Differences Between Evergreen and Deciduous Forests

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Evergreen trees, many of which are conifers, keep their foliage year-round.
Evergreen trees, many of which are conifers, keep their foliage year-round. (Image: Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

If you are interested in spending more time outdoors, consider studying the area of field natural history as a way to increase your enjoyment and knowledge about the world around you. One of the basic aspects of field natural history is the difference between forest environments and ecosystems, such as those typified by an evergreen or deciduous forest.

Climate

In terms of climate, deciduous forests are found mainly in moderate and tropical areas, while evergreen forests, also known as coniferous forests, are found in colder climates, both in terms of latitude and elevation. Evergreen forests are more adapted to harsher conditions in the form of lower amounts of sunlight, stronger winds and colder temperatures. Deciduous forests are found mainly in areas that experience seasonal changes through the year, which explains the loss of leaves in the fall and new growth and buds in the spring. In many areas where a moderate climate prevails, mixed-deciduous forests contain a combination of evergreens and deciduous trees.

Plant Adaptations

In each of the two forest types, trees and plants adapt to meet the conditions of the area's climate. Coniferous evergreen trees typically have rounded needles for leaves and branch patterns that are able to support the weight of snow during winter. Many evergreen trees also produce a biochemical antifreeze-type substance that helps to maintain basic life supporting functions during sub-freezing temperatures. Deciduous trees have broader leaves and more chlorophyll than evergreen trees in order to catch as much sunlight as possible during the warm season before they lose their leaves during winter. Deciduous trees are also able to seal off old buds with a protective covering during the winter to combat freezing temperatures.

Soil

The soil in a deciduous forest is notably richer and has a thicker organic layer than an evergreen forest. Fallen leaves in a deciduous forest are broken down, returning more nutrients to the soil; these nutrients are used by other plants in the understory. Typically, because of the deciduous forest's rich soil, there are several layers of plants between the main canopy and the forest floor. However, in an evergreen forest, old needles from evergreen trees make up a thin covering of the forest soil. The needles from an evergreen tree are typically acidic, making for a nutrient-poor soil. As a result, fewer understory plants are able to grow in an evergreen forest.

Biodiversity

One of the biggest differences between an evergreen and a deciduous forest is the amount of biodiversity found in a deciduous environment. Several different types of mammals live in deciduous forests; these are nut and acorn feeders, herbivores or omnivores. Some deciduous forest regions, such as the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, have some of the richest biodiversity of plants, salamanders and slime molds in the world. On the other hand, fewer animals and fewer types of plants are able to survive the climatic extremes of the northern evergreen forests. These animals have made special adaptations to the cold. They include elk, caribou, reindeer, rabbits, squirrels and predators such as the lynx, wolverine, bobcat and wolf.

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