What's the Difference Between a Forest and a Jungle?

Our planet is an amazing place. In addition to being the only planet (so far) to have life within our solar system, our environment is very diverse. Depending on where you’re located on the globe, you might live in a savannah, a temperate climate, a rainforest, or even a desert. This got us thinking about places that have a lot of trees. Normally, you would refer to the area as a forest, but in some parts of the world, trees occupy places known as jungles. This led us to ponder about what the difference is between a jungle and a forest.

What Is a Forest?

Large forest filled with dense, tall trees and greenery
Credit: Pakhnyushchy/ Shutterstock

Let’s start by defining what forests and jungles are and dig deeper into why there’s a distinction. According to the Forest and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a forest has a very strict definition. To be considered a forest, the land must have no other uses and must be mostly covered with trees. In terms of size, a forest must cover at least 1.24 acres of land. Trees in the forest must reach at least 16 feet in height and offer a canopy cover of at least 10%, but that’s quite a clinical definition.

In colloquial terms, a forest is a gathering of trees, but the word dates back to British rule during the Middle Ages. During this period, a forest was considered a game preserve where the crown and guests could go on arranged hunts. During this period, a forest was more about the creatures inside it and who owned it as opposed to whether or not there were trees present.

What Is a Jungle?

Interior view of dense jungle with broad green leaves and tall trees
Credit: STILLFX/ Shutterstock

Considering how specific modern classification is for forests, you would think that the term jungle would be as equally strict, but it’s not. Instead, the word jungle doesn’t have roots in science, but rather origins in Hindi. The word jungle means forest in Hindi. Most scientists believe that when people use the term, they’re usually referencing a tropical rainforest such as the Amazon. A jungle can be viewed as a forest that’s denser and includes more diverse wildlife.

What Makes Them Different?

Aerial view of dense forest landscape with rolling mountains in background
Credit: PeterBatarseh/ Shutterstock

The main difference between a forest and a jungle has to do with location and climate. Jungles are typically smaller in size. Strictly speaking, a jungle is a forest, but a forest isn’t always a jungle. If the requirement for a forest is a minimum amount of land covered by a dense population of trees that reach a specific height and canopy coverage, then a jungle can be a forest.

But in contrast, a forest might not always be a jungle since jungles are a casual term used to describe tropical rainforests. You can easily substitute “jungle” for “tropical rainforest," and while it wouldn’t be a proper technical definition, you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.

To take it a step further, jungles are typically limited to tropical locales because in addition to the aforementioned tree growth, they can also be full of vines, fungi, and animals that thrive in tropical climates. Likewise, jungles tend to be damp and humid places. Note that not all forests have these features, which is why a forest and jungle aren’t always interchangeable terms. While forests can be found anywhere in the world, jungles tend to be limited to equatorial regions.

However, there are more differences apart from just flora and fauna. Specifically, jungles:

  • Cover less land
  • Have less sunlight that penetrates the canopy
  • Have denser vegetation
  • Are typically located on the edge of a forest

Are There Any Jungles in the United States?

Interior view of bubbling creek and rocky forest in Hawaii, USA
Credit: Dmitrii Sakharov/ Shutterstock

With this clarification, we can see that you would be hard-pressed to find a jungle in a place like the U.S. (at least in the lower 48). Our mainland lacks a tropical rainforest. But if you add Hawaii into the mix or some of the country’s commonwealths like Puerto Rico, then yes, the U.S. is home to jungles as well as traditional forests. If you’re dying to see a tropical rainforest that doesn’t require a passport, be sure to visit Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest or any of Hawaii’s rainforests that are spread across the eight islands.

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