinous. Their scientific name is Coniferales of the Gymnosperms. This classification is made up of woody trees that have seeds that do not bloom. Within this classification are 67 sub-classifications and this can be broken down into 600 other sub-classifications. To say the least, there are a lot of different types of conifers out there.
Coniferous trees are called evergreens because they remain green and retain their foliage through the year. It is not unusual to see a few loose needles that fell off here and there, but there will never be a bare conifer that is living. Other trees have scale-like leaves that do not shed individually. The cones that form on the ends of the branches are where all of the seeds are held. When the pinecones fall off they dry out, opening up their seed pockets. As animals and the wind move them about, then the seeds fall out and spread new generations of trees. Squirrels love eating these seeds and after they pass through the animal’s body, the seed is planted.
Conifers love cold weather, which is when they thrive the most. The trees prefer an area that has short and cool summers with long snowy winters. Coniferous tree needles have a heavy waxy outer coat and this wax coat keeps the water in the tree. This will then protect it from water loss in the freezing weather. Branches of the trees are also extremely flexible, allowing the heavy snow to slide off.
The conifer has something called resin ducts too. These ducts are a giant plumbing system for a sticky pitch that is secreted through the ducts onto the surface of the tree. The resin acts as a natural bandage for the tree. Often, like a human or animal, when a tree has an area that has been split, shed, or broken bacteria can enter the tree. These bacteria can cause root rot and other diseases that could potentially kill the tree. This resin that the tree secretes will cover those areas, preventing any bacteria from entering the tree. The resin can be harvested too. The earliest use of resin was caulking for wooden ships. Today there are numerous commercial uses, including assisting with the extraction of turpentine.
Conifers have seed cones and pollen cones. These cones can grow on the same tree or cross-pollinate between two. The pollen cones produce bright yellow pollen that is dispersed by the wind every spring. As the pollen is being blown around, it enters into the seed cones. Within these seed cones fertilization, the embryo, and seed development occur.
This reproduction time continues through spring into autumn but remains in the same growing season. In pines, the growing season is every other year. This extends the growing season over two years for pines. Either form of reproduction ends with the fertilized pinecone falling from the tree. When the pinecone dries out or disintegrates, the seed is then planted.
On the Ground
Eventually, even the evergreen will shed all of its needles. The needles fall to the ground below and form a really springy mat of dead foliage. These needles remain very tough and will be broken down by a thread-like fungus. When these needles are decomposed, the nutrients are returned to the roots of the tree. But, since pine needles are not easy to decompose, they create a very acidic soil.
As stated earlier, the conifer forest has some very acidic soil. This acidic soil is called podzols and has multiple layers. There is a compacted layer called the mor, which contains many different fungi. Since the soil is so acidic there is little to no life in it. Earthworms and other invertebrates are rarely found in this soil type.
-Boreal soil: Covered in lots of organic material and has poor drainage.
-Dry Confir soil: Covered in lots of debris like leaves and pine cone needles etc. Rich in nutrients.
-Mountain soil: Rocky and hard soil; low in nutrients.
Coniferous forests are usually in areas that are very cold, so the animal life living in the forest would need to be able to survive the cold too. Mosquitoes and flies are the insect life that is able to thrive in this type of climate. Meanwhile, waxwings, grouse, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers live in the trees. Keeping warm in their nests. Voles, squirrels, moose, reindeer, lynx, and wolves thrive on the floor of the forest. Basically, creatures with a lot of fur or feathers will be found in the conifer forest.
Depending on the type of conifer forest, the climate will change. Some of the trees like it dry, while others like it warm and humid. Other times trees will prefer an area with a lot of rainfall, whereas another would not do well with a lot of rainfall. It really does depend on the tree and its location.
The Root of it All
There is a lot to be talked about with the coniferous forests. There are lots of different kinds of trees, lots of locations, and lots of different climate preferences. It is certainly a big world with many different types of life to be found and enjoyed