FOREST ECOSYSTEMS

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic
community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.
—Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac

Chapter Two
Chapter TWO FOREST ECOSYSTEMS
While trees sometimes stand alone, most often they All food chains consist of:
are part of a community called a forest. Forests Producers—organisms that produce energy
consist not only of living (biotic) components like Consumers—organisms that consume producers
trees, animals, plants, and other living things but and other consumers
also of nonliving (abiotic) components such as soil, Decomposers—organisms that consume produc-
water, air, and landforms. All of these components ers and consumers, and provide nutrients into
together make up a forest ecosystem. the soil.

Applying the system above to a simple real-world
Systems example is as follows:
Forests are more than collections of living and Producer: grass (produces energy from the sun
nonliving things found in the same place. Their and nutrients)
many components are connected to each other Consumer: deer (eats grass)
as food chains of interdependence. Food chains Decomposer: worms (eats deer, creates nutrients
move the basic requirements for life—energy, from which grasses can grow).
water, carbon, air, and nutrients—in a series of
connections and processes. The sun provides energy to the forest. Trees and
other plants (producers) use photosynthesis to

Simplified food web

tree
sun owl

deer

mouse

algae
grass
grass human
mosquito larvae

dragonfly nymph
decomposers
fish

Several food chains linked together are known as a food web. Plants capture energy from the sun, but plants,
animals, and decomposers move energy from individual to individual in an intricate web of relationships.

9

That means it insects. 10 . when change occurs (as of saplings and smaller woody plants such as alder it always does). often after spending days. water. In the understory. which produces oxygen. Along with carbon dioxide (from the air) and water (from the Even lower. numerous cycles overlap and depend decomposers on each other to keep in balance. months. as different animals are often into nutrients. of the forest. move in natural cycles through the forest. and insects. berries and berry-eaters abound. whether intentional or and fungi. eroded rock to create rich soil. and nitrogen all white‑tailed deer. Nitrogen and other nutrients cycle home. and living things. bats. Imagine. in the head-high shrub layer made up depends on all other systems. sedges. insects. ­kingdom of the As you can see. connections. again. rivers. fungi. caterpillars. Also in the shrub layer reside browsers such as Oxygen. accidental. and water to create oxygen and sugar. water. carbon dioxide. resides the top layer. carbon dioxide. or processes forms a unified whole called a system. all eating predators such as coyotes.All About Minnesota’s Forests and Trees transform the sun’s energy into glucose (sugars). remnants of the great northern forest that once stretched across the brow of Minnesota. the web adapts and adjusts. and organisms depend on oxygen and sugar for sur- spiders—get their energy from other living things. While each system Beneath that. groundwater reservoirs. and in plants. and animal. The canopy contains literally millions of leaves Consumers—plant-eating animals such as busily photosynthesizing sunlight. get their energy from dead plants and animals. will have effects that ripple throughout Decom­ the entire ecosystem. and deer. or canopy. air. standing in a sun-filtered stand of mature aspen interspersed with a few white and red pines. for a moment. water. a variety of food web. seedlings. birds and smaller mammals such as warblers and red or processes that regularly interacts and depends on squirrels eat their suppers and make their nests. Some of the animals that dwell in the canopy Decomposers such as sowbugs. is the among soil. and bacteria include eagles. grasses. and soil). not their exclusive and living things. providing food and animals use oxygen and respire carbon dioxide and habitat in the process for mice. black flies. which found within each layer. posers break down the Layers bodies of Many forests contain several different heights or plants and animals layers of plants. Water cycles from the sky to earth and back snakes. connections. vival. in the herb layer. and more. Every collection of individuals. and mosquitoes. Some 60 feet (18 meters) above you. chickadees. plants and wildflowers—live and die. Everything in the such as forest is connected to everything else. other individuals. In turn. woodpeckers. And. is impossible to make a change in just one part of bacteria. Then. ­ the system. Any alteration. flexibly. energy from the sun triggers photosynthesis forbs—­nonwoody plants such as ferns. though cycling through lakes. and chokecherry. where the tops of smaller trees Several food chains linked together are known as a absorb whatever sunlight reaches them. the diversity of animals is combine with often related to plant diversity in the forest. or years The forest floor.

vide benefits. predators. mature trees to shade and cool the water and the gravel streambeds trout lay their eggs in.” some increasers do pro- snowshoe hares. subsist only on a narrow range of food sources (like opment fragment a forest. animals (wild or domestic) can overgraze tasty trees and plants Carrol Henderson. access to in common: they all rely on the forest setting. fruit. Trout. 11 . Invasive gypsy moth caterpillars defoliate and weaken certain species of trees. depend on large. from tiny mites that inhabit the soil to towering moose and bulky bears. over-trapping. or clean water. Invasive emerald ash can live in a wide range of areas. rabbits. While many About 75 percent of the diet of Canada lynxes is consider increasers “weeds. for instance. which can change Raccoons eat a range of different foods and therefore the composition of the forest. goldfinches prefer to live and nest near large populations of prickly thistles. or space. and space. Some animals such as deer. For example. and insects use a broad number of Some animals and plants are adapted to very narrow plant species. insects such as mosquitoes ranges of conditions in which they are able to live. Consequently. moose. monarch caterpillars feed almost exclusively on milkweed plants. One such creature cycle begins again. borer beetles bore through bark and kill forests of closely growing ash trees. water. cool streams. shelter. which can be as minute as mosses or lichen The number and diversity of animal species depends or as large as giant oaks. water. is the highly adaptable raccoon. In the same way. The Canada one species of mammal won’t affect the mosquito lynx. forest ecosystems This soil in turn provides the nutrients and moisture Other forest inhabitants. or a mate. which prefer clean. If predators like Canada lynxes are reduced be able to roam through all of its territory. Finally. ants. needs large tracts of relatively population. if milkweeds are removed. called generalists. so removing These animals are called specialists. then the population of hares may rise. a plant that increases with grazing and disturbance. for food. For example. Both live in forests. shelter. They all have one thing on the amount of available food. Other animals (like the Canada lynx) undeveloped forests for hunting. shelter. insects can cause environmental changes. Plants that tend to increase when grazing rises are called increasers. the reclusive lynx may not hares). If roads or devel. preventing streams from filling with silt. Same with Animal Populations plants. water. The animals of Minnesota’s forests come in many Chapter Two sizes and shapes. so too go the caterpillars. nuts. development. courtesy USFWS rely on roots from plants and trees to hold soil in place. which is as much at home lunching in an urban trash can as it is in foraging for frogs. habitat. and fish in a What Lives in the Forest? northern stream. Plants that tend to decrease as grazing increases are called decreasers. thorny and less nutritious plants such as the black locust tree and burdock may increase in number. Minnesota DNR and limit those plants’ ability to regenerate. thrive that trees and other plants need to thrive—and the in a wide range of habitat types. and ability to adapt to changes in food. feed on a broad range of animals. If confined to too-small habitats. limiting because of over-hunting. Trout Ricky Layson. or human its ability to access food. along with a rise in damage to trees and plants from browsing.

with more kinds of plants and animals than any other part of the forest. In effect. Mixed ages of trees. and other nonwoody plants. As pioneer well suited to the amount of water. the new plants succeed The forest floor is by far the busiest part of the the old. c­ onditions may favor a different intermediate species. ditions change. fire. forest. farming. and regeneration urged on by ice. such as box elder. Example 1: From Farm to Forest Forest Succession A forest growing on abandoned farmland that was Plant communities change depending on their once a maple–basswood forest is a good example environmental conditions. Many Some low shrubs. Grasses and flowers. and at forest edges where trees and open areas meet. creating a slightly different community. Very few shrubs. This process is ­sun-loving. As environmental con. Animal and plant life Environmental conditions that trigger succession is usually most varied where the habitat is most may include any natural or human-caused distur- diverse.All About Minnesota’s Forests and Trees Different types of forest—and even different parts abundant. and other disruptions. and these plants will become more do well in full sun. disease. death. As the availability of that favor a second set of plants and animals called resources changes. Despite periods of stability. of succession. for instance. aspen. Throughout history. Seeds drifting in from trees that set of plants. In a stable community. Few grasses and flowers. and windstorms. Few young trees. bance that reduces the number of living trees from occurs between areas of different types of forests an area. This causes a shift in the makeup of the of the same forest—provide different necessities. Some of the richest habitat. Grasses and flowers. After the farmers leave the area. Some examples are: timber harvesting. some old trees. Many old trees. ash. nutrients. Grasses and flowers. shrubs. Many young trees. Forest succession: As forests change. Some shrubs. the types of plants that make up the cleared spaces become friendly terrain for the community may also change. forest communities move from one successional stage to another. they often create conditions sunlight available to them. 12 . urbanization. hardy pioneer species such as grasses. plant community. woodlands have woven their way through many cycles of growth. fire. so do the number and types of animals that live in them A disturbance at any of these stages pushes the forest to an earlier stage. plants are ragweed. and species grow and thrive. called succession.

For example. found in that community. water. you’ll likely find the other. until the next becomes friendly terrain for the first pioneers— disturbance. they open. scat- undisturbed. Photos courtesy of Eli Sagor One month after fire. As Example 2: From Fire to Forest the older shade-intolerant trees die out. The ­following table lists some examples of native plant community names and places they can be viewed. creating a climax community dominated by (120°F/49°C or higher). balsam fir. more shade-tolerant species—white community dominated by maple and basswood until pine. they shade the forest floor. and the like—then the next disturbance. may repopulate the area. trees tend to appear in predictable combinations. sun. plants and communities. Some of Native Plant Communities Because certain trees have similar requirements for light. their more Fire can also trigger succession. There are more than 50 native plant communities in Minnesota. conditions that favor sugar maples also favor the American basswood. meaning that the seeds loving trees die out and the shade-tolerant species stay trapped within the cones until released by heat Chapter Two take over. Within native plant communities. other. so where you find one. As these trees these trees have special adaptations that make it mature. paper birch. grasses and other nonwoody plants. the initial climax trees will eventually tering seeds on the land. temperature. and the forest will evolve into a more stable plant mature. making it difficult ­possible for them move into a new clearing. 13 . and the species composition of the forest slowly shifts. The charred land shade-tolerant successors take over. Raspberry and other shade-intolerant intermediate species such as aspen. for their own seeds to grow. white spruce. can grow on relatively poor soil and such as maple and basswood find themselves at a use their root‑sprouting capabilities to recolonize competitive advantage. And the cycle goes on. And the cycle goes on. and the species composition a burned forest in a matter of a few years. When a fire burns through plants and animals that prefer these conditions. forest ecosystems and cherry. Left an area littered with these cones. 2007. Such groups of plants that have evolved and adapted in an area together are called native plant communities. forests are named according to the conditions and dominant plants Ham Lake fire in northern Minnesota. the older. Native plant communities interact naturally with each other and with their environment and do not contain introduced. Jack of the forest slowly shifts. pine cones are serotinous. or nonnative. and the like. and jack pine follow. As intermediate species die. soil type. Shade-loving species for instance. find themselves at a competitive advantage. Aspen. Over time. along with other plants that thrive in those conditions.

so do the number and types of plants and animals in them. soils. Croix State Park Southern Dry Savanna Helen Allison Savanna SNA Minnesota Valley State Park Northern Wet-Mesic Boreal Hardwood-Conifer Forest Lake Bemidji State Park Scenic State Park Zippel Bay State Park To sum up Chapter Two: Forest Ecosystems • Forests are complex ecosystems that support a range of plants and animals. • Minnesota forests face threats from invasive plants and animals. plus other factors such as climate. • When forests change. • Forests are made up of several layers. • The kinds of animals in a forest are related to the kinds of plants in the forest. Minnesota DNR A northern wet-mesic boreal hardwood-conifer forest. and landforms. which may be natural or human-caused.All About Minnesota’s Forests and Trees Native Plant Community Examples of Locations Central Dry-Mesic-Pine-Hardwood Forest Itasca Wilderness Scientific Natural Area (SNA) Afton State Park Southern Wet Ash Swamp King’s and Queen’s Bluff SNA Nerstrand Big Woods State Park Northern Terrace Forest Kettle River SNA St. • Forests are always changing due to disturbances. 14 .