Ecology Temperate Deciduous Forests
Frank S. Gilliam
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0012


Given the global distribution of human populations and their coincidence with temperate deciduous forests, it is likely that when most people consider the term “forest,” what comes to mind most frequently is the temperate deciduous forest biome. Although not to the level of their tropical counterparts, temperate deciduous forests typically display high plant biodiversity and rates of net primary productivity. They contrast sharply, however, with tropical forests in the distribution of biodiversity and productivity. In tropical forests, greatest plant diversity is associated with the vegetation of greatest productivity—trees. By contrast, the greatest plant diversity—up to 90 percent—in temperate deciduous forests occurs among the plants of least physical stature: the herbaceous species. Given the close association between these forests and their use by human populations, whether for food, fiber, habitat, or recreation, it is not surprising that they have been well studied, particularly in North America, and thus have a rich literature going back many years. However, for the very reason of that intensive use, temperate deciduous forests have proved to be an ecological moving target, as timber harvesting, air pollution, and introduced pests (e.g., insects and parasites) have represented a chronic assault on the structure and function of these ecosystems.

General Overviews

The wide global distribution of temperate deciduous forests, generally occurring between 20° and 60° of latitude both north and south of the equator in five continents, precludes broad generalizations regarding their ecology. There are few, if any, single volumes devoted to an in-depth ecological handling of temperate forest biomes. Rather, there are several excellent compendia of global vegetation that include sections or chapters on temperate deciduous forests (Archibold 1995, Reich and Bolstad 2001) or books devoted to temperate deciduous forests of a particular country or region (Peterken 1996, Kirby and Watkins 1998, Nakashizuka and Matsumoto 2002). Clearly, the best historical reference for temperate deciduous forests of North America is Emma Lucy Braun’s classic Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America (Braun 1950). The first book of its kind, when published it was nearly encyclopedic in its descriptions of contrasting temperate forest associations the United States and Canada. Although its age of more than sixty years since first printing precludes some degree of current usefulness, other work (e.g., Dyer 2006) has revisited Braun’s original depictions of the most diverse forest type on North America. Less addressed than the trees, yet no less important to the structure and function of temperate deciduous forests, is the species-rich herbaceous stratum (Gilliam and Roberts 2003).

  • Archibold, O. William. 1995. Ecology of world vegetation. London: Chapman & Hall.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-011-0009-0E-mail Citation »

    In this book, Archibold offers a comprehensive review of global vegetation structure and function, including a lengthy chapter that provides one of the more extensive overviews of the global temperate forest biome.

  • Braun, E. Lucy. 1950. Deciduous forests of eastern North America. Philadelphia: Blakiston.

    E-mail Citation »

    An encyclopedic monograph that set the standard for vegetation science in North America and elsewhere. Braun provided the clearest picture of a vegetation type as it once was prior to anthropogenic disturbances such as timber harvesting, insects, disease, and pollution, and in doing so inspired generations of plant ecologists, especially in the United States.

  • Dyer, James M. 2006. Revisiting the deciduous forests of eastern North America. BioScience 56.4: 341–352.

    DOI: 10.1641/0006-3568(2006)56[341:RTDFOE]2.0.CO;2E-mail Citation »

    Dyer reconsiders maps and descriptions from Braun 1950 and presents a new map of forest associations (based on data a broad network of current sample plots) that, despite displaying increased homogenization of forests in the formation’s central section, largely supports the geography of forest regions originally reported by Braun.

  • Gilliam, Frank S., and Mark R. Roberts, eds. 2003. The herbaceous layer in forests of eastern United States. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based originally on a symposium presented at the 1998 annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, Gilliam and Roberts synthesize much of what is known of the most species-rich stratum of temperate deciduous forests, with more than 1,200 references.

  • Hanson, Paul J., and Stan D. Wullschleger. 2003. North American temperate deciduous forest responses to changing precipitation regimes. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4613-0021-2E-mail Citation »

    Using results from large-scale experimentation at Walker Branch Watershed, Tennessee, Hanson and Wullschleger describe mechanisms of temperate forest ecosystem response to climate change-mediated alterations in hydrologic budgets, explaining implications of change at both plant and stand levels, and extrapolating data to ecosystem-level responses, such as changes in nutrient cycling, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration.

  • Kirby, K. J., and C. Watkins, eds. 1998. The ecological history of European forests. Papers presented at the International Conference on Advances in Forest and Woodland History held at the University of Nottingham in September 1996. London: CAB International.

    E-mail Citation »

    Includes a wide range of case studies on specific aspects of the ecological history of European forests, along with an introduction by Kirby and Watkins on historical ecology and European woodland.

  • Nakashizuka, Tohru, and Yoosuke Matsumoto. 2002. Diversity and interaction in a temperate forest community: Ogawa Forest Reserve of Japan. Berlin: Springer.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on work at the Ogawa Forest Reserve, a species-rich temperate deciduous old-growth forest in central Japan, Nakashizuka and Matsumoto introduce main areas of research by more than forty scientists in widely diverse scientific fields, including botany, ecology, pedology, silviculture, mammal ecology, entomology, and ornithology.

  • Peterken, George F. 1996. Natural woodland: Ecology and conservation in northern temperate regions. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this book, Peterken describes dynamics of virgin and old-growth forests in Europe and North America in the absence of human influence, ultimately applying this knowledge to issues of nature conservation in British forests.

  • Reich, Peter B., and Paul Bolstad. 2001. Productivity of evergreen and deciduous temperate forests. In Terrestrial global productivity. Edited by Jacques Roy, Bernard Saugier, and Hal. A. Mooney, 565–569. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this chapter Reich and Bolstad provide extensive data of net primary productivity (NPP) of global deciduous and evergreen temperate forests, with an emphasis on environmental controls on NPP and effects of human alterations.

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