Scientists Say: Understory

This is the forest layer beneath the tallest trees but above the ground


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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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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