The study of treefall and its after-effects is a common theme in studies of forest structure and local dynamics, yet its value as descriptor of broader-scale ecological dynamics is rarely explored. Here we synthesize the most highly cited literature on treefalls, from 1985 to 2016 (in three-year blocks), highlighting the importance of the causes, characteristics and consequences of such events. We then ask how this knowledge might contribute to the broader conceptual model of forest dynamics, and develop two conceptual models, which we use to illustrate both the classic and alternative views of how forests ‘work’. Treefalls are one of the few ‘integrating’ attributes of forests, because of their ubiquity and longevity, and therefore can inform a variety of processes (e.g., tree mortality, turnover rates, structural impacts, recruitment, and fire frequency) due to their impacts occurring simultaneously over space (patterns), and time (legacy effects). The substantial knowledge that already exists on localized treefall dynamics should be combined with more integrative approaches to studying forest ecosystems, to investigate landscape-scale patterns of treefall and reconstruct past disturbance events.
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