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Six Primary Producers of the Tropical Rainforest

written by: Terrie Schultz•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 5/7/2010

Primary producers are plants and other photosynthetic organisms that can make their own food from inorganic materials and sunlight. Let's take a look at some of the primary producers that live in the tropical rainforest.

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    What are Primary Producers?

    Primary producers, or autotrophs, are the basis of the food chain in any ecosystem. They are organisms capable of making their own food through the process of photosynthesis from carbon dioxide and water, using sunlight as an energy source. Primary producers (those living in tropical rainforests) include plants, cyanobacteria, and other single-celled photosynthetic organisms.

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    Overview of the Vegetation Structure of Tropical Rainforests

    There are thousands of species of plants and trees in the tropical rainforests of the world. Vegetation is divided into five layers. The overstory is the highest layer, composed of trees that are 100-120 feet or greater in height. These trees are known as emergents because they break through the top of the canopy, which lies below the overstory and is composed of trees 60-80 feet tall. The bottom three layers are the understory, which includes saplings of the taller tree species, the shrub layer, and the forest floor.

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    Six Examples of Primary Producers of the Tropical Rainforest

    Tualang (Koompassia excelsa) - Also known as the Honey Bee Tree, the tualang grows in the Southeast Asian rainforests of Borneo, Malaysia, Palawan, Sumatra and Thailand. It is an emergent tree that grows to 250 feet tall. The tualang has smooth, slippery bark and enormous buttress roots that grow out to the sides to hold the tree up. Asian rock bees build honey combs in the high branches of the tualang. The combs can reach six feet in diameter and contain tens of thousands of bees.

    Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) - The stately kapok tree is found in tropical rainforests all over the world, It is an emergent tree, reaching 150 feet or higher, with a straight trunk, huge buttress roots and and umbrella shaped crown. Many species of birds and animals make their home in the kapok's branches.

    Strangler Figs (Ficus spp.) - There are hunderds of species of figs, and they are a critically important keystone species in tropical rainforests throughout the world, for the fruit that they bear several times annually is a major component of the diet of many different animals. Strangler figs are a type of hemiepiphyte that begin life high in the branches of another tree species when the seeds in animal droppings are left there. The seeds sprout and send down long aerial roots that eventually reach the ground. A fig tree rapidly grows up, and sends out more aerial roots that encircle and strangle the host tree, robbing it of light and nutrients.

    Benga Bamboo (Bambusa tulda) - This species of bamboo grows in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. In spite of its large size, up to 80 feet tall and 3 inches in diameter, bamboo is actually a grass, not a tree. It grows very rapidly, reaching its full size in only 2-3 months. Bamboo plays several important roles in the rainforest, including reducing soil erosion and providing a place to live for many animals.

    Comet Orchid (Angraecum spp.) - The Comet orchid, which grows mainly in Africa, is an example of an epiphyte, also known as an air plant. Epiphytes grow on the trunks and branches of trees but are not parasites; they obtain water from rain and fog, and nourishment from composted material on the branches. Living high up on the branches of trees instead of on the forest floor, offers epiphytes the advantage of greater amounts of sunlight, animal pollinators and wind dispersal of seeds. Other types of epiphytes include bromeliads, ferns and mosses.

    Rattan (Rhapis humilis blume) - Rattan is one of more than 2,000 species of lianas, woody vines that grow up from the forest floor, using trees as support to reach the upper layers of the rainforest to get more sunlight. Some lianas are as large in diameter as trees, and thousands of feet long. Rattan is a species of liana that is used to make rope and furniture.

    There are only a sampling of the multitudes of different types of primary producers that grow in tropical rainforests all over the world.

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    "Rainforest Plants."