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Dry Forest Ecology A Seasonal Climate

Dry Tropical Forest is found in regions where there are several months of severe to absolute dry season, with most rain falling during a (usually) brief wet season. More than any other factor, the absence of precipitation during a prolonged portion of the year is what produces true dry forest, an ecosystem type characterized by plants and animals possessing specific adaptations to survive the dry season. Dry forests typically are found in very warm regions in the tropics, where the mean annual temperature is greater than 17C (63F), and where rainfall is in the range of 250 to 2000 mm per year (10 to 80 inches).

The single most important adaptation, among plants, to the extended droughts of the dry forest is deciduousness, the shedding of leaves. Plants drop their leaves after the rains end, and essentially halt photosynthesis, which otherwise produces water losses the plant cannot sustain during the dry season. Some plants, like the Ceiba trichastandra, have an alternative source of photosynthetic energy: they have green bark rich in chlorophyll, that lets them continue to photosynthesize even when they have no leaves. Other plant adaptations include the development of water storage tissues, such as swollen roots or stems, that allow them to draw on saved water to survive the dry season. Many plants have an extra, waxy layer on the outside of their leaves, which also slows water evaporation. Some plants even engage in "nyctinasty," a fabulous botanical word that means they close their leaves at night: clasping leaves together reduces the amount of exposed surface area, also slowing water loss. Animals, too, have some fascinating adaptations to the dry forest's long rainless weeks and months. Foremost among these is "estivation," the summer-time equivalent of hibernation. Many frogs and insects simply burrow deep into damp mud, or their own excavated chambers, and go to sleep, reducing their metabolism (and thus their water needs). When the rains return, the increased moisture awakens these animals, and they return to the surface to breed. Other animals, such as birds and monkeys, show a remarkable degree of mobility during the dry season, retreating to damp areas such as stream beds, where year-round moisture enables them to survive. Howler monkeys, who eat nothing but green leaves and occasional fruits, have been known to cram into small stream side forests at amazingly high densities, yet they do not fight over territory as they would during the rest of the year.

It all starts with the first rains. Like a desert blooming in spring, the first thundershowers in the dry forest produce an outbreak of fresh green leaves. This habitat has literally set its watch by the dry season, and many key ecological processes all take their cue from the arrival of the rains. As the new leaves begin catching sunlight, plant growth, stalled during the dry months, shifts into high gear. The precipitation moistens the leaf litter accumulated on the forest floor, where bacteria and insects (many just awakened from estivation) start the decomposition process that releases nutrients for use by the growing plants. As the rainy season nears its end, trees and other plants drop

their leaves and produce a profusion of showy flowers in a fireworks-like display designed to attract as many pollinators as possible. Those that are lucky, who get the timing just right, succeed in having some of their flowers pollinated before the dry season commences. During the dry season plants sit mostly dormant, drawing on their stored water, perhaps using their green bark to generate some energy, and waiting, waiting for the rains to fall again. Leaf litter dries, and insects, frogs and many others return to their chambers to wait as well. As this dry season reaches its conclusion, those pollinated flowers now produce fruits, which arrive with the first rains. Now there are fruits, and leaves, in abundance, and animals from birds to mammals to insects and lizards begin foraging voraciously to recover weight lost during the dry season, and begin looking for mates. Young are produced quickly, in order to take advantage of the surfeit of fruit and other foods. Soon the forest is teeming with new life, bright green and full of the sounds of animals stocking up in preparation for yet another long, hot dry season.

Dry tropical forest once occupied more land area than rainforest, at 42% of all intra-tropical vegetation. However, it is easily converted to cattle pasture by logging and burning, and now very little dry tropical forest remains. In Ecuador less than 2% of the original extent of this forest type remains, a statistic which is characteristic of most tropical dry forest regions in the world; however, in Central America sadly less than one-tenth of one percent remains. Because of these tremendous rates of loss, organisms that once were common in these forests now face extinction, merely for lack of habitat. Furthermore, because few functioning dry forest ecosystems remain (the forest is reduced to small, isolated patches in most parts of the world), their ecology is poorly studied, and their fauna and flora are far less well understood than in the much better-studied rainforests. Some positive developments can be reported, however, particularly in Costa Rica and Africa. In the western Costa Rican province of Guanacaste, the tireless efforts of Dr. Dan Janzen led to the establishment of the Santa Rosa National Park, later reformed as the much more extensive Guanacaste Conservation Area. Janzen has succeeded, virtually single-handedly, in resuscitating the nearly extirpated dry forest ecosystem in Costa Rica, an area which now enjoys visits by hundreds of thousands of tourists, students and researchers each year. In Africa, the tremendous revenue potential of international tourism has been harnessed for decades, and now provides sufficient income to support the protection of dry forest and savannah (seasonal, but grassdominated) ecosystems. The famed safaris to the Serengeti National Park are just one example of how the interest of the world has been used to protect ecosystems.

Although the dry tropical forest is not as species-rich as the famed rainforests of Amazonian South America, a remarkable diversity of plants and animals calls this habitat home. Between 50 and 70 woody plants (trees and large shrubs) can be found in only one-tenth of a hectare (0.25 acres), far more than in most temperate ecosystems, where hundreds of acres can be populated by only a handful of species. Even epiphytic plants can be abundant in dry forests, including bromeliads and a stunning variety of orchids. These forests can be very rich in bird life, often numbering over 200 or 300 species, and are important as stop-overs for migratory fowl, especially those birds that follow the Pacific coast to the temperate breeding grounds.

Despite the annual dry season, these forests can support a surprising diversity of amphibians, and of course, reptiles can be very abundant in dry forest, where they tough skin and hard-shelled eggs give them an advantage.

found in regions where there are several months of severe to absolute dry season, with most rain falling during a (usually) brief wet season. annual temperature is greater than 17C (63F), 250 to 2000 mm per year (10 to 80 inches). deciduousness, the shedding of leaves. Plants drop their leaves after the rains end, and essentially halt photosynthesis, which otherwise produces water losses the plant cannot sustain during the dry season.

like the Ceiba trichastandra, have an alternative source of photosynthetic energy: they have green bark rich in chlorophyll, that lets them continue to photosynthesize even when they have no leaves. Other plant adaptations include the development of water storage tissues, such as swollen roots or stems, that allow them to draw on saved water to survive the dry season

The Tropical Seasonal Forest

Tropical Dry Forest, Tropical Deciduous Forest, Savanna

Climate:distinguish between two closely related biomes, the tropical seasonal forest and the savanna. The tropical seasonal forest has more or less densely growing trees which lose their leaves during the dry season. The savanna is a grassland with individual trees or groups of trees dotting the landscape. If

you look at the climate diagrams to the right, you will see that the temperature regime is the same for both; with average annual temperatures over 20C. Rainfall can vary from less than 50cm/year to almost 300 cm/year. Savannas would occupy the dryer part of this range.

The figure to the left was taken at the Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica. This park has a typical tropical seasonal forest, and gets about 130 cm of rain per year. The rainfall is highly seasonal; with most of the rain falling in the months from May to November, May being both the end of the dry season and the wettest month overall, at least in the year pictured here. This strong seasonality of rainfall is characteristic of the tropical seasonal forest. During the rainy season(s), trees can easily maintain leaves and productivity is high. During the dry season(s), evaporation from the leaves is too high for the tree to sustain, so the leaves are dropped, much the way temperate deciduous forest plants lose their leaves in the winter.

World Distribution: Tropical seasonal forests and savannas are, as one might suspect, largely restricted to the tropics; actually a little further as most are found between 30N and South latitudes. Much of Mexico falls into this biome, as does a stretch of forest down the west coast of Central America. South America has these biomes in the northeast, in a band across Brazil to Argentina, and a smaller band on the west coast. Africa has a large extent of tropical seasonal forests and savannas; a band runs through subsaharan Africa and runs down the eastern coast with another band extending across the continent south of the tropical rainforest. There are extensive areas of these biomes in India, southeast Asia, and northern Australia as well.

Tropical Seasonal Forest Distribution

Indicator Plant Species:

Indio Desnuda, Bursera simarouba - Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

Acacia and Ants, Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

At Santa Rosa, one of the more noticeable trees at the end of the dry season was Indio Desnuda (the naked Indian), Bursera simarouba (above). This plant has a photosynthetic green bark that can carry on some photosynthesis even during the dry season when the leaves have dropped. Acacias (above right) are another important tree of this type of biome; they are found both in the new world and in Africa. The thorns deter many herbivores (but not giraffes); to increase the deterrent factor many species have hollow thorns which are home to colonies of ants which attack herbivores, insects, competing plants, and careless hikers.

I have no idea what the big tree to the right is, but we saw a number of them in Santa Rosa. They had leaves at the end of the dry season and were very big and very impressive.

Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica

Indicator Animal Species:

Scorpion, Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica

White-throated Magpie-Jay (Calocitta formosa), Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica

Scorpions are predatory invertebrates that are part of many world ecosystems, particularly dry ones. For some reason they are not common in temperate areas and thus seem exotic to those of us who live in such climes. The two birds here are characteristic of the dry forests of Costa Rica. Like other jays, the Magpie-Jay caches food in the wet season for consumption in the dry season (see the article on scrub jays for a comparison). Because of the need to remember where all the food is, these birds are very smart. The large Crested Guan lends its name to a whole region of Costa Rica - Guanacaste.

The giraffe is perhaps the most characteristic animal of this biome from Africa. Uniquely suited to browse leaves from trees, they are found in the savannas and dry forests of Africa. Their long black tongues are so dexterous they can even remove leaves from thorny acacias.

A number of other African mammals make the dry forests and savannas home; in these pages most of them are covered with the grasslands. The white rhino here reminds us that animals often have little use for our boundaries be they political or theoretical.

During the dry season the search for water is critical. Trees either have to have deep roots to underground sources of water, or they will have to shed their leaves to reduce their water loss until the rainy season comes. As in the temperate deciduous forest, the leaves laying on the forest floor will decompose and release their nutrients back to the soil, where the tree can use them once again. The decomposition will proceed rather rapidly in the hot, wet conditions of the rainy season.

Some trees flower just before the rains come; at this point the flowers really stand out and are sure to attract the attention of desperate pollinators. In the picture to the right, a Ctenosaur hangs out in an early flowering tree. Life is tough for vegetation-eating lizards at this time as well.

The honeybees shown below were visiting a basin of water catching some overflow from the laundry. The

Ctenosaur (=


Tropical dry forests are susceptible to all the usual threats. In the image to the right, you can see smoke in the distance. This means that someone is clearing forest for use as agricultural fields or pasture. Dry forests and savannas around the world are subject to this pressure, all the more so because many of the forests are located in countries with very high population growth rates, and thus increasing pressure to grow crops to feed the people. Also, in many areas wild animals are being chased out as herders use the land for their cattle and other domestic animals; often fences are put in place which prevent the wildlife from performing seasonal migrations or accessing critical water holes.

Another pressure put on dry forests is wood collecting. In many places wood is collected for use as building material, fuel, or as stock for making charcoal. This leads to deforestation as often the collecting proceeds faster than the trees are able to grow. The fuel is needed for simple things like cooking; in many places young children will walk miles each day to gather enough firewood for their mother to prepare a single meal. The industrialized world, with its vast use of fossil fuels (and waster thereof driving our SUV's) effectively prices poor Africans out of the fuel market. The price for a gallon of kerosene might exceed a poor person's monthly wage. The story is not all grim, however, many Africans are fighting back by planting trees. Read more about this response here!

Biological Field Station, Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica

In 2005, the Biology and Environmental Science Department at Marietta College made a trip to Costa Rica. While there, we stayed for several days at Santa Rosa National Park in the Guanacaste Province on the western (Pacific) coast. The native habitat in this area is dry forest, and it was all highly threatened until Costa Ricans, with the help of American biologist Daniel Janzen and others, began to work to protect this unique habitat. We stayed at the biological station in the park. The accommodations were comfortable dormitories as seen in the pictures above and right.

We were there at the very end of the dry season. The wildlife was easy to see with the leaves down. One of my favorites was this Roadside Hawk (below) which hunted near the station. In the image below you can see it has caught an anole; like other hawks they also eat small rodents and other small animals.

It should also be noted that this ecosystem is not maintained by fire. Many of the forest plants are extremely susceptible to fire, which does not appear to be a natural phenomenon here. . One of the most interesting things to observe at Santa Rosa was the mutualistic relationship between Acacia Ants and the Acacia trees. You would think that the big thorns on the Acacia tree would deter most herbivores, but the Acacia is not satisfied with that. It turns out that the thorns are hollow and easily modified by the ants to serve as living chambers. To attract the ants, the Acacia trees also bear nectaries at the base of the leaves (above), these non-floral nectar sources feed and water the ants. When the leaves first form, beltian bodies, which are rich in protein, are formed as well to help feed the ants. In return, the ants defend the Acacia from large browsing herbivores and insect herbivores, clip off any vines that try to attach, and even kill any plants growing too close to the Acacia tree. More on Acacia Ants. Some more views of the tropical dry forest at the end of the dry season. Again, some of the trees did have leaves, and we were uncertain if they were put out in anticipation of the rains or if those trees had a water source deep down in the soil.

The water source for the green trees in the image to the left is not in question. Those are mangroves and other trees in a small e stuary at Playa Naranjo on the coast.