A Tundra Tale

This nonfiction article is written for use with upper-elementary students (grades 4-5). Modified versions are available for students in grades K-1 and grades 2-3, or any student needing a simplified version. As always, consider the reading level and needs of your students when selecting a version for classroom use.

At each grade level, the article is available in three forms. Printable pdf files allow you to print this story in either text or a foldable book format. Your students can listen to the story while they read our electronic book version. Related activities provide suggestions for integrating this story with your science instruction.

Interested in other nonfiction articles for your students? Browse all twenty sets from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears collection on our Stories for Students page!

A Tundra Tale

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 5.0

The tundra is a land with no trees. It is cold, even when the summer sunshine finally melts the top layer of ice. Below ground, away from the warming rays of the Sun, the ice never melts. This layer of permafrost keeps the water above from draining away. Instead, the water forms a shallow marsh.

The tundra seems uninviting. It rarely rains or snows here. Yet there is life, if one knows where to look. The plants and animals of the tundra marsh depend on one another. Their relationships form interconnected webs of life. Each web tells a story. Here is one story of the tundra marsh.

A splash of color, bright yellow against the dirty brown earth, springs from the cold wet ground. It is a marsh marigold, its hardy flowers stretching toward the Sun. The flower of the marsh marigold is shaped like a cup. This shape protects the precious flower parts inside and helps the flower soak up the Sun’s energy.

There aren’t many nutrients in the tundra’s poor soil for the plants to use. But a yearly traveler, the large, shaggy caribou, fertilizes the soil with its droppings when it stops here to rest, to drink, and to nibble on the sparse plant life.

On this day, a small group of caribou wanders by the marsh marigolds, looking for food and drink. They bend their heads and nibble. But then the caribou pause. They have sensed a most unwelcome intruder. The caribou snort and trot away. What caused their reaction? Arctic wolves? A human hunter? No, this is a small creature, one you might not even notice.

If you glance into the open flower of the marsh marigold, you will see it. Within the flower is a bot fly. The marigold’s yellow color attracts the large, hairy, striped flies. Though they look like bumblebees, they are without stingers. Strangely, they also lack mouths. As adults, bot flies do not eat. Instead, bot flies seek out the marsh marigolds, not for nectar or pollen, as a bumblebee might, but for warmth.

The marsh marigold follows the Sun in its slow movement across the Arctic sky. Inside the flower, the cold fly can warm itself up. While the fly gathers the rays, pollen from the flower settles on the fly’s body. The pollen clings to the fly’s legs and abdomen, even after the fly flies away.

Marigolds reproduce by moving pollen from one flower to another. If the same fly visits a second marsh marigold, the pollen from the first flower may fertilize the second. Later, as the summer fades away, seeds develop where the flower once grew. The seed pods dry, then explode, flinging marsh marigold seeds into the wind. The seeds will lie on the tundra floor until cold meltwater again dampens the soil. Then the seeds will sprout. The flowers will grow and spread a new splash of color across the tundra.

But what of the bot fly? Why did the caribou run from this small creature? When the female fly is warm enough, she will leave the marsh marigolds behind and buzz through the Arctic air, searching out a mate. After mating, the bot fly now must find a home for her young. That home is the nose of the caribou.

The bot fly is a parasite. It depends on its caribou host for warmth, food, and protection. When the bot fly finds a caribou, it crawls into the caribou’s nose. There it releases its young; dozens of squirming, wormlike larva called maggots. The maggots crawl through the caribou’s nose and into its breathing passages. There the maggots will feed and grow.

When they have eaten their fill and changed into pupae, the maggots release their hold on the caribou’s nose lining. The irritated caribou sneezes a loud sneeze, and out tumble the botfly pupae. Much like the marigold seeds, the pupae land on the tundra floor. And there, like a caterpillar in a cocoon, the pupae change and grow into adult flies. When the time is right, the flies emerge. If they are near summer meltwater, those same flies may find their way to a colorful marsh marigold, gathering both sunshine and pollen within the flower’s protective cup.

And so the web is complete. Without the caribou, the bot flies could not survive. But without the flies, the marsh marigolds could not spread their cheerful colors across the bleak tundra landscape. All are connected, and all play their role. And that’s nothing to sneeze at!


emerge – come out into view

larva – the first stage in the life cycle of an insect

marsh – land covered by shallow water

nutrients – substances, such as minerals, which all living things need to grow

parasite – an organism that survives by living on or in another animal and feeding on that animal

permafrost – a layer of frozen soil and ice below the ground. Permafrost does not melt.

pupae – a stage in the life cycle of an insect, in between the larva and adult stages

tundra – a place with a cold and windy environment and no trees. The land is covered with ice and snow for most of the year.

Modified versions of this text are available for grades K-1 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 1.5) and grades 2-3 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 3.3). See below for links to all three versions in text, book, and electronic book forms.

Printable Files

Print the text-only version of this article for grades:
Print book versions of this article for grades:

Notes for assembling the books:

You can put this book together a couple of different ways. You can print out the pages, cut them in half and then order the pages back to front. Fold the stack in half and then staple the spine of the book. Pairs of pages can then be stapled or glued along the right edge.

You can also assemble the book as a foldable book.

To assemble the book this way, print the four pages and align the document pages so that the following book page numbers are in the lower right-hand corner: front page, page 6, page 2, and page 4. (The cover page should be on top and page 4 on the bottom.) Set your copier to copy single pages into double pages and run the four document pages in the order specified. Cut along the dotted line in the center of the double-sided page, place the book pages in order, fold, and staple along the spine.

Electronic Books

A Tundra Tale

Grades K-1 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 2-3 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 4-5 Electronic Book
Articulate Verison
Flash Version

In the Articulate version, click on the small arrow at the top of each page for the narration. The large arrow at the right will take you to the next page.

In the Flash version, the play button (in the top right hand corner) will play an audio file of the text on that page, while the pawprint (bottom right hand corner) will turn to the next page. Please note that the audio files take a moment to load on each page. Once the file has been loaded, a play button will appear in the top right hand corner of the page. To minimize the delay on each page, you can open the file and read through the article first. Once each page’s audio has loaded, it remains loaded until you close the browser window. By preparing the article ahead of time, you can have students start at the beginning of the book and read without delays. If you don’t have Flash, you can download it for free from the Adobe web site.

We’ve also created a literacy set that includes all of the illustrated and electronic books in one convenient location!

Related Activities

Caribou Migration
This lesson introduces students to caribou and their migratory behavior. Students will learn some basic facts about caribou and map the migration route of the Porcupine caribou herd of Alaska and northwestern Canada. They will conclude by drawing pictures of scenes along this migration route and writing captions to describe their drawings.

Caribou on the Tundra
This art-based lesson focuses on caribou and their tundra habitat. Students learn about the habits and habitat of caribou and their relationship to Athabascan people. They draw lichen growing on the tundra using layers of land to show perspective. Tissue paper and watercolor paint embellish the caribou on the tundra collage.

This article was written by Stephen Whitt. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site. The content of this page was updated in June 2020.

Copyright April 2009 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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