As a passionate naturalist, wildlife tracker and ecologist, one of the most foundational skills I ever learned was how to observe the difference between coniferous and deciduous forests.
Most people already know how to identify coniferous and deciduous trees by comparing the major differences in leaf structures.
Coniferous trees like fir, spruce and pine trees have needle-like leaves that stay on the tree all year long.
While deciduous trees like maples, oaks, beech, birch, and alders have much thinner paper-like leaves that fall off during winter, especially in cold climates.
But what many people don’t realize is just because you see a coniferous tree, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re inside a coniferous forest.
For this, we need to look at the actual ratio of deciduous vs coniferous trees growing together as an interconnected system.
A forest is an entire ecology of trees, plants and animals that has much more complexity to observe, but also much more to tell us about our greater surroundings.
Quite simply, a coniferous forest is any forest composed primarily of coniferous trees like fir, spruce, or pine.
Like this one…
Deciduous forests are those dominated by deciduous trees like maples, oaks, beech, birch, or alders.
Like this one….
Forests can also be a mixture of coniferous and deciduous trees, and these are sometimes classified as mixed forests.
Many forests will also go through stages of growth that involve gradually shifting ratios of coniferous and deciduous trees through the process of forest succession.
The really exciting thing is once you know what kind of forest you’re dealing with, suddenly you’re able to start making all kinds of other valuable predictions about the plants, animals & resources to be found there.
Let’s explore how this works…
Coniferous VS Deciduous Forest Characteristics
Imagine being able to look at a bunch of trees off in the distance, and instantly predict a whole host of things about that forest in just a few seconds!
That is exactly what you’re able to do by comparing coniferous and deciduous environments.
Knowledge of coniferous and deciduous characteristics helps us answer questions like:
- How healthy is that forest?
- What types of animals are most likely to live there?
- How old is that forest?
- What is the history of that forest?
- How much biodiversity is there?
- What time of year is this forest most active with wildlife?
Fast access to these answers is why knowledge of forest types is such a foundational skill for every other form of nature awareness from wildlife tracking, to herbalism, survival, navigation & general appreciation of nature.
To illustrate how this works, let’s compare some of the key characteristics of coniferous and deciduous forests:
|Coniferous Forests||Deciduous Forests|
|Less sunlight penetrates||More sunlight penetrates|
|Can photosynthesize in freezing conditions||Goes dormant in freezing conditions|
|Tolerates harsher climates||Less tolerant of harsh conditions|
|Soil More Acidic||Soil Less Acidic|
|Less understory||More plants in the understory|
|Lower Biodiversity||Higher Biodiversity|
It’s important to remember that these are general rules of coniferous and deciduous forests, and don’t necessarily apply evenly across all situations.
Nature has so much complexity that we always need to start with local observation to determine whether an environment fits our expectations, or breaks the pattern.
There are other factors like age that can also influence the characteristics of a forest listed in the chart above.
Young forests for example, as they regenerate from a disturbance will typically have higher biodiversity and ground cover regardless of whether they are coniferous or deciduous.
And within the general classification of deciduous and coniferous forests, there are countless subcategories that each have their own unique ecologies to track & observe.
An example is pine forests and boreal forests are both coniferous forests, and therefore share a lot of similar characteristics from the chart above, however they also have their own unique attributes.
This means every distinct forest you study will have it’s own ecosystemic relationships involving unique plant communities, different wildlife densities, and even differing behavioral traits of the animals living there.
Interpreting these characteristics in local forests is a doorway to much deeper tracking & observation of your interconnected environment.
And one of the most important characteristics to compare is biodiversity…
Biodiversity In Coniferous VS Deciduous Forests
Coniferous forests generally tend to have less biodiversity than deciduous forests, but this doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable to having a balanced ecosystem.
Less biodiversity doesn’t necessarily mean less life. Sometimes it just means a higher population of fewer species.
An easy way to see this for yourself is to take a walk in a local coniferous forest and pay attention to what kinds of plants, birds & animals you see.
Make a list of every species in that forest, and then go repeat the exercise in a deciduous forest.
Then compare your list of coniferous forest species and deciduous forest species.
In most situations, what you will find is the deciduous forest overall has more species on the list.
However, as I mentioned above, this isn’t always true, especially if one of the forests is much younger than the other… and you may find your lists change in different seasons.
What will always remain true is that putting both species lists together yields significantly more biodiversity than either list alone.
This is because each forest has its own unique plant community filling a niche with plants that are specialized to that environment.
This is also how you can use knowledge of biodiversity to quickly track down useful and rare plants by studying the type of forest associated with their growth.
Linking Plant Communities To Coniferous and Deciduous Forests
Where I currently live in Nova Scotia Canada, I’ve spent many years learning the common plant communities associated with different types of forests.
The young to middle-aged forests here are a diverse mixture of both coniferous and deciduous trees, and commonly have sprawling patches of a delicious plant called wintergreen growing as ground cover.
When the forests here reach a more mature stage of growth, they split into much more uniform stands of coniferous hemlock forests, deciduous oaks & maples, and occasional mixes including pine, beech, fir and spruce trees.
Each forest type has it’s own unique collection of useful plants that can be found simply by navigating to those locations.
This presents a great opportunity to apply knowledge of coniferous and deciduous forests to become significantly more intuitive about other skills like survival, wildcrafting, navigation & wildlife tracking.
A good example is a plant called huckleberry, which is normally a somewhat difficult plant to find here…
That is unless you know that huckleberries grow in scrubby coniferous forests, in which case huckleberries become incredibly easy to find in great abundance.
This has obvious benefits for survival and wildcrafting, contributing to much sharper instincts about exactly when and where to go if you want to harvest specific plants or trees from the land.
Animals In Coniferous And Deciduous Forests
Another major difference between coniferous and deciduous forests are the types of animals present and the population density of wild animals.
A good example of how different forests affect animals comes from studying the forest conditions associated with American Marten Habitat.
Martens are a very sensitive forest animal with specific habitat requirements that can completely eliminate their populations if they aren’t met.
This means if you want to find Martens, you need to know what type of forests they use in your bio-region, including whether to look for coniferous forests or deciduous.
This link between forest habitat and animal populations has obvious implications for wildlife tracking and our ability to locate, hunt & manage healthy animal populations.
Even more important is knowing the forest ecology associated with different types of animals in each season.
The more time you spend quietly observing & tracking nature, the more of these associations you build up until you start to develop an internal guide to finding animals by their ecology.
There are hundreds of these associations in every bio-region, and they sometimes change depending on the season.
A few examples of how animals relate to coniferous and deciduous forests:
- Cedar waxwings move to deciduous maple forests with ripe seeds in late spring.
- Deer gather in deciduous nut forests during fall.
- Look for deer in the coniferous hemlock forests during deep winter snows.
- Red squirrels are incredibly abundant in coniferous forests because they eat the seeds of cones.
- Gray squirrels have a similar abundance in deciduous nut forests of the northeastern united states.
- Martens live in old-growth coniferous forests
This is what’s called ecological tracking, and people who are really skilled at this can use this knowledge to locate wild animals without ever needing to see a single track.
When you combine knowledge of forest ecology with the ability to read tracks & sign, you have much stronger foundations for intuitive tracking that starts every time you look at the forested landscape.
Go Observe The Forests In Your Local Area!
As with everything I discuss on nature-mentor.com, the goal is to help you observe with your own eyes and ears to evolve and sharpen your own natural instincts.
- Looking for the deer in early fall? Go to the deciduous nut forests!
- What about during the deep January snow? Check out the coniferous hemlock forest!
- Got a craving for some delicious wintergreen tea? Don’t waste your time randomly scouring the land… just go to the young mixed forest with plenty of sunlight and you’ll find plenty!
- Need huckleberries for a pie? Better check up on those piney rock barrens!
Your own local forests will have their own associations and communities, so get out there and start taking notes!
- Go explore a deciduous forest, and write down what you find.
- Then repeat the process in a coniferous forest.
- Then compare your notes!
It’s really that simple and this process of comparing coniferous and deciduous forests can be incorporated into every wander or sit spot you take outside.
Let me know what you discover out there!