Scientists Say: Understory | Science News for Students

Scientists Say: Understory

This is the forest layer beneath the tallest trees but above the ground
Oct 22, 2018 — 6:30 am EST
fawn in woods

Understory plants provide important food and shelter for animals such as deer.


Understory (noun, “UN-der-STORE-ee”)

This is the layer of trees and shrubs that grows beneath the forest canopy but above the forest floor. The forest canopy — the topmost part of the forest — is made of the tallest trees that need the most light. Their branches and leaves block much of the sun’s light from reaching the understory below. So plants that grow there need to be able to survive in the shade, with less sunlight. In those low-light conditions, plants in the understory may be stunted and short. Saplings can also be found in the understory. These are young trees that aren’t yet tall enough to reach the canopy. And then there are other understory plants thrive in the shade. These can include shrubs and familiar species such as holly and dogwoods. They also include important food plants, such as cacao, which provides chocolate.

The plants in the understory provide homes and food for animals that live in the forest. These include everything from insects, lizards, bats and birds to large mammals such as deer.

In a sentence

Coffee is an understory plant, and growing it in the shade of taller trees can help preserve forests.  

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Power Words

(more about Power Words)

bat     A type of winged mammal comprising more than 1,100 separate species — or one in every four known species of mammal.

birds     Warm-blooded animals with wings that first showed up during the time of the dinosaurs. Birds are jacketed in feathers and produce young from the eggs they deposit in some sort of nest. Most birds fly, but throughout history there have been the occasional species that don’t.

cacao     The name of a tropical tree and of the tree’s seeds (from which chocolate is made).

canopy     (in botany) The top layer of a tree — or forest — where the tallest branches overlap.

forest     An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

lizard     A type of reptile that typically walks on four legs, has a scaly body and a long tapering tail. Unlike most reptiles, lizards also typically have movable eyelids. Examples of lizards include the tuatara, chameleons, Komodo dragon, and Gila monster.

mammal     A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.

shrub     A perennial plant that grows in a generally low, bushy form.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

sun     The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Also a term for any sunlike star.

understory     Plants that grow beneath the canopy, or uppermost level, of the forest.