Modeling Forest Ecology

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Original Source: https://forums.unrealengine.com/showthread.php?150225-Modeling-Forest-Ecology-in-Custom-Maps

Hello, I want to discuss a topic related to custom maps in ‘ARK: Survival Evolved’. I have been developing my first custom map mod, Madagascar Evolved, since February of 2016. In that time, I’ve read a great deal about the subject of map development. There hasn’t been much discussion about the subject of forest ecology, and how that relates to the construction of custom maps for ARK. In this post, I want to introduce a few fundamentals of forest ecology and explain how they can create a natural context for custom maps. Some people might initially question whether applied forest ecology relates to custom maps, because there are a variety of custom maps, some of which are based on fantasy worlds. For some extreme cases, a custom map could be set entirely underground, or floating in the air on ‘floating islands’. So, why should designers of fantasy maps consider forest ecology? Well, the answer is that fantasy maps often contain forests, and it should be helpful to know forest ecology whether you want to accurately represent nature or not. Knowledge of forest ecology will enhance the fantasy elements of custom maps by grounding them in the player’s expectation of how nature works in real life. In my opinion, applying forest ecology to custom maps can help bridge the ‘uncanny valley’ and help fantasy maps look less heavy handed. I think the most fundamental concept for forest ecology as it relates to custom maps is the difference between natural influence and human influence. In forest ecology, “A natural forest is governed by no purpose unless it be the unceasing struggle of all the component plant and animal species to perpetuate themselves”, natural influences in a real forest are determined by physical factors, where nothing is intended. Human purpose is introduced by preferring certain trees, rocks, water formations or mountains, with desirable characteristics. In designing custom maps, each action a designer takes to improve his map can be categorized as natural influence, or human influence. Typically, placing models of plant species which are well adapted to their biome, or having realistic watersheds, or simulating erosion while creating a heightmap all count as natural influences by the designer, because they are modeled after natural processes in forests. Human influences are actions such as choosing plants and trees which look good and perform well. They include making large flat areas for players to build, or placing resources in strategic locations for players to compete over, because in these cases the designer is not using natural processes as a model. In general, designers of realistic custom maps should try to balance natural influences and human influences on the forest, so that the map has an appealing aesthetic as well as an immersive, believable environment. Forest ecology in custom maps is about modeling natural processes and constructing natural influences, the next few concepts are all related to ecological models of nature which designers can use to inform natural influences on their custom maps. In forest ecology, the most common unit of a forest is called a stand. A stand is a group of trees or other plants, located in a small area. A forest can be made up of hundreds or thousands of stands. Each stand can be thought of as a small forest with its own characteristics and history. The image below is an example of two neighboring stands of trees. Stand A, has taller trees than Stand B, because Stand A has more productive soil.

What would lead to a stand having more productive soil, and thus taller trees? One explanation could be that Stand A is located next to a river, and so the river is depositing clay and silt near Stand A, while the trees in Stand B are growing in coarse, unproductive sand. When creating forests for custom maps, designers should be aware of what natural influences are occurring with each stand, and how those influences affect the composition and productivity of each stand. Some interesting questions to ask include; How old is this stand? Which tree is the dominant species? Is it shady? What is the temperature? How much does it rain? Is this a mountain or a valley? Etc. With some understanding of forest ecology, taking account of natural influences will ultimately result in a custom map with an abundance of detail and character throughout its forests. Another fundamental concept of forest ecology is that of natural disturbances. Natural disturbances are ecological events which alter the characteristics of stands of trees. They include fires, landslides, avalanches, floods, meteor strikes, etc. all of which affect the forest in a natural setting. Forests evolved millions of years before humans came around, and each type of forest is well adapted to a particular kind of natural disturbance. Alpine forests are adapted to snow storms, they consists of short trees with thick, woody trunks without a lot of branches. They also have to endure strong, chaotic wind that occurs in mountainous regions. A forest in a valley or a swamp would behave entirely differently. It would be more productive, dense with vegetation, and affected by disease. The most common natural disturbance in the world is fire. Fire tends to kill small trees and leave big ones behind. There are two major types of fire resistant plants, shrubs and pines. Shrubs are capable of growing on soil that has been burned to ash by fire, and pines support thick bark and a high crown to resist heat. The most severe disturbances are ones in which new land is created, these disturbances include rockslides, receding glaciers, or volcanic eruptions. In cases where there is bare land, a new forest can only grow after very adaptive type of species called pioneer species can die and fertilize the soil. It’s up to the designer to accurately represent each biome according to its most common disturbances and adaptations. ARK: Survival Evolved is about dinosaurs, so I expect some people are interested in making Old Growth Forests. An old growth forest is a group of stands which have undergone a series of light disturbances over hundreds of years. Old growth forests in reality are rare, and extremely valuable for tourism. They are various and interesting, as a result of thousands of adaptations to decades of disturbances. In order to create a natural looking old growth forest, it helps to understand how stands of trees age. When a stand of trees grows out of bare soil, it starts with pioneer species such as shrubs and birch trees. The pioneers grow to a certain height and stagnate, their leaves feed the development of dominant species. Dominant species are niche species which take a long time to grow such as firs, oaks and maple trees. The dominant species grow taller than the pioneer species in the stand, and so as a result of the pioneers die from lack of sunlight. The fallen trees decompose and feed the development of shrubs in the understory. The dominant species continues to grow for decades. Gradually they individually die of disease or being knocked over by wind or dinosaurs, and other species can start to grow in its place. The new species are called Late Successional Species because they are only permitted to grow when the dominant trees start to die. The resulting stand contains a mix of mostly dominant trees with some late successional plants mixed in, and some young trees growing where others have fallen. Old growth forests are extremely various. There are millions of possible permutations. A designer could make one simply by intuition, but I think it helps to imagine the pattern of succession which occurs in nature, so that each old growth stand within the custom map feels rare and possible. I haven’t been developing custom maps for very long, but I have training in natural resource management. My initial desire to design custom maps was to apply what I know about forest ecology to ARK. I’ve attempted to apply principles of natural influence in forest ecology to my own map Madagascar Evolved. Moving forward, I would love to discuss more about forest ecology and how that relates to the construction of custom maps for ARK. I hope as a result of reading this post, designers who have no experience with forest ecology can start to consider its importance for custom maps.