The tropical rain forest is a forest of tall trees in a region of year-round warmth. An average of 50 to 260 inches (125 to 660 cm.) of rain falls yearly.
Rain forests belong to the tropical wet climate group. The temperature in a rain forest rarely gets higher than 93 °F (34 °C) or drops below 68 °F (20 °C); average humidity is between 77 and 88%; rainfall is often more than 100 inches a year. There is usually a brief season of less rain. In monsoonal areas, there is a real dry season. Almost all rain forests lie near the equator.
Rainforests now cover less than 6% of Earth's land surface. Scientists estimate that more than half of all the world's plant and animal species live in tropical rain forests. Tropical rainforests produce 40% of Earth's oxygen.
A tropical rain forest has more kinds of trees than any other area in the world. Scientists have counted about 100 to 300 species in one 2 1/2-acre (1-hectare) area in South America. Seventy percent of the plants in the rainforest are trees.
About 1/4 of all the medicines we use come from rainforest plants. Curare comes from a tropical vine, and is used as an anesthetic and to relax muscles during surgery. Quinine, from the cinchona tree, is used to treat malaria. A person with lymphocytic leukemia has a 99% chance that the disease will go into remission because of the rosy periwinkle. More than 1,400 varieties of tropical plants are thought to be potential cures for cancer.
All tropical rain forests resemble one another in some ways. Many of the trees have straight trunks that don't branch out for 100 feet or more. There is no sense in growing branches below the canopy where there is little light. The majority of the trees have smooth, thin bark because there is no need to protect the them from water loss and freezing temperatures. It also makes it difficult for epiphytes and plant parasites to get a hold on the trunks. The bark of different species is so similar that it is difficult to identify a tree by its bark. Many trees can only be identified by their flowers.
Despite these differences, each of the three largest rainforests--the American, the African, and the Asian--has a different group of animal and plant species. Each rain forest has many species of monkeys, all of which differ from the species of the other two rain forests. In addition, different areas of the same rain forest may have different species. Many kinds of trees that grow in the mountains of the Amazon rain forest do not grow in the lowlands of that same forest.
Layers of the Rainforest
There are four very distinct layers of trees in a tropical rain forest. These layers have been identified as the emergent, upper canopy, understory, and forest floor.
Emergent trees are spaced wide apart, and are 100 to 240 feet tall with umbrella-shaped canopies that grow above the forest. Because emergent trees are exposed to drying winds, they tend to have small, pointed leaves. Some species lose their leaves during the brief dry season in monsoon rainforests. These giant trees have straight, smooth trunks with few branches. Their root system is very shallow, and to support their size they grow buttresses that can spread out to a distance of 30 feet.
The upper canopy of 60 to 130 foot trees allows light to be easily available at the top of this layer, but greatly reduced any light below it. Most of the rainforest's animals live in the upper canopy. There is so much food available at this level that some animals never go down to the forest floor. The leaves have "drip spouts" that allows rain to run off. This keeps them dry and prevents mold and mildew from forming in the humid environment.
The understory, or lower canopy, consists of 60 foot trees. This layer is made up of the trunks of canopy trees, shrubs, plants and small trees. There is little air movement. As a result the humidity is constantly high. This level is in constant shade.
The forest floor is usually completely shaded, except where a canopy tree has fallen and created an opening. Most areas of the forest floor receive so little light that few bushes or herbs can grow there. As a result, a person can easily walk through most parts of a tropical rain forest. Less than 1 % of the light that strikes the top of the forest penetrates to the forest floor. The top soil is very thin and of poor quality. A lot of litter falls to the ground where it is quickly broken down by decomposers like termites, earthworms and fungi. The heat and humidity further help to break down the litter. This organic matter is then just as quickly absorbed by the trees' shallow roots.
Besides these four layers, a shrub/sapling layer receives about 3 % of the light that filters in through the canopies. These stunted trees are capable of a sudden growth surge when a gap in the canopy opens above them.
The air beneath the lower canopy is almost always humid. The trees themselves give off water through the pores (stomata) of their leaves. This process, called transpiration, can account for as much as half of the precipitation in the rain forest.
Rainforest plants have made many adaptations to their environment. With over 80 inches of rain per year, plants have made adaptations that helps them shed water off their leaves quickly so the branches don't get weighed down and break. Many plants have drip tips and grooved leaves, and some leaves have oily coatings to shed water. To absorb as much sunlight as possible on the dark understory, leaves are very large. Some trees have leaf stalks that turn with the movement of the sun so they always absorb the maximum amount of light. Leaves in the upper canopy are dark green, small and leathery to reduce water loss in the strong sunlight. Some trees will grow large leaves at the lower canopy level and small leaves in the upper canopy. Other plants grow in the upper canopy on larger trees to get sunlight. These are the epiphytes such as orchids and bromeliads. Many trees have buttress and stilt roots for extra support in the shallow, wet soil of the rainforests.
Over 2,500 species of vines grow in the rainforest. Lianas start off as small shrubs that grow on the forest floor. To reach the sunlight in the upper canopy it sends out tendrils to grab sapling trees. The liana and the tree grow towards the canopy together. The vines grow from one tree to another and make up 40% of the canopy leaves. The rattan vine has spikes on the underside of its leaves that point backwards to grab onto sapling trees. Other "strangler" vines will use trees as support and grow thicker and thicker as they reach the canopy, strangling its host tree. They look like trees whose centers have been hollowed out.
Dominant species do not exist in tropical rainforests. Lowland dipterocarp forest can consist of many different species of Dipterocarpaceae, but not all of the same species. Trees of the same species are very seldom found growing close together. This bio diversity and separation of the species prevents mass contamination and die-off from disease or insect infestation. Bio diversity also insures that there will be enough pollinators to take care of each species' needs. Animals depend on the staggered blooming and fruiting of rainforest plants to supply them with a year-round source of food.
Many species of animal life can be found in the rain forest. Common characteristics found among mammals and birds (and reptiles and amphibians, too) include adaptations to a life in the trees, such as the prehensile tails of New World monkeys. Other characteristics are bright colors and sharp patterns, loud vocalizations, and diets heavy on fruits.
Insects make up the largest single group of animals that live in tropical forests. They include brightly colored butterflies, mosquitoes, camouflaged stick insects, and huge colonies of ants.
The Amazon river basin rainforest contains a wider variety of plant and animal life than any other biome in the world. The second largest population of plant and animal life can be found in scattered locations and islands of Southeast Asia. The lowest variety can be found in Africa. There may be 40 to 100 different species in 2.5 acres ( 1 hectare) of a tropical rain forest.
When early explorers first discovered the rainforests of Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, they They were amazed by the dense growth, trees with giant buttresses, vines and epiphytes . The tropical vegetation grew so dense that it was difficult to cut one's way through it. It was thought at the time that the soil of a rainforest must be very fertile, filled with nutrients, enabling it to support the immense trees and other vegetation they found.
Today we know that the soil of the tropical rainforests is shallow, very poor in nutrients and almost without soluble minerals. Thousands of years of heavy rains have washed away the nutrients in the soil obtained from weathered rocks. The rainforest has a very short nutrient cycle. Nutrients generally stay in an ecosystem by being recycled and in a rainforest are mainly found in the living plants and the layers of decomposing leaf litter. Various species of decomposers like insects, bacteria, and fungi make quick work of turning dead plant and animal matter into nutrients. Plants take up these nutrients the moment they are released.
A study in the Amazon rainforest found that 99% of nutrients are held in root mats. When a rainforest is burned or cut down the nutrients are removed from the ecosystem. The soil can only be used for a very short time before it becomes completely depleted of all nutrients.
Where the Rainforests Are Found
The tropical rain forest can be found in three major geographical areas around the world.
Central America in the the Amazon river basin.
Africa - Zaire basin, with a small area in West Africa; also eastern Madagascar.
Indo-Malaysia - west coast of India, Assam, Southeast Asia, New Guinea and Queensland, Australia.
A savanna is a rolling grassland scattered with shrubs and isolated trees, which can be found between a tropical rainforest and desert biome. Not enough rain falls on a savanna to support forests. Savannas are also known as tropical grasslands. They are found in a wide band on either side of the equator on the edges of tropical rainforests.
Savannas have warm temperature year round. There are actually two very different seasons in a savanna; a very long dry season (winter), and a very wet season (summer). In the dry season only an average of about 4 inches of rain falls. Between December and February no rain will fall at all. Oddly enough, it is actually a little cooler during this dry season. But don't expect sweater weather; it is still around 70° F.
In the summer there is lots of rain. In Africa the monsoon rains begin in May. An average of 15 to 25 inches of rain falls during this time. It gets hot and very humid during the rainy season. Every day the hot, humid air rises off the ground and collides with cooler air above and turns into rain. In the afternoons on the summer savanna the rains pour down for hours. African savannas have large herds of grazing and browsing hoofed animals. Each animal has a specialized eating habit that reduces compitition for food.
There are several different types of savannas around the world. The savannas we are most familiar with are the East African savannas covered with acacia trees. The Serengeti Plains of Tanzania are some of the most well known. Here animals like lions, zebras, elephants, and giraffes and many types of ungulates(animals with hooves) graze and hunt. Many large grass-eating mammals (herbivores) can survive here because they can move around and eat the plentiful grasses. There are also lots of carnivores (meat eaters) who eat them in turn.
South America also has savannas, but there are very few species that exist only on this savanna. In Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela, savannas occupy some 2.5 million square kilometers, an area about one-quarter the size of Canada. Animals from the neighboring biomes kind of spill into this savanna. The Llanos of the Orinoco basin of Venezuela and Columbia is flooded annually by the Orinoco River. Plants have adapted to growing for long periods in standing water. The capybara and marsh deer have adapted themselves to a semi-aquatic life.
Brazil's cerrado is an open woodland of short twisted trees. The diversity of animals is very great here, with several plants and animals that don't exist anywhere else on earth.
There is also a savanna in northern Australia. Eucalyptus trees take the place of acacias in the Australian savanna. There are many species of kangaroos in this savanna but not too much diversity of different animals
Plants of the savannas are highly specialized to grow in this environment of long periods of drought. They have long tap roots that can reach the deep water table, thick bark to resist annual fires, trunks that can store water, and leaves that drop of during the winter to conserve water. The grasses have adaptations that discourage animals from grazing on them; some grasses are too sharp or bitter tasting for some animals, but not others, to eat. The side benefit of this is that every species of animal has something to eat. Different species will also eat different parts of the grass. Many grasses grow from the bottom up, so that the growth tissue doesn't get damaged by grazers. Many plants of the savanna also have storage organs like bulbs and corms for making it though the dry season.
Most of the animals on the savanna have long legs or wings to be able to go on long migrations. Many burrow under ground to avoid the heat or raise their young. The savanna is a perfect place for birds of prey like hawks and buzzards. The wide, open plain provides them with a clear view of their prey, hot air updrafts keep them soaring, and there is the occasional tree to rest on or nest in. Animals don't sweat to lose body heat, so they lose it through panting or through large areas of exposed skin, or ears, like those of the elephant.
The savanna has a large range of highly specialized plants and animals. They all depend on the each other to keep the environment in balance. There are over 40 different species of hoofed mammals that live on the savannas of Africa. Up to 16 different species of browsers (those who eat leaves of trees) and grazers can coexist in one area. They do this by having their own food preferences, browsing/grazing at different heights, time of day or year to use a given area, and different places to go during the dry season.
These different herbivores provide a wide range of food for carnivores, like lions, leopards, cheetahs, jackals and hyenas. Each species has its own preference, making it possible to live side by side and not be in competition for food.
In many parts of the savannas of Africa people have started using it to graze their cattle and goats. They don't move around and soon the grasses are completely eaten up. With no vegetation, the savanna turns into a desert. Huge areas of savanna are lost to the Sahara desert every year because of overgrazing and farming.
In this report you will learn about Hot and Dry Deserts and Cold Deserts. I hope you enjoy!
A Hot and Dry Desert is, as you can tell from the name, hot and dry. Most Hot and Dry Deserts don't have very many plants. They do have some low down plants though. The only animals they have that can survive have the ability to burrow under ground. This is because they would not be able to live in the hot sun and heat. They only come out in the night when it is a little cooler.
A cold desert is a desert that has snow in the winter instead of just dropping a few degrees in temperature like they would in a Hot and Dry Desert. It never gets warm enough for plants to grow. Just maybe a few grasses and mosses. The animals in Cold Deserts also have to burrow but in this case to keep warm, not cool. That is why you might find some of the same animals here as you would in the Hot and Dry Deserts.
Deserts cover about one fifth of the Earth's land surface. Most Hot and Dry Deserts are near the Tropic of Cancer or the Tropic of Capricorn. Cold Deserts are near the Arctic part of the world.
Hot and Dry Deserts temperature ranges from 20 to 25° C. The extreme maximum temperature for Hot Desert ranges from 43.5 to 49° C. Cold Deserts temperature in winter ranges from -2 to 4° C and in the summer 21 to 26° C a year
The precipitation in Hot and Dry Deserts and the precipitation in Cold Deserts is different. Hot and Dry Deserts usually have very little rainfall and/or concentrated rainfall in short periods between long rainless periods. This averages out to under 15 cm a year. Cold Deserts usually have lots of snow. They also have rain around spring. This averages out to 15 - 26 cm a year.
Hot and Dry Deserts are warm throughout the fall and spring seasons and very hot during the summer. the winters usually have very little if any rainfall. Cold Deserts have quite a bit of snow during winter. The summer and the beginning of the spring are barely warm enough for a few lichens, grasses and mosses to grow.
Hot and Dry Deserts vegetation is very rare. Plants are almost all ground-hugging shrubs and short woody trees. All of the leaves are replete (packed with nutrients). Some examples of these kinds of plant are Turpentine Bush, Prickly Pears, and Brittle Bush. For all of these plants to survive they have to have adaptations. Some of the adaptations in this case are the ability to store water for long periods of time and the ability to stand the hot weather.
Cold Desert's plants are scattered. In areas with little shade,about 10 percent of the ground is covered with plants. In some areas of sagebrush it reaches 85 percent. The height of scrub varies from 15 cm to 122 cm. All plants are either deciduous and more or less contain spiny leaves.
Hot and Dry Deserts animals include small nocturnal (only active at night) carnivores. There are also insects, arachnids, reptiles, and birds. Some examples of these animals are Borrowers, Mourning Wheatears, and Horned Vipers. Cold Deserts have animals like Antelope, Ground Squirrels, Jack Rabbits, and Kangaroo Rats.
Temperate forests are found in Asia, North America, South America, and Europe. There are four seasons in the temperate forest. The temperate forests receive around 30 to 60 inches of rain throughout all seasons of the year. The Temperate biomes experience cold winters and warm summers. The average temperature for the temperate forest is 50 degrees fahrenheit. Animals that live in the temperate biome include worms, insects, salamanders, snakes, squirrels, rabbits, skunks, raccoons, bears, deer, and opossums. Trees that are in this biome include maple trees, beech trees, hickory trees, and oak trees. These trees all shed their leaves in the autumn months and regrow them in the spring months. In the temperate forests there are many flowers, but the main flowers are the passion berry and the blue lily flowers.
Temperate grasslands are found in central Asia, North America, Australia, central Europe, and upland plateaus of South America. The temperate grasslands generally experience warm summers and cold winters. Temperate areas receive seasonal rainfall that generally ranges from 25-35 inches of rain. The temperature in the temperate grasslands ranges from over 100 degrees fahrenheit in the summer and under - 40 degrees in the winter. Animals that live in this area include Prairie Chicken, Black-Tailed Prairie Dog, and Whitetail Deer. This area also has reptiles such as snakes and this area also has insects such as ants and grasshoppers. Plants that are found in this area include lush, perennial grasses, and herbs.
Temperate woodland and shrubland areas are commonly found on the western coasts of North and South America, areas around the Mediterranean Sea, South Africa, and Australia. The temperate woodland areas generally experience hot dry summers and cool moist winters. The plants that are most commonly found in the temperate woodland areas are the evergreen shrubs. Animals that are found in this area include coyotes, foxes, bobcats, deer, rabbits, mice, and hawks.
A biome is the type of habitat in certain places, like mountain tops, deserts, and tropical forests, and is determined by the climate of the place. The taiga is the biome of the needleleaf forest. Living in the taiga is cold and lonely. Coldness and food shortages make things very difficult, mostly in the winter. Some of the animals in the taiga hibernate in the winter, some fly south if they can, while some just cooperate with the environment, which is very difficult. (Dillon Bartkus)
Taiga is the Russian word for forest and is the largest biome in the world. It stretches over Eurasia and North America. The taiga is located near the top of the world, just below the tundra biome. The winters in the taiga are very cold with only snowfall. The summers are warm, rainy, and humid. A lot of coniferous trees grow in the taiga. The taiga is also known as the boreal forest. Did you know that Boreal was the Greek goddess of the North Wind?
The taiga doesn't have as many plant and animal species as the tropical or the deciduous forest biomes. It does have millions of insects in the summertime. Birds migrate there every year to nest and feed.
Here is some information about the temperatures and weather in the taiga. The average temperature is below freezing for six months out of the year. The winter temperature range is -54 to -1° C (-65 to 30° F). The winters, as you can see, are really cold, with lots of snow.
Temperature range in the summer gets as low as -7° C (20° F). The high in summer can be 21° C (70° F). The summers are mostly warm, rainy and humid. They are also very short with about 50 to 100 frost free days. The total precipitation in a year is 30 - 85 cm (12 - 33 in) . The forms the precipitation comes in are rain, snow and dew. Most of the precipitation in the taiga falls as rain in the summer.
The main seasons in the taiga are winter and summer. The spring and autumn are so short, you hardly know they exist. It is either hot and humid or very cold in the taiga.
There are not a lot of species of plants in the taiga because of the harsh conditions. Not many plants can survive the extreme cold of the taiga winter. There are some lichens and mosses, but most plants are coniferous trees like pine, white spruce, hemlock and douglas fir.
Coniferous trees are also known as evergreens. They have long, thin waxy needles. The wax gives them some protection from freezing temperatures and from drying out. Evergreens don't loose their leaves in the winter like deciduous trees. They keep their needles all year long. This is so they can start photosynthesis as soon as the weather gets warm. The dark color of evergreen needles allows them to absorb heat from the sun and also helps them start photosynthesis early.
Evergreens in the taiga tend to be thin and grow close together. This gives them protection from the cold and wind. Evergreens also are usually shaped like an upside down cone to protects the branches from breaking under the weight of all that snow. The snow slides right off the slanted branches.
The taiga is susceptible to many wildfires. Trees have adapted by growing thick bark. The fires will burn away the upper canopy of the trees and let sunlight reach the ground. New plants will grow and provide food for animals that once could not live there because there were only evergreen trees.
Animals of the taiga tend to be predators like the lynx and members of the weasel family like wolverines, bobcat, minks and ermine. They hunt herbivores like snowshoe rabbits, red squirrels and voles. Red deer, elk, and moose can be found in regions of the taiga where more deciduous trees grow.
Many insect eating birds come to the taiga to breed. They leave when the breeding season is over. Seed eaters like finches and sparrows, and omnivorous birds like crows stay all year long.
In the tundra, conditions are cold, with an annual average temperature less than 5� C, and precipitation (mostly in the form of snow) less than 100 mm per year (see figure at right). The summer is brief, with temperatures above freezing lasting for only a few weeks at most. However, this "warm" summer coincides with periods of almost 24 hour daylight, so plant growth can be explosive.
The map below shows the tundra spreading across the northern hemisphere. Tundra is largely restricted to the northern hemisphere; there simply is no comparable land mass in the southern hemisphere with the appropriate climate. The areas of the southern hemisphere at high enough latitudes is small, and these areas have their temperatures moderated by the proximity of surrounding oceans. Parts of Greenland extend north far enough that the tundra is replaced by snow and ice; in contrast Canadian and Russian islands at these latitudes are again influenced by the surrounding oceans and may thus exhibit tundra conditions. It should be noted that a similar habitat, alpine tundra, exists in mountains of the alpine biome.
Indicator Plant Species:
A wide variety of plants species can be found on the tundra, as can be seen in the accompanying pictures. What most of them have in common are growth characteristics - they tend to grow low to the ground. Among the common types of tundra plants are willows, sedges and grasses, many in dwarf forms compared to their growth forms in warmer climes. Lichens and mosses (far below) are also important, particularly in the harshest climates.
Arctic Tundra Wildflowers - Alaska
Arctic Tundra Wildflowers - Alaska
Polytrichum Moss, photographed in Ohio, not on the Tundra.
Indicator Animal Species:
Caribou & Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are perhaps THE indicator animal species for the tundra. The species, Rangifer tarandus, is panarctic, but differences are seen between the representatives in the Old World and in North America. The Reindeer is the Old World form, it is smaller than the Caribou and has been domesticated. It is herded by northern peoples across Europe and Russia.
The caribou is the North American form. It is larger and still wild. It migrates from summer to winter grazing areas, following the melting of the snow in the spring. A sizeable herd remains in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Above: Reindeer antlers as the characteristic velvet (the layer of skin, fur and blood vessels that nourish the developing antlers) is being shed at the end of antler development for the year. Both male and female reindeer and caribou have antlers; the females use theirs for defense while the males also use theirs in mating competitions.
Other important tundra animals include musk oxen, wolves, ptarmigan, snow geese, tundra swans, Dall sheep, brown bears (and polar bears near the coast). A number of small rodents and rodent-like animals are crucial parts of this ecosystem as well.
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus
Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)
The ecology of the tundra is controlled by the cold climate and the northern latitude. The former means that a unique soil structure, permafrost, forms and dominates the biology. Permafrost is a layer of soil that remains frozen year-round. The soil above it may thaw during the summer, but the soil below remains frozen and thus biologically inactive. Further, the permafrost forms a barrier; in temperate climes many animals overwinter by burrowing down into the soil to a point below where the soil freezes. This is not possible in the tundra soils, and thus animals must contend with freezing over the winter. It is no accident that there are no reptiles or amphibians in the tundra.
The long day length that accompanies the short summer is a boon to plants, which are able to photosynthesize 24 hours a day in some places. This leads to rapid plant growth. A surprising number of insects are able to endure the harsh winters (many as frost-resistant eggs); these also undergo rapid development in the summer. Many bird species migrate from southern areas to the tundra each year for the reduced competition and plentiful insect harvest; this rich diet enables them to rear their young in an otherwise bleak environment.
There aren't a lot of people running out to build houses on the tundra. Development is not a major problem, nor is there much pressure from human populations (although pollution problems near human settlements can be severe; it is a great technical challenge to effect efficient sewage treatment in a cold environment, for instance). The biggest threats come from airborne pollutants, which have brought measurable levels of pollutants such as DDT and PCB's to even remote areas.
Tundra Soil Peeled Back at Level of Permafrost - Alaska
The biggest threat, however, is from oil and gas development and the resulting global warming. The Arctic National Wildlife refuge mentioned earlier has the misfortune of sitting on about a 6 month supply of oil. Despite the great difficulty in extracting this oil, corporate interests and their pet politicians just can't seem to let the idea of drilling here go. Instead of promoting fuel conservation, which could easily make up for the oil not retrieved from this arctic paradise, they continue to push the propaganda on the American people that drilling here will somehow offset high oil prices. An more sever threat comes from global warming, however. As the planet warms (a result of burning all that fossil fuel from elsewhere), the permafrost melts and tundra ecosystems collapse. Further, the permafrost contains a significant amount of dead plant material (grown in earlier and warmer times); as the permafrost warms this material begins to decay, releasing even more CO2 into the atmosphere and accelerating global warming.
Arctic Tundra and Alaska Pipeline - Alaska
During the short summer, the tundra appears much like a temperate grassland. Ironically, one of the best ways to access the tundra is via the highway that accompanies the Alaska pipeline from Barrow down to Valdez. The section of pipeline seen here is raised off the ground by special stands. These stands are sunk into the permafrost and designed not to conduct heat lest the warmth from the heated oil (the oil has to be heated to thin it enough to pump economically) thaw the permafrost and cause the pipeline to collapse. Raising the pipeline also allow caribou to pass under it freely.
During the summer the snow melts; much is carried away by the streams winding through the tundra (right), other water collects in small lakes and wetlands (below left).
Tundra Stream - Alaska
Arctic Tundra - Alaska
Tundra Stream and Alaska Pipeline - Alaska
Arctic Tundra - Alaska
Arctic Tundra and Mountains- Alaska
All of these tundra shots (except the reindeer, which were photographed at the Cleveland Zoo) were taken by Sarah Beck, Marietta College class of 2001. In the summer of 2000, Sarah worked with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on research they were doing in Alaska. Sarah was gracious enough to share these photos with us until we are able to mount our own expedition to the tundra.
Sarah Beck in 1998 on our trip to New England
The freshwater biome
A lake at Acadia National Park, Maine.
Freshwater is defined as having a low salt concentration — usually less than 1%. Plants and animals in freshwater regions are adjusted to the low salt content and would not be able to survive in areas of high salt concentration (i.e., ocean). There are different types of freshwater regions:
•Ponds and lakes
•Streams and rivers
Ponds and lakes
These regions range in size from just a few square meters to thousands of square kilometers. Scattered throughout the earth, several are remnants from the Pleistocene glaciation. Many ponds are seasonal, lasting just a couple of months (such as sessile pools) while lakes may exist for hundreds of years or more. Ponds and lakes may have limited species diversity since they are often isolated from one another and from other water sources like rivers and oceans. Lakes and ponds are divided into three different "zones" which are usually determined by depth and distance from the shoreline.
The topmost zone near the shore of a lake or pond is the littoral zone. This zone is the warmest since it is shallow and can absorb more of the Sun's heat. It sustains a fairly diverse community, which can include several species of algae (like diatoms), rooted and floating aquatic plants, grazing snails, clams, insects, crustaceans, fishes, and amphibians. In the case of the insects, such as dragonflies and midges, only the egg and larvae stages are found in this zone. The vegetation and animals living in the littoral zone are food for other creatures such as turtles, snakes, and ducks.
From left: a view across Manzanita Lake toward Mt. Lassen, California; a forest pond near Donnelly, Idaho; a Great Blue Heron; Paranagat Lake, southeastern Nevada.
The near-surface open water surrounded by the littoral zone is the limnetic zone. The limnetic zone is well-lighted (like the littoral zone) and is dominated by plankton, both phytoplankton and zooplankton. Plankton are small organisms that play a crucial role in the food chain. Without aquatic plankton, there would be few living organisms in the world, and certainly no humans. A variety of freshwater fish also occupy this zone.
Plankton have short life spans — when they die, they fall into the deep-water part of the lake/pond, the profundal zone. This zone is much colder and denser than the other two. Little light penetrates all the way through the limnetic zone into the profundal zone. The fauna are heterotrophs, meaning that they eat dead organisms and use oxygen for cellular respiration.
Temperature varies in ponds and lakes seasonally. During the summer, the temperature can range from 4° C near the bottom to 22° C at the top. During the winter, the temperature at the bottom can be 4° C while the top is 0° C (ice). In between the two layers, there is a narrow zone called the thermocline where the temperature of the water changes rapidly. During the spring and fall seasons, there is a mixing of the top and bottom layers, usually due to winds, which results in a uniform water temperature of around 4° C. This mixing also circulates oxygen throughout the lake. Of course there are many lakes and ponds that do not freeze during the winter, thus the top layer would be a little warmer.
Streams and rivers
These are bodies of flowing water moving in one direction. Streams and rivers can be found everywhere — they get their starts at headwaters, which may be springs, snowmelt or even lakes, and then travel all the way to their mouths, usually another water channel or the ocean. The characteristics of a river or stream change during the journey from the source to the mouth. The temperature is cooler at the source than it is at the mouth. The water is also clearer, has higher oxygen levels, and freshwater fish such as trout and heterotrophs can be found there. Towards the middle part of the stream/river, the width increases, as does species diversity — numerous aquatic green plants and algae can be found. Toward the mouth of the river/stream, the water becomes murky from all the sediments that it has picked up upstream, decreasing the amount of light that can penetrate through the water. Since there is less light, there is less diversity of flora, and because of the lower oxygen levels, fish that require less oxygen, such as catfish and carp, can be found.
From left: McArthur-Burney Falls State Park, California; trout; Green River, Utah; Brooks River, Alaska.
Wetlands are areas of standing water that support aquatic plants. Marshes, swamps, and bogs are all considered wetlands. Plant species adapted to the very moist and humid conditions are called hydrophytes. These include pond lilies, cattails, sedges, tamarack, and black spruce. Marsh flora also include such species as cypress and gum. Wetlands have the highest species diversity of all ecosystems. Many species of amphibians, reptiles, birds (such as ducks and waders), and furbearers can be found in the wetlands. Wetlands are not considered freshwater ecosystems as there are some, such as salt marshes, that have high salt concentrations — these support different species of animals, such as shrimp, shellfish, and various grasses.
The marine biome
Reef fish and coral off Eniwetok atoll in the central Pacific.
Marine regions cover about three-fourths of the Earth's surface and include oceans, coral reefs, and estuaries. Marine algae supply much of the world's oxygen supply and take in a huge amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The evaporation of the seawater provides rainwater for the land.
The largest of all the ecosystems, oceans are very large bodies of water that dominate the Earth's surface. Like ponds and lakes, the ocean regions are separated into separate zones: intertidal, pelagic, abyssal, and benthic. All four zones have a great diversity of species. Some say that the ocean contains the richest diversity of species even though it contains fewer species than there are on land.
The intertidal zone is where the ocean meets the land — sometimes it is submerged and at other times exposed, as waves and tides come in and out. Because of this, the communities are constantly changing. On rocky coasts, the zone is stratified vertically. Where only the highest tides reach, there are only a few species of algae and mollusks. In those areas usually submerged during high tide, there is a more diverse array of algae and small animals, such as herbivorous snails, crabs, sea stars, and small fishes. At the bottom of the intertidal zone, which is only exposed during the lowest tides, many invertebrates, fishes, and seaweed can be found. The intertidal zone on sandier shores is not as stratified as in the rocky areas. Waves keep mud and sand constantly moving, thus very few algae and plants can establish themselves — the fauna include worms, clams, predatory crustaceans, crabs, and shorebirds.
From left: mussels, worms, and a spider crab at a hydrocarbon seep community in the Gulf of Mexico; a sea fan and brain coral in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; a school of Atlantic amberjack off North Carolina.
The pelagic zone includes those waters further from the land, basically the open ocean. The pelagic zone is generally cold though it is hard to give a general temperature range since, just like ponds and lakes, there is thermal stratification with a constant mixing of warm and cold ocean currents. The flora in the pelagic zone include surface seaweeds. The fauna include many species of fish and some mammals, such as whales and dolphins. Many feed on the abundant plankton.
The benthic zone is the area below the pelagic zone, but does not include the very deepest parts of the ocean (see abyssal zone below). The bottom of the zone consists of sand, slit, and/or dead organisms. Here temperature decreases as depth increases toward the abyssal zone, since light cannot penetrate through the deeper water. Flora are represented primarily by seaweed while the fauna, since it is very nutrient-rich, include all sorts of bacteria, fungi, sponges, sea anemones, worms, sea stars, and fishes.
The deep ocean is the abyssal zone. The water in this region is very cold (around 3° C), highly pressured, high in oxygen content, but low in nutritional content. The abyssal zone supports many species of invertebrates and fishes. Mid-ocean ridges (spreading zones between tectonic plates), often with hydrothermal vents, are found in the abyssal zones along the ocean floors. Chemosynthetic bacteria thrive near these vents because of the large amounts of hydrogen sulfide and other minerals they emit. These bacteria are thus the start of the food web as they are eaten by invertebrates and fishes.
Coral reefs are widely distributed in warm shallow waters. They can be found as barriers along continents (e.g., the Great Barrier Reef off Australia), fringing islands, and atolls. Naturally, the dominant organisms in coral reefs are corals. Corals are interesting since they consist of both algae (zooanthellae) and tissues of animal polyp. Since reef waters tend to be nutritionally poor, corals obtain nutrients through the algae via photosynthesis and also by extending tentacles to obtain plankton from the water. Besides corals, the fauna include several species of microorganisms, invertebrates, fishes, sea urchins, octopuses, and sea stars.