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The Flora and Fauna of the Arctic Region

Updated on April 8, 2014
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In the northern reaches of the boreal region, the forest meets the treeless Arctic in a transition zone known as the forest-tundra ecotone, where the open tundra borders the forest tundra. This region is also sometimes called the Low Arctic. This is a world of grasses, shrubs, thicket-forming dwarf birch, mosses, and lichens. These areas are particularly common in Canada and the western parts of the Russian Arctic. The wettest terrain of the Low Arctic is boggy and contains large deposits of peat. Several species of sedge grow well in wet or soggy ground, forming meadows, which are a major source of food for muskoxen, caribou, and reindeer.

Farther north, heading into the High Arctic, in areas such as Siberia's Taimyr Peninsula, the northern Russian and Canadian islands, Svalbard, and northern Greenland, the plant cover changes to sparser, open vegetation. Mosses and lichens are the most common plants there, with the occasional patches of saxifrages and Arctic poppies. The lack of water is the principal reason for this limited vegetation. Precipitation decreases with the increase in latitudes, and the High Arctic is essentially a cold, dry desert. While much of the Arctic appears to be dotted with lakes, there is not enough free water during the short growing season to permit development of the plant communities familiar in temperate regions. Proximity to the Arctic Ocean also influences vegetation, since it remains ice-covered until early August, when most of the summer plant growth has occurred. However, in some parts of the High Arctic, groundwater seeping up from melting permafrost helps a little plant growth in the summer.

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The indigenous peoples of the Arctic have used plants for food, medicine, and fuel. Mountain sorrel, for example, produces leaves that are often eaten in salads. The flower of the purple saxifrage and the stems and roots of some species, such as Alpine bistort, also are relished. In autumn the northern landscape is carpeted with berries, such as cloudberries, crowberries, curlewberries, and mountain cranberries, which are eaten freshly picked or preserved for the winter. Inuit, for example, preserve berries in seal oil or mixed with seal meat.

Although there are not as many species of animals in the Arctic as in equatorial regions, there are large populations of marine and terrestrial animals that have adapted to life in one of the world's most extreme environments. Many, such as migratory species of whales, seals, and birds, are seasonal visitors from more southern latitudes. They begin their annual arrival in late spring to spend the brief summer at the floe edge, at sea, and on lakes. The brief Arctic growing season restricts opportunities for animal life. The land produces little vegetation during the summer that can sustain life during the long, harsh winter. Therefore, birds migrate back to southern lands, to more temperate ocean coasts, and to interior plains and forests; caribou herds leave the rich summer lichen pastures for the boreal forest; humpback whales head to warm waters. Other animals, such as the polar bear, the Arctic fox, the wolf, and the ringed seal remain in the Arctic year round. Because food sources are often scarce and meager, Arctic animals have adapted to specific niches, but they are also opportunistic. Born in snow banks on the Arctic coasts, polar bears spend most of their lives patrolling the ice pack for their dietary staple, the seal. Yet they are omnivorous creatures and move with ease between marine and terrestrial environments.

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From the fringe of the ice pack to the limit of Arctic water, there is a wealth of marine life. The ice edge is unique among the world's ecosystems in that it moves thousands of miles each year, north in spring and south in autumn. Walrus, numerous species of seal, and cetaceans, such as the beluga and narwhal, all follow the ice edge as it moves, taking advantage of the ready access to food and (for walrus and seals) the availability of ice on which to sun, mate, and raise pups in late winter and spring. Seals, walrus, whales, and millions of fish thrive on the microscopic life that abounds in the chill waters. Birds, too, congregate in uncounted flocks during the Arctic summer; but virtually all will leave with the coming of fall, some traveling as far south as the rim of the Antarctic.

Traditional hunting, fishing, herding, and gathering are a mainstay of indigenous communities throughout the Arctic. The Inuit depend largely on marine mammals, such as seals, whales, walrus, beluga, and narwhals. The Sami of northern Fennoscandia and many Siberian peoples have built their whole lives and cultures around reindeer herds of as many as 100,000, moving with the reindeer almost continuously from their summer to their winter grazing grounds.

The long-standing dependence of indigenous societies on Arctic marine and terrestrial animals continues to this day for several critically important reasons. One is their economic and dietary importance. Fish and meat from marine mammals or caribou and birds are nutritionally superior to the foodstuffs that are presently imported (and that are often expensive to buy). Another reason is the cultural and social importance of hunting, herding, and fishing. For the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, all life—human and animal—is interdependent. From the Bering Strait across Arctic North America, Greenland, and northern Eurasia, animals and their relationships with people are the subject matter of a rich mythology and the focus of an elaborate ceremonial life.

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