Taiga: the boreal forest biome

by: grace wyner

Vitals of the Biome

The taiga is, in essence, a continuous block of coniferous forests stretching across the northern parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. It is located between the 50 degrees latitude line to the Arctic circle of these three continents. The winter is incredibly cold, with average temperatures below freezing, while the summer temperature can reach up to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), with the potential for sun for days on end, thanks to its northern location and tilt towards the sun during the summer. There is a fair amount of rainfall during the summer, and with lack of evaporation, the taiga becomes a very humid place.


The plants that characterize this biome are, of course, coniferous forests, which mainly consist of pines, spruces, firs, and larches. Coniferous means that these trees are needle-leaved. When it comes to animals, the taiga mainly supports mammals, both large and small. There are also a few birds and insects, most of which are accustomed to the cold of the biome. Below are some pictures of these plants and animals that are so often found in the taiga.

Climate

In the taiga, winter lasts for about six to seven months. There, it can get incredibly cold, with the average temperature below freezing (as stated above). It "corresponds with regions of subarctic and cold continental climate," according to Radford University's Biomes of the World webpage. An area of Russia that is covered by the biome has recorded lows of minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit.


Though winter covers a good half of the year, when summer comes, it makes an impression. That same area of Russia has recorded high temperatures of (positive) 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Therefore, it's easy to conclude that there definitely are seasonal changes in this area, though winter lasts the longest before fading through a quick spring into summer, temperatures dropping quickly in what would be considered fall, and then transitioning back into winter again.


When it comes to precipitation, the taiga only supports about 15-20 inches a year, but low evaporation makes it a humid climate. Therefore, weather there can resemble that of an almost tropical climate in the summer: hot and humid.

Plant Life

Like I said before, the taiga is characterized by thick, boreal forests full of coniferous trees. These plants must be able to sustain the incredible cold that covers a good half of the year, which means that they have to be incredibly strong. Also, most of these trees are evergreen, which is key because it means that they don't have to drop their leaves as temperatures fall and then regrow them in the spring. Also, as these trees have needlelike leaves, it helps them cut back on water lost through transpiration. This is good because the ground freezes over and makes permafrost in the winter, and the trees can't get water through their roots. But thanks to the leaves, they haven't lost as much water and still have some to hold them over throughout the harsh winter. And bonus, photosynthesis comes easy and can begin quickly once temperatures begin to rise when spring rolls around.


There isn't much diversity in the taiga. Most of the plants there are evergreen trees; there can even be miles upon miles of them in the dense forests. However, there are a few other types of trees, like birch, poplar, and aspen. Unlike the vast majority of trees, the evergreens, these broadleaf trees shed their leaves in the winter. This helps save energy throughout the winter months, but then they have to regrow their leaves come springtime. Dropping their leaves also helps prevent the chance of breaking branches due to snowfall.


Though this biome is mainly composed of trees, there has to be grass and shrubbery/berries for the animals to eat. These smaller plants have some of the same adaptations as the trees, like the ability to retain water and/or survive throughout the harsh winter. Between these plants and the many trees around them, the taiga can support several species of animal and bird that help make it such an ecologically friendly place to be.

Animals

The animals of the taiga are those that can handle the extreme cold. For example, the black bear, one of the animals native to this biome, handles the northern location and cold climate thanks to its thick coat comprised of many layers of shaggy fur, as well as its tendency to hibernate. Its claws also help it climb the trees there, making the black bear well-suited to this environment.


The bald eagle is one of the birds found in the taiga. It is found a lot in Alaska, an area characterized as being part of the taiga, where it can build nests in almost any tree, which is a good adaptation to have in an area that's almost all forest.


The snowshoe rabbit is one of the smaller mammals of the taiga. With large hind feet that act like snowshoes and padding and fur on the bottom of said feet, this furry animal is well-protected from the cold ground that it hops across to get away from predators. This most definitely comes in handy, as this particular rabbit has also developed the ability to run 27 miles per hour and gain 10 feet in a single hop to escape predators such as the bobcat.


Speaking of which, the bobcat is another animal that is characteristic of the taiga. Like the black bear, it has a thick coat to keep it warm during the winter and sharp claws to help it climb trees, but unlike the black bear, this animal is a carnivore where the other one is a herbivore. It eats smaller mammals like the snowshoe rabbit (stated above), mice, voles, squirrels, etc. To hunt effectively in the dense twigs and leaves of the forest, the bobcat has developed a habit over time of placing its back feet in the place its front feet just left as it walks. This makes the bobcat quieter when hunting and helps it catch prey easier.


One of the other carnivores of the taiga is the vicious wolverine. Where others have developed adaptations that may seem more delicate, like a quieter way of walking or the ability to build nests up high, the wolverine has developed the violent adaptation of a strong jaw that allows it to bite through frozen meat and even bone. Needless to say, these are not animals to mess with. However, these animals are shy when it comes to humans, hiding away in the abundance of land that the taiga has to offer.

Competition occurs throughout the taiga in many different ways, shapes, and forms. For example, different species of owl and eagle might have to compete for trees to build their nests in, and one species might be pushed to another area of the biome, where it can then build a home. Also, a lot of the carnivores have to compete for food, maybe even like a wolverine and a bobcat competing over rabbits. After all, they are both known to live in the North American part of the taiga primarily.


Since there is competition over food sources for carnivores, there have to be predator/prey relationships, right? Just like it says above, the snowshoe rabbit is in constant danger of being eaten by one of its main predators, the bobcat. River otters, on the other hand, both feast and get feasted on. They eat a lot of fish that they catch in the rivers of the taiga, but are in turn hunted by wolves and foxes throughout the biome. But there are also predators of the taiga that are in trouble population-wise not because they are hunted, but because they are at a loss of habitat. The Long-Eared Owl is an example of this. They hunt and eat small rodents like mice and voles, but their numbers are dwindling due to human intervention, putting them in serious trouble. This just goes to show that population size isn't just affected by predators, but by humans as well.


Below is a food web showing the relationships between several of the animals of the taiga. Credit for said food web is due to http://cougarbiology.pbworks.com/f/TaigaFoodwebJacobPankey.jpg


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Ecological Concerns

The main threat to the taiga right now is deforestation. In a biome mostly composed of trees, the potential havoc deforestation could wreak is astounding. Logging is also an issue when it is overused, but measures are being taken to prevent this. The TRN, or Taiga Rescue Network, is a convention based in Russia that is working its way to helping the taiga continue to be healthy. Another threat to the taiga, though not quite as large, is global warming. Granted, this affects nearly the entire planet, but in a biome like this with a climate this cold, global warming could throw off the entire balance of the biome.


When it comes to endangered species in the taiga, the grizzly bear is at the top of that list. Another endangered animal of this biome is the snow leopard. Since these both are important consumers in the biome, their demise could be disastrous.

The taiga is of global importance because of its large amount of trees. These trees help change carbon dioxide into oxygen, which helps us breathe. Also, it helps filter millions of liters of water every day. Therefore, it is crucial that we help protect this biome and its many resources.

Did You Know?

The taiga covers 11% of the earth. When you think about it, that's quite a bit of land.