The Temperate Forest Ecosystem

Divine Maduakolam and Natalie Schafer

When taking a hike through a forest in a National Park or a Nature Conservancy, people tend to stay on the trail and admire from a distance.  Whether these hikers visit these ecosystems for their recreational use or intrinsic value, these ecosystems are always more complex than they appear. Amongst these ecosystems, the temperate forest ecosystem is built to provide an understory that blooms with biodiversity.  A temperate forest is home to various flora and fauna that are supported by the fertile soil that covers the ground and a fairly dense canopy that intercepts portions of the sun’s light. Without these multiple components that structure the temperate forest ecosystem, the land and its inhabitants would experience a drastic change due to the uprooting of the native temperate forest.

Temperate forests can be found in the mid latitudes located between Earth’s polar and tropical regions. In these areas, temperate forests experience temperatures ranging from -30° C to 30°C (-86°F  to 86°F).  These temperature variations are seen during the distinct seasons these forests endure throughout the year; especially noting the hot summer seasons and cold winter seasons. The average yearly temperature of a temperate forest is about 10°C (50°F); however, during the summer, temperatures increase to approximately 21°C (70°F) while in colder months temperatures drop below freezing. 

When analyzing the climate profile of a temperate forest, it is important to consider how much rainfall is received in this ecosystem.  Rain is an important factor in any ecosystem because it supplies the environment with freshwater for terrestrial animals, allows plants to grow, and assists the sustainability of the complex ecosystem.  A temperate forest’s yearly precipitation varies throughout each season, however approximately 75 – 150 cm of rainfall occurs evenly throughout the year in this ecosystem. Some temperate forests receive more rain while others receive less rain during distinct seasons. Rainfall variation, along with other climatic components, influences what type of temperate forest the ecosystem is – temperate coniferous forest, temperate deciduous forest, temperate rainforest – and what species are found in these areas. 

Depending on where a person lives in the world, the ideal image of a forest could be filled with evergreens or trees with broad leaves which are called deciduous trees.  Coniferous trees are nicknamed “evergreen trees” because they stay green all year round and are constantly shedding their needles. Temperate forests can have a mix of coniferous trees and deciduous trees, however forests that are mostly, if not all coniferous, are known as taiga or boreal forests.  There is a “gray area” between a temperate coniferous forest and a taiga, however, temperate coniferous forests receive the least amount of rainfall in comparison to other types of temperate forests.  These coniferous forests experience an average of 76 cm of precipitation and are commonly found in the Western Continental United States of America, Canada, Russia, and Alaska.

Similarly, a temperate rainforest is also characterized as being “evergreen”.  The difference between these two forests is that a temperate rainforest receives more rain than a temperate coniferous forest.  A temperate rainforest is filled with some of the tallest and oldest trees in the world and historically receives at least 250 cm of rain each year. A popular example of a temperate rainforest is the Redwoods National Park located in Northern California, USA.  Other places where temperate rainforest ecosystems can be found are parts of the northwestern United States of America, New Zealand, the south of Chile, western Scotland, and Tasmania.

The temperate forest ecosystem is more commonly home to deciduous trees; however, it is not uncommon to see an overlap between a temperate deciduous forest and a temperate coniferous forest. A temperate deciduous (broad-leaf) forest on average receives about 100 cm of rain a year and can be found in the Eastern United States of America, and parts of Europe. Deciduous trees, unlike coniferous trees, go through a “leaf cycle”. Throughout the spring and summer seasons, these trees enter a “blooming stage” and grow their broad-leaves. Upon entering the autumn season, the leaves of deciduous trees begin to change colors; instead of staying a “forest green”, these leaves become bright yellow, red, orange, or brown. During the transition into the winter season, deciduous trees enter a dormant stage and lose their leaves since they are unable to absorb water through the frozen ground.  Though this ecosystem is always changing, the temperate forest is still able to support species evenness, species richness, and vast amounts of biodiversity.

Animals in the Ecosystem
The gray wolf, also known as the timber wolf, are one of the many animals that live in the temperate forest ecosystem.  The gray wolf is a member of the canine family (Canidae) and is described as being the largest wild member of this family. These wolves commonly live in packs of 6 to 8 with an established social hierarchy.  They travel and hunt with their packs led by an alpha male wolf.  Gray wolves usually hunt at night and mainly prey on herbivores such as deer, elk, and moose.  However, these apex predators are also seen hunting rabbits, beavers, and have been observed fishing in western Canada.  

Gray wolf (Canis lupus

Many people are afraid of wolves because of human-wildlife conflicts between these wolves and settlers on their territorial land.  As more people transformed temperate forests into land for agriculture, the gray wolf, along with their prey base, became restricted to the shrinking habitat.  Due to the deforestation of the temperate forest ecosystem, many species were unable to survive with these depleted resources.  Wolves were unable to sustain themselves on this dwindling food supply and they resorted to preying on livestock. Though wolves are now protected under the Endangered Species Act, they were historically hunted and even extirpated in some areas around the world in response to interfering with farmer’s profits.  A famous wildlife conservation story involving the restoration of the wolf takes place at Yellowstone National Park (see Section: “How Animals are Affected” below).  

The European Goldfinch lives all over Europe with the exception of a few colder northern countries like Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Northern Russia. Their habitats include a variety of mixed woods, gardens, and bushes located in open areas. They feed on aphids, tiny green bugs that suck the sap from plants, as well as shoots and seeds, especially thistle seed. These birds can build their nests in towering heights up to 8-10 meters (approximately 33 feet). They build these nests mostly on broad leafed or coniferous branches, which temperate forests are full of. When they make their nests they create thick walls often made of fibers, moss, and wool. 

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)

European goldfinches are very social birds with flocks consisting of 40 birds or more. They flock together over great distances to escape bad weather and search for food in the winter. A flock of goldfinches are called a charm.

At first glance, these creatures may look creepy and gross, but there is more to this species than meets the eye. These species are still very foreign to scientists and they are only known to be found in the eastern part of the United States of America, but according to National Geographic, there are more than 3,000 cicada species. 

Cicadas begin their lives as eggs above ground, however once they hatch, they instinctively begin burying themselves underground.  These insects live underground for the majority of their lives as larvae; spending between 2 to 17 years living off of the nutrients supplied by plant roots and other organic materials. Once they mature into adults, they crawl back above ground to mate. After mating, these insects pass away and another cycle begins.Though these species do not spend more than 2 to 6 weeks as adults, these insects provide an additional food source for birds and other animal species in the temperate forest ecosystem.  

Cicada (Cicadoidea)

There are a plethora of other animals that live in this important, heavily populated biome. Black and brown grizzly bears, deer, badgers, and the Easter Gray squirrel are just a few of the mammals within this ecosystem. As well as songbirds like robins, jay, cardinals, and predatory birds like eagles, hawks, and owls. Butterflies, walking sticks, praying mantises, and mosquitoes are some important insects that live and work in this ecosystem. Lastly, amphibians and reptiles in the temperate forests include Spotted Newts, Fowler Toads, Marble salamanders, and eastern box turtles just to name a few. 

Issues within Temperate Forests
There are many factors that contribute to an ecosystem, however, there are just as many factors that threaten an ecosystem.  When analyzing temperate forests, most of these issues stem from human disturbance.  With the increase in human population, there are higher demands for food and the need for agricultural land.  In addition, there is an increase for the demand of materials needed to build houses and other forms of infrastructure. In order to supply our industrial needs, temperate forests fell victim to deforestation.   

Deforestation is a term used to describe the process of the purposeful removal of trees from forested areas. These temperate forests are cleared for agricultural purposes, settlement purposes, and the timber industry.  Though these trees have economic value that benefit our growing population, the environmental cost is often left out of the financial equation.  Deforestation is a major issue within this ecosystem and perpetuates vast habitat loss around the globe.  According to scientific research, “Under these historical pressures, it is estimated that only 1–2% of the original temperate forest remains as never-harvested remnants scattered around the globe.”  Though we have taken action to grow temperate forests for future harvesting and as a substitute for the original temperate forests, these secondary forests will never be able to exactly replicate the former temperate forest ecosystem.  

Another issue involving the influence of the human population is pollution.  Due to human activity and industrial development, temperate forests are exposed to multiple types of pollutants – chemicals, herbicides, pesticides, and more. Other forms of pollution, such as water pollution and air pollution, are also causing environmental issues within the temperate forest ecosystem.  The continued use of fossil fuels in the industrial economy further adds to the possibility of acid rain in these temperate forests.

Climate Change
Climate change has caught the attention of many environment scientists and activists around the world.  This climate change threatens the sustainability and existence of many, if not all, ecosystems – including temperate forests.  The temperate forest ecosystem is threatened by many natural disturbances that are intensified by climate change; including drought stress, wind disturbance, and fire frequency.  Drought stress is intensified through the increase of extreme temperatures and threatens the water needs and temperature tolerances of the flora and fauna present in this ecosystem.  

Pairing drought stress with fire frequency, forest fires are more common in drought-like conditions and can lead to the destruction of habitat and loss of biodiversity. In 2019, the temperate forests of California, USA experienced some of the biggest, long-lasting, and dangerous wildfires that have been recorded in history. Likewise, the Australian 2019-2020 wildfires had a major impact on biodiversity; these fires wiped out “an estimated 1 billion animals.” These fires raged through many types of forest ecosystems, including its temperate eucalyptus forests. In conclusion, a loss of habitat at any size or scale is severely detrimental to global biodiversity.

Invasive Species
Another pressing issue within the temperate forest ecosystem is the current presence and future introductions of invasive species. According to National Geographic, an invasive species is “an organism that is not indigenous, or native, to a particular area.” Invasive species can be both economically and environmentally harmful to the new habitats.  In terms of evaluating their influence on native species in temperate forests, invasive species become dangerous when they out compete a native species or dominate the resources in an ecosystem.  One example of an invasive species in a temperate forest ecosystem is the Gyspy Moth (Lymantria dispar).  Specifically in New Jersey, USA, the Gypsy Moth came over from Europe and is harming the Northern Red Oak – the official New Jersey State tree. This invasive species is causing the Northern Red Oak to dry out and rott as the tree is not able to absorb enough sunlight.  The Gypsy Moths devoir the leaves of this native species posing a challenge when trying to photosynthesize.

Policies Addressing Issues

The Forest Stewardship Council 
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a global non profit organization that was created in 1993 “to certify well-managed forests.” As an organization, the FSC has defined and certified sustainable forest management to combat complete deforestation, especially of temperate forests. FSC is a very influential source in maintaining the health and growth of our temperate forests. They do this by operating on a “set of 10 principles and 70 criteria” to apply to their FSC certification of wood products. Seeing an FSC label on your wooden products ensures that it came from a sustainable and ethical forest management. Purchasing FSC certified helps ensure that temperate forests can stay alive and grow for future generations.

Wilderness Act
The Wilderness Act of 1964 is crucial in forest preservation and conservation because the legislation legally defined what is considered the wilderness. The act defined wilderness, in paraphrase, as places outside of human activity “where [humans are] a visitor who [do] not remain.” Because of this act, many additional definitions and designated wilderness areas have been added for protection and regulated under this law. The wilderness act is a tool for advocacy to protect forests, like temperate forests, from harmful economic development like urbanization, road building, extraction, and overall depletion. Upholding the premise of the act, to preserve the integrity of these wilderness areas from anthropogenic harms, maintains the growth of temperate forest to come.

Endangered Species Act
The US Forest Services defines the goal of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to be “first to prevent extinction of endangered plants and animals and, secondly, to recover these populations by preventing threats to their survival.” The act is the most influential in addressing biodiversity loss of fauna and flora species in our environment. The law “requires federal agencies” to ensure their practices do not threaten the existence of “listed species” or their habitat, as well as the “commerce” of these species. This Act holds offenders accountable and legally requires repercussions for transgressors. This law helps protect all the animals and plants that make up our temperate forests and is the reason most of the animals present today can continue to populate these forests.

How Animals are Affected?

Adaptation to Seasons
Animals that live in forests learn to adapt to the changing seasons and weather patterns. The changing seasons even affect the physical aspects of the animal, such as how certain species of rabbits and weasels “change their coat twice a year” from brown to white to blend in the snow. Maintaining the integrity of these forests also maintains that these animals can continue to live in this cycle as nature intended.

Invasive species
Introducing invasive species into any biome is extremely harmful to the animals who call that habitat home. Many invasive species thrive because they outcompete native species for food.  Controlling invasive species everywhere helps to keep all native species healthy and help keep temperate forests functioning properly.

The Impacts – Why Animals Matter
As with any ecosystem, various species rely on this ecosystem for food, water, and their habitat needs.  However, the ecosystem also relies on its species and the roles each species plays in the ecosystem to continue functioning as a whole.  Below is an example of how animals are affected by issues within an ecosystem and influence the changes within a temperate forest ecosystem. 

Wolves in Yellowstone National Park (Temperate Forest Ecosystem)

Before the National Park Service (NPS) began reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone National Park (YNP), wolves were hunted for recreational purposes as well as a way to protect the livestock; farmers were frustrated with losing profits due to wolves.  Once wolves were extirpated out of YNP, the NPS began to notice changes within the park; the ecosystem appeared to be unbalanced. Without wolves hunting, the elk population began to increase exponentially. The elk then began to dominate the temperate forest and started to overgraze the plant species present in the temperate forest ecosystem (eg. willows, aspens, etc.).  These plant species supported various species of birds, and unfortunately these birds were unable to support themselves due to elk overexploiting this resource.  

Park Rangers began to see a decline in the bird populations, as well as beaver populations since beavers were no longer able to build dams and their food source was depleting.  Though this may not seem like a huge issue since birds and beavers are present in other ecosystems, it is important to recognize the roles each species has in an ecosystem.  Without beavers present in YNP, the riverbanks began to erode since stream complexity decreased.  Stream complexity is important because it helps manage the flow of a stream, the organic materials add nutrients to the aquatic ecosystem, and these structures provide habitats for other species. 

The decline of these species had severe impacts on the temperate forest ecosystem. The NPS realized that the extirpation of the wolf caused the beginning of a trophic cascade; some conservationists argue that the gray wolf was a keystone species in YNP. Fortunately, wolves were reintroduced to YNP and their presence is reversing the damage that was caused by the rapidly expanding elk populations.  Every species has an ecological role in the functioning ecosystem; the gray wolf has a major role in managing the elk populations in the temperate forest ecosystem.  

What You Can Do? “Bee” a Kind Human

Eat Less Beef  
According to a report conducted by Union of Concerned Scientists “beef makes up about 24 percent of the world’s meat consumption, yet requires 30 million square kilometers of land to produce.” The production of beef is inefficient and is a threat to all forests. Eating less beef will lower its demand and reduce the amount of land used to produce it. Reducing the amount of times you purchase and consume beef will save countless forests across the globe and will have a positive impact on combating carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Recycle
Reducing the amount of paper products you use will lower the demand for lumber. Maybe replace your paper towels with reusable hand towels and napkins, use reusable plates, or refuse napkins when ordering takeout. If you do use paper products try finding new uses for them; like newspapers as wrapping paper or handmade paper mache art. At the very least, recycling your paper products correctly reduces the amount of paper in landfills. These practices save the forests we all need and love!

Forest Clean-ups
When you go for a hike or visit a park, leave the area better than you found it!  The amount of trash and litter present in all ecosystems not only threatens the animals living in these areas, but they also lead to a decline in the overall health of the ecosystem. For instance, in a temperate forest, if an animal does not accidentally eat a piece of trash or plastic, this material will find its way into the ground and could even impact your health! There is a chance that these chemicals and inorganic materials will find their way to the groundwater that supplies your daily water needs.  

DIY Projects
If you find yourself wanting to build something or are feeling crafty, make the world a better place at the same time!  For instance, try building bird boxes for threatened and endangered birds, or you could also try building bee boxes. Check out what nature conservancies are doing in your area to help protect and benefit the species living in your local temperate forests.  

Sources: Animalia, Berkeley University of California, Biology Dictionary, Britannica, EniScuola, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Every CRS Reports, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), GovTrack, Jungle Jenny, LiveScience, NASA, National Geographic, National Park Service (NPS), Nature Works, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), Pixabay, Schneider Deciduous Forest PDF, ScienceDirect – Encyclopedia of Ecology, Union of Concerned Scientists, United States Forest Service, Unsplash, World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), Yale University