4 Biogeography and Biomes

Many forces influence the communities of living organisms present in different parts of the biosphere (all of the parts of Earth inhabited by life). The biosphere extends into the atmosphere (several kilometers above Earth) and into the depths of the oceans. Despite its apparent vastness to an individual human, the biosphere occupies only a minute space when compared to the known universe. Many abiotic forces influence where life can exist and the types of organisms found in different parts of the biosphere. The abiotic factors influence the distribution of : large areas of land with similar climate, flora, and fauna.


 is the study of the geographic distribution of living things and the abiotic factors that affect their distribution. Abiotic factors such as temperature and rainfall vary based mainly on latitude and elevation. As these abiotic factors change, the composition of plant and animal communities also changes. For example, if you were to begin a journey at the equator and walk north, you would notice gradual changes in plant communities. At the beginning of your journey, you would see tropical wet forests with broad-leaved evergreen trees, which are characteristic of plant communities found near the equator. As you continued to travel north, you would see these broad-leaved evergreen plants eventually give rise to seasonally dry forests with scattered trees. You would also begin to notice changes in temperature and moisture. At about 30 degrees north, these forests would give way to deserts, which are characterized by low precipitation.

Moving farther north, you would see that deserts are replaced by grasslands or prairies. Eventually, grasslands are replaced by deciduous temperate forests. These deciduous forests give way to the boreal forests found in the subarctic, the area south of the Arctic Circle. Finally, you would reach the Arctic tundra, which is found at the most northern latitudes. This trek north reveals gradual changes in both climate and the types of organisms that have adapted to environmental factors associated with ecosystems found at different latitudes. However, different ecosystems exist at the same latitude due in part to abiotic factors such as jet streams, the Gulf Stream, and ocean currents. If you were to hike up a mountain, the changes you would see in the vegetation would parallel those as you move to higher latitudes.

Ecologists who study biogeography examine patterns of species distribution. No species exists everywhere; for example, the Venus flytrap is endemic to a small area in North and South Carolina. An endemic species is one which is naturally found only in a specific geographic area that is usually restricted in size. Other species are generalists: species which live in a wide variety of geographic areas; the raccoon, for example, is native to most of North and Central America.

Species distribution patterns are based on biotic and abiotic factors and their influences during the very long periods of time required for species evolution; therefore, early studies of biogeography were closely linked to the emergence of evolutionary thinking in the eighteenth century. Some of the most distinctive assemblages of plants and animals occur in regions that have been physically separated for millions of years by geographic barriers. Biologists estimate that Australia, for example, has between 600,000 and 700,000 species of plants and animals. Approximately 3/4 of living plant and mammal species are endemic species found solely in Australia. A wallaby (Wallabia bicolor), on the left in the image below, is a medium-sized member of the kangaroo family that is a pouched mammal, or marsupial (photo credit: (credit: modification of work by Derrick Coetzee;). The echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), on the right in the image below, is an egg-laying mammal (photo credit: modification of work by Allan Whittome)

Photo (a) depicts a wallaby, a member of the kangaroo family. The wallaby is brown with white flecks on its fur and a light brown underbelly. Its hands are clasped together. Photo (b) shows an echidna. Like a porcupine, the echidna has a compact body covered with brown and white quills. It has a long, slender snout.

Sometimes ecologists discover unique patterns of species distribution by determining where species are not found. Hawaii, for example, has no native land species of reptiles or amphibians, and has only one native terrestrial mammal, the hoary bat. Most of New Guinea, as another example, lacks placental mammals.

Plants can also be specialists or generalists: specialist plants need specific conditions and resources and are often found in limited areas. Endemic species are a specific type of specialists that are found only in specific, often isolated, regions of the Earth, while generalists are found on many regions. Generalists are also able to use a wider range of resources or tolerate a wider range of conditions. Isolated land masses- such as Australia,

The photo shows a white flower with seven smooth, diamond-shaped petals radiating out from a yellow center. The flower is surrounded by waxy green leaves.Hawaii, and Madagascar—often have large numbers of endemic plant species. Some of these plants are endangered due to human activity The forest gardenia (Gardenia brighamii), shown on the right, for instance, is endemic to Hawaii; only an estimated 15–20 trees are thought to exist. This tree is listed as federally endangered and is found only in five of the Hawaiian Islands in small populations consisting of a few individual specimens ( photo credit: Forest & Kim Starr). Some of the primary factors that control the geographic distributions of species include energy sources, temperature and water.

Energy Sources

Energy from the sun is captured by green plants, algae, cyanobacteria, and photosynthetic protists. These organisms convert solar energy into the chemical energy needed by all living things. Light availability can be an important force directly affecting the evolution of adaptations in photosynthesizers. For instance, plants in the understory of a temperate forest are shaded when the trees above them in the canopy completely leaf out in the late spring. Not surprisingly, understory plants have adaptations to successfully capture available light. One such adaptation is the rapid growth of spring ephemeral plants such as the spring beauty shown below. These spring flowers achieve much of their growth and finish their life cycle (reproduce) early in the season before the trees in the canopy develop leaves (photo credit: John Beetham).

This photo shows a white flower with five diamond-shaped petals radiating out from a green center. Faint purple lines radiate out from the center of each petal toward the tip. Five stalk-like stamens with pink-tipped anthers extend from the flower’s green center.

In aquatic ecosystems, the availability of light may be limited because sunlight is absorbed by water, plants, suspended particles, and resident microorganisms. Toward the bottom of a lake, pond, or ocean, there is a zone that light cannot reach. Photosynthesis cannot take place there and, as a result, a number of adaptations have evolved that enable living things to survive without light. For instance, aquatic plants have photosynthetic tissue near the surface of the water; for example, think of the broad, floating leaves of a water lily—water lilies cannot survive without light. In environments such as hydrothermal vents, some bacteria extract energy from inorganic chemicals because there is no light for photosynthesis.

Inorganic Nutrients

Inorganic nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are also important in the distribution and the abundance of living things. Most terrestrial plants and many aquatic plants obtain these inorganic nutrients from the soil or sediment when water moves into the plant through the roots. Therefore, soil structure (particle size of soil components), soil pH, and soil nutrient content play an important role in the distribution of plants. Animals obtain inorganic nutrients from the food they consume. Therefore, animal distributions are related to the distribution of what they eat. In some cases, animals will follow their food resource as it moves through the environment.

The availability of nutrients in aquatic systems is also an important factor. Many organisms sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die in the open water; when this occurs, the energy found in that living organism is sequestered for some time unless ocean upwelling occurs.

Arrows in the illustration indicate that the prevailing wind direction is from the coastline toward the open ocean. The wind pushes the surface water away from shore, inducing a current in this direction. A counter-current flows from the depths toward shore, where it meets the surface current. The counter-current brings nutrients from the depths up toward the surface near the shoreline. is the rising of deep ocean waters that occurs when prevailing winds blow along surface waters near a coastline. As the wind (green arrows) pushes ocean waters offshore, water from the bottom of the ocean (red arrows) moves up to replace this water. As a result, the nutrients once contained in dead organisms become available for reuse by other living organisms.In freshwater systems, the recycling of nutrients occurs in response to air temperature changes. The nutrients at the bottom of lakes are recycled twice each year: in the spring and fall turnover. The spring and fall turnover, shown below, is a seasonal process that recycles nutrients and oxygen from the bottom of a freshwater ecosystem to the top of a body of water. These turnovers are caused by the formation of a thermocline: a layer of water with a temperature that is significantly different from that of the surrounding layers. In wintertime, the surface of lakes found in many northern regions is frozen. However, the water under the ice is slightly warmer, and the water at the bottom of the lake is warmer yet at 4 °C to 5 °C (39.2 °F to 41 °F). Water is densest at 4 °C; therefore, the deepest water is also the densest. The deepest water is oxygen poor because the decomposition of organic material at the bottom of the lake uses up available oxygen that cannot be replaced by means of oxygen diffusion into the water due to the surface ice layer.

The illustration shows a cross-section of a lake in four different seasons. In winter, the surface of the lake is frozen with a temperature of 0°C. The temperature at the bottom of the lake is 4°C, and the temperature just beneath the surface is 2°C. During the spring turnover, the surface ice melts and warms to 4°C. At this temperature, the surface water is denser than the 2°C water beneath; therefore, it sinks. In summertime, the surface of the lake is 21°C, and the temperature decreases with depth, to 4°C at the bottom. During the fall turnover, the warm surface water cools to about 10°C; thus, it becomes denser and sinks.

In springtime, air temperatures increase and surface ice melts. When the temperature of the surface water begins to reach 4 °C, the water becomes heavier and sinks to the bottom (blue arrows). The water at the bottom of the lake is then displaced by the heavier surface water and rises to the top (red arrow). As that water rises to the top, the sediments and nutrients from the lake bottom are brought along with it. During the summer months, the lake water stratifies, or forms layers, with the warmest water at the lake surface. This makes the layering of the water very stable because the warm surface waters are the least dense and the density increases and the temperature decreases with depth.

As air temperatures drop in the fall, the temperature of the lake water cools to 4 °C; therefore, this causes fall turnover as the heavy cold water sinks and displaces the water at the bottom. The oxygen-rich water at the surface of the lake then moves to the bottom of the lake, while the nutrients at the bottom of the lake rise to the surface. During the winter, the oxygen at the bottom of the lake is used by decomposers and other organisms requiring oxygen, such as fish.


Temperature affects the physiology of living things as well as the density and state of water. Temperature exerts an important influence on living things because few living things can survive at temperatures below 0 °C (32 °F) due to metabolic constraints. It is also rare for living things to survive at temperatures exceeding 45 °C (113 °F); this is a reflection of evolutionary response to typical temperatures. Enzymes are most efficient within a narrow and specific range of temperatures; enzyme degradation can occur at higher temperatures. Therefore, organisms either must maintain an internal temperature or they must inhabit an environment that will keep the body within a temperature range that supports metabolism. Some animals have adapted to enable their bodies to survive significant temperature fluctuations, such as seen in hibernation or reptilian torpor. Similarly, some bacteria are adapted to surviving in extremely hot temperatures such as geysers. Such bacteria are examples of extremophiles: organisms that thrive in extreme environments.

Temperature can limit the distribution of living things. Animals faced with temperature fluctuations may respond with adaptations, such as migration, in order to survive. Migration, the movement from one place to another, is an adaptation found in many animals, including many that inhabit seasonally cold climates. Migration solves problems related to temperature, locating food, and finding a mate. In migration, for instance, the Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea) makes a 40,000 km (24,000 mi) round trip flight each year between its feeding grounds in the southern hemisphere and its breeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean. Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) live in the eastern United States in the warmer months and migrate to Mexico and the southern United States in the wintertime. Some species of mammals also make migratory forays. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) travel about 5,000 km (3,100 mi) each year to find food. Amphibians and reptiles are more limited in their distribution because they lack migratory ability. Not all animals that can migrate do so: migration carries risk and comes at a high energy cost.

Some animals hibernate or estivate to survive hostile temperatures. Hibernation enables animals to survive cold conditions, and estivation allows animals to survive the hostile conditions of a hot, dry climate. Animals that hibernate or estivate enter a state known as torpor: a condition in which their metabolic rate is significantly lowered. This enables the animal to wait until its environment better supports its survival. Some amphibians, such as the wood frog (Rana sylvatica), have an antifreeze-like chemical in their cells, which retains the cells’ integrity and prevents them from bursting.


Water is required by all living things because it is critical for cellular processes. Since terrestrial organisms lose water to the environment by simple diffusion, they have evolved many adaptations to retain water.

  • Plants have a number of interesting features on their leaves, such as leaf hairs and a waxy cuticle, that serve to decrease the rate of water loss via transpiration.
  • Freshwater organisms are surrounded by water and are constantly in danger of having water rush into their cells because of osmosis. Many adaptations of organisms living in freshwater environments have evolved to ensure that solute concentrations in their bodies remain within appropriate levels. One such adaptation is the excretion of dilute urine.
  • Marine organisms are surrounded by water with a higher solute concentration than the organism and, thus, are in danger of losing water to the environment because of osmosis. These organisms have morphological and physiological adaptations to retain water and release solutes into the environment. For example, Marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus), sneeze out water vapor that is high in salt in order to maintain solute concentrations within an acceptable range while swimming in the ocean and eating marine plants.

Other Aquatic Factors

Some abiotic factors, such as oxygen, are important in aquatic ecosystems as well as terrestrial environments. Terrestrial animals obtain oxygen from the air they breathe. Oxygen availability can be an issue for organisms living at very high elevations, however, where there are fewer molecules of oxygen in the air. In aquatic systems, the concentration of dissolved oxygen is related to water temperature and the speed at which the water moves. Cold water has more dissolved oxygen than warmer water. In addition, salinity, current, and tide can be important abiotic factors in aquatic ecosystems.

Other Terrestrial Factors

Wind can be an important abiotic factor because it influences the rate of evaporation and transpiration. The physical force of wind is also important because it can move soil, water, or other abiotic factors, as well as an ecosystem’s organisms.

Fire is another terrestrial factor that can be an important agent of disturbance in terrestrial ecosystems. Some organisms are adapted to fire and, thus, require the high heat associated with fire to complete a part of their life cycle. For example, the jack pine—a coniferous tree—requires heat from fire for its seed cones to open (Figure). Through the burning of pine needles, fire adds nitrogen to the soil and limits competition by destroying undergrowth.

Photo shows two pine cones that are tightly closed and attached to a branch.
The mature cones of the jack pine (Pinus banksiana) open only when exposed to high temperatures, such as during a forest fire. A fire is likely to kill most vegetation, so a seedling that germinates after a fire is more likely to receive ample sunlight than one that germinates under normal conditions. (credit: USDA)

Abiotic Factors Influencing Plant Growth

Temperature and moisture are important influences on plant production (primary productivity) and the amount of organic matter available as food (net primary productivity). Net primary productivity is an estimation of all of the organic matter available as food; it is calculated as the total amount of carbon fixed per year minus the amount that is oxidized during cellular respiration. In terrestrial environments, net primary productivity is estimated by measuring the aboveground biomass per unit area, which is the total mass of living plants, excluding roots. This means that a large percentage of plant biomass which exists underground is not included in this measurement. Net primary productivity is an important variable when considering differences in biomes. Very productive biomes have a high level of aboveground biomass.

Annual biomass production is directly related to the abiotic components of the environment. Environments with the greatest amount of biomass have conditions in which photosynthesis, plant growth, and the resulting net primary productivity are optimized. The climate of these areas is warm and wet. Photosynthesis can proceed at a high rate, enzymes can work most efficiently, and stomata can remain open without the risk of excessive transpiration; together, these factors lead to the maximal amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) moving into the plant, resulting in high biomass production. The aboveground biomass produces several important resources for other living things, including habitat and food. Conversely, dry and cold environments have lower photosynthetic rates and therefore less biomass. The animal communities living there will also be affected by the decrease in available food.

Impacts on biodiversity

The factors discussed above all affect whether or not an individual species can live in an area and the overall productivity in the area. Biogeography also examines broad patterns in species richness, the number of different species in an area, and three main patterns appear.

The latitudinal diversity gradient

The latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG) is the global pattern of increased species richness in the tropics that decreases moving towards the poles. This patterns is seen for a wide-range of organisms and is a widely accepted pattern in ecology. However, the cause of this pattern is not widely agreed upon. In 2017, Schemske and Mittlebach[1] reviewed the main hypotheses suggested to explain the LDG. Many of these hypotheses had been summarized in a 1966 paper by Eric Pianka[2] The most widely supported theory is that the greater diversity in the tropics is due to a longer time for species to evolve and immigrate in the tropics because the higher latitudes have experienced glacial periods. When Pianka reviewed the hypotheses about the LDG, most of them were based on species interactions, but as ecological understanding has improved, most of the more recent hypotheses are based on evolution (Schemske and Mitlebach 2017). Regardless of the cause, the global pattern of increased species richness near the tropics is clear. For example, the map below shows the distribution of vertebrate animals on land with the red color indicating higher species richness and the blue colors representing lower species richness. This figure (CC BY 3.0) is from a research paper by Mannion et al 2104[3] which also presents a theory for evolutionary causes of the LDG.

Mannion et al (2014) categorize the hypothesis about the cause of the LDG as hypotheses that propose that the tropics could have higher diversity because of higher rates of speciation in the tropics, because of lower rates of extinction or because of a combination of the two. On a broader scale, Mannion et al (2014) classify explanations of the LDG as those based on the area of the tropics, the time available for evolution (as discussed above) or the energy available from sunlight and the lower seasonality in the tropics. While agreement about the causes of the LDG does not exist, Mannion et al’s (2014) examination of the fossil record indicates that climate (solar energy and low seasonality variability) is a dominant factor.

The elevation diversity gradient

The elevation diversity gradient is a trend towards greater species richness at middle elevations. In some ways, this gradient is not surprising because elevation is often used as a proxy for latitude in research because temperature tends to decrease with higher elevation and latitude. However, the elevational diversity gradient is much less studied.

The species-area relationship

Finally, repeated research has shown that the number of species is related to the area studied. This relationship is so strong, that it can be represented mathematically. In general, the number of species (S) in an area (A) can be estimated using an equation, one of the most common of which is

S= cAz

Z is the slope of a log-log graph of number of species (S), area (A) and c, a constant used depending on the unit of area used (and actually used in other ways too). Given that we just discussed trends in biodiversity with latitude and elevation, the conclusion that Z is not the same in all regions seems obvious. Z also varies depending on the type of species studied, in particular how easily the species can disperse.

One common application of the species-area relationship is in island biogeography. This theory, developed by Robert MacArthur and E. O. Wilson, explains species richness on islands as a combination of the number of species that reach the island and the number of species that go extinct on the island. In general, islands that are close to the mainland will have higher rates of species reaching the island and smaller islands will have higher rates of species extinction for the same number of species on the island. For all islands, the rate of species extinction increases as more species settled the islands. The theory predicts an equilibrium state at which the rate of species immigrating to the island equals the rate of species extinction. This theory has been useful in predicting a sort of steady-state species richness on islands and in more recent years has been expanded to include evolutionary processes at longer time scales. The graph below is a pictorial version of the theory (F.W., CC BY-SA 3.0 DE <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons).



The video below from the California Academy of Sciences gives a great overview of why species are not distribute evenly.


Adapted from https://www.oercommons.org/courseware/lesson/15168/overview
A world map shows the eight major biomes, polar ice caps, and mountains. Tropical forests, deserts and savannas are found primarily in South America, Africa and Australia. Tropical forests also dominate southeast Asia. Deserts dominate the Middle East and are found in the southwestern United States. Temperate forests dominate the eastern United States, Europe and Eastern Asia. Temperate grasslands dominate the midwestern United States and parts of Asia, and are also found in South America. Boreal forest is found in northern Canada, Europe and Asia, and tundra exists to the north of the boreal forests. Mountainous regions run the length of North and South America, and are found in northern India, Africa and parts of Europe. Polar ice covers Greenland and Antarctica, the latter is not shown on the map.
Figure 1. Each of the world’s eight major biomes is distinguished by characteristic temperatures and amount of precipitation. Polar ice caps and mountains are also shown.

There are eight major terrestrial biomes: tropical rainforests, savannas, subtropical deserts, chaparral, temperate grasslands, temperate forests, boreal forests, and Arctic tundra. Biomes are large-scale environments that are distinguished by characteristic temperature ranges and amounts of precipitation. These two variables affect the types of vegetation and animal life that can exist in those areas. Because each biome is defined by climate, the same biome can occur in geographically distinct areas with similar climates (Figures 1 and 2).

Relationship between climate and type of biome
Figure 2. Precipitation and temperature are the two most important climatic variables that determine the type of biome in a particular location. Credit: “Climate influence on terrestrial biome” by Navarras is in the Public Domain, CC0

Tropical rainforests are found in equatorial regions (Figure 1) are the most biodiverse terrestrial biome. This biodiversity is under extraordinary threat primarily through logging and deforestation for agriculture. Tropical rainforests have also been described as nature’s pharmacy because of the potential for new drugs that is largely hidden in the chemicals produced by the huge diversity of plants, animals, and other organisms. The vegetation is characterized by plants with spreading roots and broad leaves that fall off throughout the year, unlike the trees of deciduous forests that lose their leaves in one season.

The temperature and sunlight profiles of tropical rainforests are stable in comparison to other terrestrial biomes, with average temperatures ranging from 20oC to 34oC (68oF to 93oF). Month-to-month temperatures are relatively constant in tropical rainforests, in contrast to forests farther from the equator. This lack of temperature seasonality leads to year-round plant growth rather than just seasonal growth. In contrast to other ecosystems, a consistent daily amount of sunlight (11–12 hours per day year-round) provides more solar radiation and therefore more opportunity for primary productivity.

The annual rainfall in tropical rainforests ranges from 125 to 660 cm (50–200 in) with considerable seasonal variation. Tropical rainforests have wet months in which there can be more than 30 cm (11–12 in) of precipitation, as well as dry months in which there are fewer than 10 cm (3.5 in) of rainfall. However, the driest month of a tropical rainforest can still exceed the annual rainfall of some other biomes, such as deserts.Tropical rainforests have high net primary productivity because the annual temperatures and precipitation values support rapid plant growth. However, the high amounts of rainfall leaches nutrients from the soils of these forests.

Photo depicts a section of the Amazon River, which is brown with mud. Trees line the edge of the river.
Figure 3. Species diversity is very high in tropical wet forests, such as these forests of Madre de Dios, Peru, near the Amazon River. (credit: Roosevelt Garcia)

Tropical rainforests are characterized by vertical layering of vegetation and the formation of distinct habitats for animals within each layer. On the forest floor is a sparse layer of plants and decaying plant matter. Above that is an understory of short, shrubby foliage. A layer of trees rises above this understory and is topped by a closed upper canopy—the uppermost overhead layer of branches and leaves. Some additional trees emerge through this closed upper canopy. These layers provide diverse and complex habitats for the variety of plants, animals, and other organisms. Many species of animals use the variety of plants and the complex structure of the tropical wet forests for food and shelter. Some organisms live several meters above ground, rarely descending to the forest floor.

Figure 4. A MinuteEarth video about how trees create rainfall, and vice versa.

Savannas are grasslands with scattered trees and are found in Africa, South America, and northern Australia (Figure 4 below). Savannas are hot, tropical areas with temperatures averaging from 24oC –29oC (75oF –84oF) and an annual rainfall of 51–127 cm (20–50 in). Savannas have an extensive dry season and consequent fires. As a result, there are relatively few trees scattered in the grasses and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) that dominate the savanna. Because fire is an important source of disturbance in this biome, plants have evolved well-developed root systems that allow them to quickly re-sprout after a fire.

A grassy slope dotted with pine trees.
Figure 5. Although savannas are dominated by grasses, small woodlands, such as this one in Mount Archer National Park in Queensland, Australia, may dot the landscape. (credit: “Ethel Aardvark”/Wikimedia Commons)

Subtropical deserts exist between 15o and 30o north and south latitude and are centered on the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn (Figure 6 below). Deserts are frequently located on the downwind or lee side of mountain ranges, which create a rain shadow after prevailing winds drop their water content on the mountains. This is typical of the North American deserts, such as the Mohave and Sonoran deserts. Deserts in other regions, such as the Sahara Desert in northern Africa or the Namib Desert in southwestern Africa are dry because of the high-pressure, dry air descending at those latitudes. Subtropical deserts are very dry; evaporation typically exceeds precipitation. Subtropical hot deserts can have daytime soil surface temperatures above 60oC (140oF) and nighttime temperatures approaching 0oC (32oF).  Subtropical deserts are characterized by low annual precipitation of fewer than 30 cm (12 in) with little monthly variation and lack of predictability in rainfall. Some years may receive tiny amounts of rainfall, while others receive more. In some cases, the annual rainfall can be as low as 2 cm (0.8 in) in subtropical deserts located in central Australia (“the Outback”) and northern Africa.

Figure 6. A MinuteEarth video about the global climate patterns which lead to subtropical deserts.

The low species diversity of this biome is closely related to its low and unpredictable precipitation. Despite the relatively low diversity, desert species exhibit fascinating adaptations to the harshness of their environment. Very dry deserts lack perennial vegetation that lives from one year to the next; instead, many plants are annuals that grow quickly and reproduce when rainfall does occur, then they die. Perennial plants in deserts are characterized by adaptations that conserve water: deep roots, reduced foliage, and water-storing stems (Figure 6 below). Seed plants in the desert produce seeds that can lie dormant for extended periods between rains. Most animal life in subtropical deserts has adapted to a nocturnal life, spending the hot daytime hours beneath the ground. The Namib Desert is the oldest on the planet, and has probably been dry for more than 55 million years. It supports a number of endemic species (species found only there) because of this great age. For example, the unusual gymnosperm Welwitschia mirabilis is the only extant species of an entire order of plants. There are also five species of reptiles considered endemic to the Namib.

In addition to subtropical deserts there are cold deserts that experience freezing temperatures during the winter and any precipitation is in the form of snowfall. The largest of these deserts are the Gobi Desert in northern China and southern Mongolia, the Taklimakan Desert in western China, the Turkestan Desert, and the Great Basin Desert of the United States.

Two photos depict a sandy desert dotted with scrubby bushes. An ocotillo plant dominates the pictures. It has long, thin unbranched stems that grow straight up from the base of the plant and radiate out slightly. In one photo, the plant has many small leaves growing directly from the thin stems, nearly obscuring them. In the other photo, the plant has no leaves.
Figure 7. Many desert plants have tiny leaves or no leaves at all to reduce water loss. The leaves of ocotillo, shown here in the Chihuahuan Desert in Big Bend National Park, Texas, appear only after rainfall and then are shed. (credit “bare ocotillo”: “Leaflet”/Wikimedia Commons)

The chaparral is also called scrub forest and is found in California, along the Mediterranean Sea, and along the southern coast of Australia (Figure 7 below). The annual rainfall in this biome ranges from 65 cm to 75 cm (25.6–29.5 in) and the majority of the rain falls in the winter. Summers are very dry and many chaparral plants are dormant during the summertime. The chaparral vegetation is dominated by shrubs and is adapted to periodic fires, with some plants producing seeds that germinate only after a hot fire. The ashes left behind after a fire are rich in nutrients like nitrogen and fertilize the soil, promoting plant regrowth. Fire is a natural part of the maintenance of this biome.

Photo depicts a landscape with many shrubs, dormant grass, a few trees, and mountains in the background.
Figure 8. The chaparral is dominated by shrubs. (credit: Miguel Vieira)

Temperate grasslands are found throughout central North America, where they are also known as prairies, and in Eurasia, where they are known as steppes (Figure 8 below). Temperate grasslands have pronounced annual fluctuations in temperature with hot summers and cold winters. The annual temperature variation produces specific growing seasons for plants. Plant growth is possible when temperatures are warm enough to sustain plant growth, which occurs in the spring, summer, and fall.

Annual precipitation ranges from 25.4 cm to 88.9 cm (10–35 in). Temperate grasslands have few trees except for those found growing along rivers or streams. The dominant vegetation tends to consist of grasses. The treeless condition is maintained by low precipitation, frequent fires, and grazing. The vegetation is very dense and the soils are fertile because the subsurface of the soil is packed with the roots and rhizomes (underground stems) of these grasses. The roots and rhizomes act to anchor plants into the ground and replenish the organic material (humus) in the soil when they die and decay.

Photos depict a bison, which is dark brown in color with an even darker head. The hind part of the animal has short fur, and the front of the animal has longer, curly fur.
Figure 9. The American bison (Bison bison), more commonly called the buffalo, is a grazing mammal that once populated American prairies in huge numbers. (credit: Jack Dykinga, USDA ARS)

Fires, which are a natural disturbance in temperate grasslands, can be ignited by lightning strikes. It also appears that the lightning-caused fire regime in North American grasslands was enhanced by intentional burning by humans. When fire is suppressed in temperate grasslands, the vegetation eventually converts to scrub and dense forests. Often, the restoration or management of temperate grasslands requires the use of controlled burns to suppress the growth of trees and maintain the grasses.

Temperate forests are the most common biome in eastern North America, Western Europe, Eastern Asia, Chile, and New Zealand (Figure 9 below). This biome is found throughout mid-latitude regions. Temperatures range between –30oC and 30oC (–22oF to 86oF) and drop to below freezing on an annual basis. These temperatures mean that temperate forests have defined growing seasons during the spring, summer, and early fall. Precipitation is relatively constant throughout the year and ranges between 75 cm and 150 cm (29.5–59 in).

Deciduous trees are the dominant plant in this biome with fewer evergreen conifers. Deciduous trees lose their leaves each fall and remain leafless in the winter. Thus, little photosynthesis occurs during the dormant winter period. Each spring, new leaves appear as temperature increases. Because of the dormant period, the net primary productivity of temperate forests is less than that of tropical rainforests. In addition, temperate forests show far less diversity of tree species than tropical rainforest biomes.

The trees of the temperate forests leaf out and shade much of the ground. However, more sunlight reaches the ground in this biome than in tropical rainforests because trees in temperate forests do not grow as tall as the trees in tropical rainforests. The soils of the temperate forests are rich in inorganic and organic nutrients compared to tropical rainforests. This is because of the thick layer of leaf litter on forest floors and reduced leaching of nutrients by rainfall. As this leaf litter decays, nutrients are returned to the soil. The leaf litter also protects soil from erosion, insulates the ground, and provides habitats for invertebrates and their predators.

Photo shows a deciduous forest with many tall trees, some smaller trees and grass, and lots of dead leaves on the forest floor. Sunlight filters down to the forest floor.
Figure 10. Deciduous trees are the dominant plant in the temperate forest. (credit: Oliver Herold)

The boreal forest, also known as taiga or coniferous forest, is found roughly between 50oand 60o north latitude across most of Canada, Alaska, Russia, and northern Europe (Figure 10 below). Boreal forests are also found above a certain elevation (and below high elevations where trees cannot grow) in mountain ranges throughout the Northern Hemisphere. This biome has cold, dry winters and short, cool, wet summers. The annual precipitation is from 40 cm to 100 cm (15.7–39 in) and usually takes the form of snow; relatively little evaporation occurs because of the cool temperatures.

The long and cold winters in the boreal forest have led to the predominance of cold-tolerant cone-bearing plants. These are evergreen coniferous trees like pines, spruce, and fir, which retain their needle-shaped leaves year-round. Evergreen trees can photosynthesize earlier in the spring than deciduous trees because less energy from the Sun is required to warm a needle-like leaf than a broad leaf. Evergreen trees grow faster than deciduous trees in the boreal forest. In addition, soils in boreal forest regions tend to be acidic with little available nitrogen. Leaves are a nitrogen-rich structure and deciduous trees must produce a new set of these nitrogen-rich structures each year. Therefore, coniferous trees that retain nitrogen-rich needles in a nitrogen limiting environment may have had a competitive advantage over the broad-leafed deciduous trees.

The photo shows a boreal forest with a uniform low layer of plants and tall conifers scattered throughout the landscape. The snowcapped mountains of the Alaska Range are in the background.
Figure 11. The boreal forest (taiga) has low lying plants and conifer trees. (credit: L.B. Brubaker, NOAA)

The net primary productivity of boreal forests is lower than that of temperate forests and tropical wet forests. The aboveground biomass of boreal forests is high because these slow-growing tree species are long-lived and accumulate standing biomass over time. Species diversity is less than that seen in temperate forests and tropical rainforests. Boreal forests lack the layered forest structure seen in tropical rainforests or, to a lesser degree, temperate forests. The structure of a boreal forest is often only a tree layer and a ground layer. When conifer needles are dropped, they decompose more slowly than broad leaves; therefore, fewer nutrients are returned to the soil to fuel plant growth.

The Arctic tundra lies north of the subarctic boreal forests and is located throughout the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Tundra also exists at elevations above the tree line on mountains. The average winter temperature is –34°C (–29.2°F) and the average summer temperature is 3°C–12°C (37°F –52°F). Plants in the Arctic tundra have a short growing season of approximately 50–60 days. However, during this time, there are almost 24 hours of daylight and plant growth is rapid. The annual precipitation of the Arctic tundra is low (15–25 cm or 6–10 in) with little annual variation in precipitation. And, as in the boreal forests, there is little evaporation because of the cold temperatures.

File:Nunavut tundra -a.jpg
Figure 12. Low-growing plants such lichen and grasses are common in tundra. Credit: Nunavut tundra by Flickr: My Nunavut is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Plants in the Arctic tundra are generally low to the ground and include low shrubs, grasses, lichens, and small flowering plants (Figure 11 below). There is little species diversity, low net primary productivity, and low above-ground biomass. The soils of the Arctic tundra may remain in a perennially frozen state referred to as permafrost. The permafrost makes it impossible for roots to penetrate far into the soil and slows the decay of organic matter, which inhibits the release of nutrients from organic matter. The melting of the permafrost in the brief summer provides water for a burst of productivity while temperatures and long days permit it. During the growing season, the ground of the Arctic tundra can be completely covered with plants or lichens.

Suggested Supplementary Reading

HHMI. 2018. Biome Viewer. [Interactive Website]. Howard Hughes Medical Institute. <https://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/biomeviewer>


Terrestrial Biomes by OpenStax is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Abiotic Factors Influencing Aquatic Biomes

Like terrestrial biomes, aquatic biomes are influenced by a series of abiotic factors. The aquatic medium—water— has different physical and chemical properties than air. Even if the water in a pond or other body of water is perfectly clear (there are no suspended particles), water still absorbs light. As one descends into a deep body of water, there will eventually be a depth which the sunlight cannot reach. While there are some abiotic and biotic factors in a terrestrial ecosystem that might obscure light (like fog, dust, or insect swarms), usually these are not permanent features of the environment. The importance of light in aquatic biomes is central to the communities of organisms found in both freshwater and marine ecosystems. In freshwater systems, stratification due to differences in density is perhaps the most critical abiotic factor and is related to the energy aspects of light. The thermal properties of water (rates of heating and cooling) are significant to the function of marine systems and have major impacts on global climate and weather patterns. Marine systems are also influenced by large-scale physical water movements, such as currents; these are less important in most freshwater lakes.

The illustration divides the ocean into different zones based on depth. The top layer, called the photic zone, extends from the surface to 200 m. The aphotic zone extends from 200 to 4,000 m. They abyssal zone extends from 4,000 m to the ocean bottom. The ocean is also divided into zones based on distance from the shore. The intertidal zone extends from high to low tide. The neritic zone extends from the intertidal zone to the point at which ocean depth is about 200 m. At about this depth, the continental shelf ends in a steep slope to the ocean bottom. The oceanic zone is the area of open ocean. A thin section of the oceanic zone extending from top to bottom and adjacent to the continental shelf is labeled the benthic realm. All of the ocean’s open water is referred to as the pelagic realm, which is labeled on the left.
Figure 1. The ocean is divided into different zones based on water depth and distance from the shoreline.

The ocean is categorized by several areas or zones (Figure 1). All of the ocean’s open water is referred to as the pelagic zone. The benthic zone extends along the ocean bottom from the shoreline to the deepest parts of the ocean floor. Within the pelagic realm is the photic zone, which is the portion of the ocean that light can penetrate (approximately 200 m or 650 ft). At depths greater than 200 m, light cannot penetrate; thus, this is referred to as the aphotic zone. The majority of the ocean is aphotic and lacks sufficient light for photosynthesis. The deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep (in the Mariana Trench, located in the western Pacific Ocean), is about 11,000 m (about 6.8 mi) deep. To give some perspective on the depth of this trench, the ocean is, on average, 4267 m. These zones are relevant to freshwater lakes as well.

Marine Biomes

The ocean is the largest marine biome. It is a continuous body of salt water that is relatively uniform in chemical composition; it is a weak solution of mineral salts and decayed biological matter. Within the ocean, coral reefs are a second kind of marine biome. Estuaries, coastal areas where salt water and fresh water mix, form a third unique marine biome.


The physical diversity of the ocean is a significant influence on plants, animals, and other organisms. The ocean is categorized into different zones based on how far light reaches into the water. Each zone has a distinct group of species adapted to the biotic and abiotic conditions particular to that zone.

The intertidal zone, which is the zone between high and low tide, is the oceanic region that is closest to land (Figure 2). Generally, most people think of this portion of the ocean as a sandy beach. In some cases, the intertidal zone is indeed a sandy beach, but it can also be rocky or muddy. Organisms are exposed to air and sunlight at low tide and are underwater most of the time, especially during high tide. Therefore, living things that thrive in the intertidal zone are adapted to being dry for long periods of time. The shore of the intertidal zone is also repeatedly struck by waves, and the organisms found there are adapted to withstand damage from the pounding action of the waves (Figure 2). The exoskeletons of shoreline crustaceans (such as the shore crab, Carcinus maenas) are tough and protect them from desiccation (drying out) and wave damage. Another consequence of the pounding waves is that few algae and plants establish themselves in the constantly moving rocks, sand, or mud.

Photo shows sea urchins, mussel shells, and starfish in a rocky intertidal zone.
Figure 2. Sea urchins, mussel shells, and starfish are often found in the intertidal zone, shown here in Kachemak Bay, Alaska. (credit: NOAA)

The neritic zone (Figure 1) extends from the intertidal zone to depths of about 200 m (or 650 ft) at the edge of the continental shelf. Because light can penetrate this depth, photosynthesis can occur. The water here contains silt and is well-oxygenated, low in pressure, and stable in temperature. Phytoplankton and floating Sargassum (a type of free-floating marine seaweed) provide a habitat for some sea life found in the neritic zone. Zooplankton, protists, small fishes, and shrimp are found in the neritic zone and are the base of the food chain for most of the world’s fisheries.

Beyond the neritic zone is the open ocean area known as the oceanic zone (Figure 1). Within the oceanic zone there is thermal stratification where warm and cold waters mix because of ocean currents. Abundant plankton serve as the base of the food chain for larger animals such as whales and dolphins. Nutrients are scarce and this is a relatively less productive part of the marine biome. When photosynthetic organisms and the protists and animals that feed on them die, their bodies fall to the bottom of the ocean where they remain. The majority of organisms in the aphotic zone include sea cucumbers (phylum Echinodermata) and other organisms that survive on the nutrients contained in the dead bodies of organisms in the photic zone.

The deepest part of the ocean is the abyssal zone, which is at depths of 4000 m or greater. The abyssal zone (Figure 1) is very cold and has very high pressure, high oxygen content, and low nutrient content. There are a variety of invertebrates and fishes found in this zone, but the abyssal zone does not have plants because of the lack of light. Cracks in the Earth’s crust called hydrothermal vents are found primarily in the abyssal zone. Around these vents chemosynthetic bacteria utilize the hydrogen sulfide and other minerals emitted as an energy source and serve as the base of the food chain found in the abyssal zone.

Beneath the water is the benthic zone (Figure 1), which is comprised of sand, silt, and dead organisms. This is a nutrient-rich portion of the ocean because of the dead organisms that fall from the upper layers of the ocean. Because of this high level of nutrients, a diversity of sponges, sea anemones, marine worms, sea stars, fishes, and bacteria exist.

Coral Reefs

In this photo, several fish are swimming among coral. The coral at the front of the photo is blue with branched arms. Further back are anvil-shaped corals.
Figure 3. Coral reefs are formed by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral organisms, which are marine invertebrates in the phylum Cnidaria. (credit: Terry Hughes)

Coral reefs are characterized by high biodiversity and the structures created by invertebrates that live in warm, shallow waters within the photic zone of the ocean. They are mostly found within 30 degrees north and south of the equator. The Great Barrier Reef is a well-known reef system located several miles off the northeastern coast of Australia. The coral organisms (members of phylum Cnidaria) are colonies of saltwater polyps that secrete a calcium carbonate skeleton. These calcium-rich skeletons slowly accumulate, forming the underwater reef (Figure 3). Corals found in shallower waters (at a depth of approximately 60 m or about 200 ft) have a mutualistic relationship with photosynthetic unicellular algae. The relationship provides corals with the majority of the nutrition and the energy they require. The waters in which these corals live are nutritionally poor and, without this mutualism, it would not be possible for large corals to grow. Some corals living in deeper and colder water do not have a mutualistic relationship with algae; these corals attain energy and nutrients using stinging cells on their tentacles to capture prey. It is estimated that more than 4,000 fish species inhabit coral reefs. These fishes can feed on coral, other invertebrates, or the seaweed and algae that are associated with the coral.

EVOLUTION CONNECTION: Global Decline of Coral Reefs

It takes a long time to build a coral reef. The animals that create coral reefs have evolved over millions of years, continuing to slowly deposit the calcium carbonate that forms their characteristic ocean homes. Bathed in warm tropical waters, the coral animals and their symbiotic algal partners evolved to survive at the upper limit of ocean water temperature.

Together, climate change and human activity pose dual threats to the long-term survival of the world’s coral reefs. As global warming due to fossil fuel emissions raises ocean temperatures, coral reefs are suffering. The excessive warmth causes the reefs to expel their symbiotic, food-producing algae, resulting in a phenomenon known as bleaching. When bleaching occurs, the reefs lose much of their characteristic color as the algae and the coral animals die if loss of the symbiotic zooxanthellae is prolonged.

Rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide further threaten the corals in other ways; as CO2dissolves in ocean waters, it lowers the pH and increases ocean acidity. As acidity increases, it interferes with the calcification that normally occurs as coral animals build their calcium carbonate homes.

When a coral reef begins to die, species diversity plummets as animals lose food and shelter. Coral reefs are also economically important tourist destinations, so the decline of coral reefs poses a serious threat to coastal economies.

Human population growth has damaged corals in other ways, too. As human coastal populations increase, the runoff of sediment and agricultural chemicals has increased, too, causing some of the once-clear tropical waters to become cloudy. At the same time, overfishing of popular fish species has allowed the predator species that eat corals to go unchecked.

Although a rise in global temperatures of 1–2˚C (a conservative scientific projection) in the coming decades may not seem large, it is very significant to this biome. When change occurs rapidly, species can become extinct before evolution leads to new adaptations. Many scientists believe that global warming, with its rapid (in terms of evolutionary time) and inexorable increases in temperature, is tipping the balance beyond the point at which many of the world’s coral reefs can recover.

Estuaries: Where the Ocean Meets Fresh Water

Estuaries are biomes that occur where a source of fresh water, such as a river, meets the ocean. Therefore, both fresh water and salt water are found in the same vicinity; mixing results in a diluted (brackish) saltwater. Estuaries form protected areas where many of the young offspring of crustaceans, mollusks, and fish begin their lives. Salinity is a very important factor that influences the organisms and the adaptations of the organisms found in estuaries. The salinity of estuaries varies and is based on the rate of flow of its freshwater sources. Once or twice a day, high tides bring salt water into the estuary. Low tides occurring at the same frequency reverse the current of salt water.

The short-term and rapid variation in salinity due to the mixing of fresh water and salt water is a difficult physiological challenge for the plants and animals that inhabit estuaries. Many estuarine plant species are halophytes: plants that can tolerate salty conditions. Halophytic plants are adapted to deal with the salinity resulting from saltwater on their roots or from sea spray. In some halophytes, filters in the roots remove the salt from the water that the plant absorbs. Other plants are able to pump oxygen into their roots. Animals, such as mussels and clams (phylum Mollusca), have developed behavioral adaptations that expend a lot of energy to function in this rapidly changing environment. When these animals are exposed to low salinity, they stop feeding, close their shells, and switch from aerobic respiration (in which they use gills) to anaerobic respiration (a process that does not require oxygen). When high tide returns to the estuary, the salinity and oxygen content of the water increases, and these animals open their shells, begin feeding, and return to aerobic respiration.

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