- Identify and describe terrestrial biomes.
- Give an overview of aquatic biomes.
area in aquatic biomes deeper than 200 meters
water-based biomes, defined by the availability of sunlight and the concentration of dissolved oxygen and nutrients in the water
average weather in an area over a long period of time
state in which a plant slows down cellular activity and may shed its leaves
a partly enclosed coastal body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the ocean
aquatic biome such as a pond, lake, stream, or river in which the water contains little or no salt
period of time each year when it is warm enough and wet enough for plants to grow
in marine biomes, the narrow strip along the coastline that is covered by water at high tide and exposed to air at low tide
aquatic biome in the salt water of the ocean
area in an aquatic biome that extends to a maximum depth of 200 meters
bacteria and algae that use sunlight to make food
a biome of or pertaining to land, as in terrestrial ecosystem
area that is saturated with water or covered by water for at least one season of the year
tiny animals that feed on phytoplankton
If you look at the two pictures in Figure below, you will see very few similarities. The picture on the left shows a desert in Africa. The picture on the right shows a rainforest in Australia. The desert doesn’t have any visible plants, whereas the rainforest is densely packed with trees. What explains these differences?
Sahara Desert in northern Africa (left). Rainforest in northeastern Australia (right). Two very different biomes are pictured here. Both are found at roughly the same distance from the equator.
The two pictures in Figure above represent two different biomes. A biome is a group of similar ecosystems with the same general abiotic factors and primary producers. Biomes may be terrestrial or aquatic.
Terrestrial biomes include all the land areas on Earth where organisms live. The distinguishing features of terrestrial biomes are determined mainly by climate. Terrestrial biomes include tundras, temperate forests and grasslands, chaparral, temperate and tropical deserts, and tropical forests and grasslands.
Terrestrial Biomes and Climate
Climate is the average weather in an area over a long period of time. Weather refers to the conditions of the atmosphere from day to day. Climate is generally described in terms of temperature and moisture. Temperature falls from the equator to the poles. Therefore, major temperature zones are based on latitude. They include tropical, temperate, and arctic zones (see Figure below). However, other factors besides latitude may also influence temperature. For example, land near the ocean may have cooler summers and warmer winters than land farther inland. This is because water gains and loses heat more slowly than does land, and the water temperature influences the temperature on the coast. Temperature also falls from lower to higher altitudes. That’s why tropical zone mountain tops may be capped with snow.
Temperature Zones. Temperature zones are based on latitude. What temperature zone do you live in?
In terms of moisture, climates can be classified as arid (dry), semi-arid, humid (wet), or semi-humid. The amount of moisture depends on both precipitation and evaporation. Precipitation increases moisture. Evaporation decreases moisture.
- The global pattern of precipitation is influenced by movements of air masses. For example, there is a global belt of dry air masses and low precipitation at about 30° N and 30° S latitude.
- Precipitation is also influenced by temperature. Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air, so tropical areas receive more rainfall than other parts of the world.
- Nearness to the ocean and mountain ranges may also influence the amount of precipitation an area receives. This is explained in Figure below.
- Evaporation of moisture is greatest where it is hot and sunny. Therefore, cold climates with low precipitation may not be as dry as warm climates with the same amount of precipitation.
- Moist air from the ocean rises up over the mountain range.
- As the air rises, it cools and its water vapor condenses. Precipitation falls on the windward side of the mountain range.
- The air is dry when it reaches the leeward side of the mountain range, so there is little precipitation there. This creates a “rain shadow.”
This diagram shows how precipitation is affected by the ocean and a mountain range.
Climate and Plant Growth
Plants are the major producers in terrestrial biomes. They have five basic needs: air, warmth, sunlight, water, and nutrients. How well these needs are met in a given location depends on the growing season and soil quality, both of which are determined mainly by climate.
- The growing season is the period of time each year when it is warm and wet enough for plants to grow. The growing season may last all year in a hot, wet climate but just a few months in a cooler or drier climate.
- Plants grow best in soil that contains plenty of nutrients and organic matter. Both are added to soil when plant litter and dead organisms decompose. Decomposition occurs too slowly in cold climates and too quickly in hot, wet climates for nutrients and organic matter to accumulate. Temperate climates usually have the best soil for plant growth.
Climate and Biodiversity
Because climate determines plant growth, it also influences the number and variety of other organisms in a terrestrial biome. Biodiversity generally increases from the poles to the equator. It is also usually greater in more humid climates. This is apparent from the desert and rainforest biomes pictured in Figure above.
Climate and Adaptations
Organisms evolve adaptations that help them survive in the climate of the biome where they live. For example, in biomes with arid climates, plants may have special tissues for storing water (see Figure below). The desert animals pictured in Figure below also have adaptations for a dry climate.
Aloe Plant and Barrel Cactus. The aloe plant on the left stores water in its large, hollow leaves. The cactus plant on the right stores water in its stout, barrel-shaped stems.
Gila Monster and Kangaroo Rat. The Gila monster’s fat tail is an adaptation to its dry climate. It serves as a storage depot for water. The kangaroo rat has very efficient kidneys. They produce concentrated urine, thus reducing the amount of water lost from the body.
In biomes with cold climates, plants may adapt by becoming dormant during the coldest part of the year. Dormancy is a state in which a plant slows down cellular activities and may shed its leaves. Animals also adapt to cold temperatures. One way is with insulation in the form of fur and fat. This is how the polar bears in Figure below stay warm.
Polar Bears. Thick fur and a layer of blubber keep polar bears warm in their Arctic ecosystem. Why do you think their fur is white? Why might it be an adaptation in an Arctic biome?
Survey of Terrestrial Biomes
Terrestrial biomes are classified by climatic factors and types of primary producers. The world map in Figure below shows where 13 major terrestrial biomes are found. Figure below summarizes their basic features.
Worldwide Distribution of Terrestrial Biomes. This map shows the locations of Earth’s major terrestrial biomes.
Terrestrial Biomes. Think about how its biodiversity and types of plants and animals relate to its climate. For example, why do you think there are no amphibians or reptiles in tundra biomes? (Hint: Amphibians and reptiles cannot maintain a constant body temperature. Instead, they have about the same temperature as their surroundings.)
Terrestrial organisms are generally limited by temperature and moisture. Therefore, terrestrial biomes are defined in terms of these abiotic factors. Most aquatic organisms do not have to deal with extremes of temperature or moisture. Instead, their main limiting factors are the availability of sunlight and the concentration of dissolved oxygen and nutrients in the water. These factors vary from place to place in a body of water and are used to define aquatic biomes.
Aquatic Biomes and Sunlight
In large bodies of standing water, including the ocean and lakes, the water can be divided into zones based on the amount of sunlight it receives:
- The photic zone extends to a maximum depth of 200 meters (656 feet) below the surface of the water. This is where enough sunlight penetrates for photosynthesis to occur. Algae and other photosynthetic organisms can make food and support food webs.
- The aphotic zone is water deeper than 200 meters. This is where too little sunlight penetrates for photosynthesis to occur. As a result, food must be made by chemosynthesis or else drift down from the water above.
These and other aquatic zones in the ocean are identified in Figure below.
The ocean is divided into many different zones, depending on distance from shore and depth of water.
Aquatic Biomes and Dissolved Substances
Water in lakes and the ocean also varies in the amount of dissolved oxygen and nutrients it contains:
- Water near the surface of lakes and the ocean usually has more dissolved oxygen than does deeper water. This is because surface water absorbs oxygen from the air above it.
- Water near shore generally has more dissolved nutrients than water farther from shore. This is because most nutrients enter the water from land. They are carried by runoff, streams, and rivers that empty into a body of water.
- Water near the bottom of lakes and the ocean may contain more nutrients than water closer to the surface. When aquatic organisms die, they sink to the bottom. Decomposers near the bottom of the water break down the dead organisms and release their nutrients back into the water.
Aquatic organisms generally fall into three broad groups: plankton, nekton, and benthos. They vary in how they move and where they live.
- Plankton are tiny aquatic organisms that cannot move on their own. They live in the photic zone. They include phytoplankton and zooplankton. Phytoplankton are bacteria and algae that use sunlight to make food. Zooplankton are tiny animals that feed on phytoplankton.
- Nekton are aquatic animals that can move on their own by “swimming” through the water. They may live in the photic or aphotic zone. They feed on plankton or other nekton. Examples of nekton include fish and shrimp.
- Benthos are aquatic organisms that crawl in sediments at the bottom of a body of water. Many are decomposers. Benthos include sponges, clams, and anglerfish like the one in Figure below. How has this fish adapted to a life in the dark?
Anglerfish. This anglerfish lives between 1000 and 4000 meters below sea level. No sunlight penetrates to this depth. The rod-like structure on its face has a glow-in-the-dark tip. It is covered with microorganisms that give off their own light. The fish wiggles the structure like a worm to attract prey. In the darkness, only the rod-like worm is visible.
Anglerfish live in the ocean. Aquatic biomes in the ocean are called marine biomes. Organisms that live in marine biomes must be adapted to the salt in the water. For example, many have organs for excreting excess salt. Two ocean zones are particularly challenging to marine organisms: the intertidal zone and the deep ocean. The intertidal zone is the narrow strip along the coastline that is covered by water at high tide and exposed to air at low tide (see Figure below). There are plenty of nutrients and sunlight in the intertidal zone. However, the water is constantly moving in and out, and the temperature keeps changing. These conditions requires adaptations in the organisms that live there, such as the barnacles in Figure below.
These pictures show the intertidal zone of the Bay of Fundy, on the Atlantic coast in Maine. Can you identify the intertidal zone from the pictures?
Barnacles. Barnacles secrete a cement-like substance that anchors them to rocks in the intertidal zone.
Organisms that live deep in the ocean must be able to withstand extreme water pressure, very cold water, and complete darkness. However, even here, thriving communities of living things can be found. Organisms cluster around hydrothermal vents in the ocean floor. The vents release hot water containing chemicals that would be toxic to most other living things. The producers among them are single-celled chemoautotrophs. They make food using energy stored in the chemicals. The tube worms in this chapter's opening photo depend on these chemoautotrophs for food.
Freshwater biomes have water that contains little or no salt. They include standing and running freshwater biomes. Standing freshwater biomes include ponds and lakes. Lakes are generally bigger and deeper than ponds. Some of the water in lakes is in the aphotic zone where there is too little sunlight for photosynthesis. Plankton and plants (such as the duckweed in Figure below) are the primary producers in standing freshwater biomes.
The pond on the left has a thick mat of duckweed plants. They cover the surface of the water and use sunlight for photosynthesis. The cattails on the right grow along a stream bed. They have tough, slender leaves that can withstand moving water.
Running freshwater biomes include streams and rivers. Rivers are usually larger than streams. Streams may start with runoff or water seeping out of a spring. The water runs downhill and joins other running water to become a stream. A stream may flow into a river that empties into a lake or the ocean. Running water is better able to dissolve oxygen and nutrients than standing water. However, the moving water is a challenge to many living things. Algae and plants (such as the cattails in Figure above) are the primary producers in running water biomes.
A wetland is an area that is saturated with water or covered by water for at least one season of the year. The water may be freshwater or salt water. Wetlands are extremely important biomes for several reasons:
- They store excess water from floods.
- They slow down runoff and help prevent erosion.
- They remove excess nutrients from runoff before it empties into rivers or lakes.
- They provide a unique habitat that certain communities of plants need to survive.
- They provide a safe, lush habitat for many species of animals, so they have high biodiversity.
KQED: Restoring Wetlands
More than 100,000 acres of wetlands are being restored in the Northern California Bay Area, but how exactly do we know what to restore them to? Historical ecologists are recreating San Francisco Bay wetlands that existed decades ago. To learn more, see http://www.kqed.org/quest/television/view/416.
For more than 100 years, south San Francisco Bay has been a center for industrial salt production. Now federal and state biologists are working to restore the ponds to healthy wetlands for fish and other wildlife. Salt marshes are rich habitats that provide shelter and food for many species, some of which are endangered or threatened.
See http://www.kqed.org/quest/television/from-salt-ponds-to-wetlands for additional information.
KQED: San Francisco Bay: A Unique Estuary
An estuary is a partly enclosed coastal body of water with one or more rivers or streams flowing into it, and with a free connection to the ocean. Estuaries can be thought of as the most biologically productive regions on Earth, with very high biodiversity. Estuaries are zones where land and sea come together, and where fresh and salt water meet.
The San Francisco Bay is one of the great estuaries of the world. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=clZz2OjE5n0&playnext=1&list=PL0AAA2B9B3E9F6AB3 for further information.
KQED: Studying Aquatic Animals
Oceans cover more than 70 percent of our planet yet they make up one of the least explored regions on Earth. Who better to unlock the mysteries of the ocean than marine animals themselves? Marine scientists have been tagging and tracking sharks, leatherback turtles and other sea life to learn more about marine ecosystems. Through the Tagging of Pacific Predators program (TOPP), scientists hope to both assess and explain the migration routes, ecosystems and diversity of our oceans’ species.
Beginning in 2000, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Cruz combined to form TOPP. As part of TOPP, researchers attach satellite tags to elephant seals, white sharks, giant leatherback turtles, bluefin tuna, swordfish and other marine animals. The tags collect information, such as how deep each animal dives, the levels of ambient light (to help determine an animal’s location) and interior and exterior body temperature. Some tags also collect information about the temperature, salinity and depth of the water surrounding an animal to help scientists identify ocean currents. The tags send the data to a satellite, which in turn sends the data the scientists. They use this information to create maps of migration patterns and discover new information about different marine ecosystems. The information collected by TOPP offers rare insights into the lives of marine animals. Without TOPP, that information would otherwise remain unknown. With TOPP, scientists are developing a working knowledge of the particular migration routes animals take, as well as the locations of popular breeding grounds and the environmental dangers faced by different species. TOPP has shed light on how we can better protect the leatherback turtle and other endangered species.
See http://www.kqed.org/quest/television/tagging-pacific-predators- for more information.
- Terrestrial biomes are determined mainly by climate. Climate influences plant growth, biodiversity, and adaptations of land organisms. Terrestrial biomes include tundras, temperate forests and grasslands, chaparral, temperate and tropical deserts, and tropical forests and grasslands.
- Aquatic biomes are determined mainly by sunlight and concentrations of dissolved oxygen and nutrients in the water. Aquatic organisms are either plankton, nekton, or benthos. Marine biomes are found in the salt water of the ocean. Freshwater biomes include standing and running water biomes. Wetlands are extremely important biomes. They may have freshwater or salt water.
Lesson Review Questions
1. What is climate? How does it differ from weather?
2. What is a rain shadow?
3. How does climate influence plant growth?
4. Identify two types of tundra and where they are found.
5. In which biome are you most likely to find grasses, zebras, and lions?
6. What is the photic zone of the ocean?
7. Compare the data for Seattle and Denver in Table below. Seattle is farther north than Denver. Why is Seattle warmer?
Latitude (° N)
Altitude (ft above sea level)
Location (relative to ocean)
Average Low Temperature in January (° F)
8. If you were to design a well-adapted desert animal, what adaptations would you give it to help it survive in its desert biome?
9. Explain the relationship between biodiversity and climate in terrestrial biomes.
10. Compare and contrast plankton, nekton, and benthos.
11. A developer wants to extend a golf course into a wetland. Outline environmental arguments you could make against this plan.
Points to Consider
You read in this lesson that wetlands have high biodiversity.
- In general, what abiotic factors do you think contribute to high biodiversity?
- Do you think Earth’s biodiversity is increasing or decreasing? Why?
Opening image courtesy of the National Science Foundation, http://www.nsf.gov/news/overviews/earth-environ/assets/interact06.jpg, and under the public domain.