Life in the Tundra

Deserts, grasslands, rainforests, coral reefs, and tundra may seem quite different, but they are all examples of biomes. A definition for biome is “a living community characterized by distinctive plant and animal species and maintained under the climatic conditions of the region.” Biomes are made of many similar ecosystems (communities of organisms and the environments in which they live).

A biome is characterized by abiotic (nonliving) factors such as geography and climate and by biotic (living) factors such as plant and animal species.

Life in any biome includes producers (plants and other photosynthetic organisms) and consumers (organisms that obtain their energy from producers). These consumers may be further classified as herbivores (plant eaters), carnivores (meat eaters), or omnivores (feed on a combination of animals and plants).

In addition, all ecosystems are dependent on detritivores (decomposers) — bacteria and other microorganisms that obtain energy from breaking down organic matter.

The flow of energy from the sun through an ecosystem can be illustrated in a food chain, such as this generalized one:

Generalized food chain.

Energy is lost in the form of heat at each level of a food chain, which means that the number of individuals at each successive level decreases. For example, within a food chain there are always more producers than primary consumers, and more primary consumers than secondary consumers or tertiary consumers. Decreasing available energy and population sizes in a food chain are illustrated by an energy (or ecological) pyramid:

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

While food chains are a useful teaching tool, their simplicity doesn’t usually capture the complex relationships within a biome or the fact that any one organism may be part of several food chains. A food web, which illustrates the overlap between multiple food chains, more accurately captures the flow of energy in an ecosystem.

A food web shows overlap between multiple food chains in an ecosystem.

Living organisms in any biome interact through a variety of relationships. Organisms compete for food, water, and other resources. Predators hunt their prey. Some organisms coexist in mutually beneficial relationships (symbiosis), while others harm organisms for their own benefit (parasitism). Still others benefit from a relationship that neither helps nor harms the other organism (commensalism).

Biomes (and their food webs) can change as a result of natural hazards or human activities. Changes in environmental conditions may limit the availability of resources (food, water, space or shelter), reducing the number of organisms that can survive in a given environment. A change at any level of a food web will impact all other organisms in that web in some way. Some species are considered keystone species because of the critical role they play in an ecosystem’s food web. Examples of keystone species include grizzly bears, sea stars, and sea otters.


The tundra is a biome characterized by an extremely cold climate, little precipitation, poor nutrients, and a short growing season. Other characteristics include low biodiversity, simple plants, limited drainage, and large variations in populations.

There are two types of tundra: arctic and alpine. Arctic tundra is located in the Northern Hemisphere; alpine tundra is located at high elevations on mountains throughout the world. Tundra is also found to a limited extent in Antarctica – specifically, the Antarctic Peninsula.


Arctic tundra is found along the northern coasts of North America, Asia, and Europe, and in parts of Greenland. It extends south to the edge of the taiga (a biome characterized by coniferous forests). The division between the forested taiga and the treeless tundra is known as the timberline or tree line.

Location of arctic tundra across the Northern Hemisphere. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The tundra is known for cold conditions, with an average winter temperature of -30 degrees F (-34 degrees C), and an average summer temperature ranging from 37 degrees to 54 degrees F (3 degrees to 12 degrees C). The growing season lasts from 50 to 60 days. The biome is also characterized by desertlike conditions, with an average of six to ten inches (15 to 25 cm) of yearly precipitation, including snow melt. Winds often reach speeds of 30 to 60 miles (48 to 97 km) an hour.

Another hallmark of the tundra is permafrost, a layer of permanently frozen subsoil and partially decayed organic matter. Only the top nine or ten inches of soil thaw, leading to the formation of bogs and ponds each spring.

Ice wedges in the permafrost can crack and cause the formation of polygonal ground. This picture also illustrates the formation of ponds as the snow melts each spring. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tundra and taiga permafrost stores about one-third of the world’s soil-bound carbon. Warming Arctic temperatures due to climate change are causing the permafrost to thaw, releasing the carbon in the form of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). Additional carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will intensify warming, leading to increased thawing and the release of even more carbon dioxide. This positive feedback loop thus has the potential to significantly increase the rate and effects of climate change.

Approximately 1,700 species of vascular plants are found across the Arctic tundra, including flowering plants, low shrubs, sedges, grasses, and liverworts. Lichens, mosses, and algae are also common. In general, tundra plants are low growing, have shallow root systems, and are capable of carrying out photosynthesis at low temperatures and with low light intensities.

Animals found in the Arctic tundra include herbivorous mammals (lemmings, voles, caribou, arctic hares, and squirrels), carnivorous mammals (arctic foxes, wolves, and polar bears), fish (cod, flatfish, salmon, and trout), insects (mosquitoes, flies, moths, grasshoppers, and blackflies), and birds (ravens, snow buntings, falcons, loons, sandpipers, terns, and gulls). Reptiles and amphibians are absent because of the extremely cold temperatures. While many of the mammals have adaptations that enable them to survive the long cold winters and to breed and raise young quickly during the short summers, most birds and some mammals migrate south during the winter. Migration means that Arctic populations are in continual flux.

A generalized food web for the Arctic tundra begins with the various plant species (producers). Herbivores (primary consumers) such as pikas, musk oxen, caribou, lemmings, and arctic hares make up the next rung. Omnivores and carnivores (secondary consumers) such as arctic foxes, brown bears, arctic wolves, and snowy owls top the web. Bacteria and fungi play the important role of breaking down organic matter and returning nutrients to the soil for re-use. Of course, the exact species involved in this web vary depending on the geographic location.

A generalized tundra food web. Exact relationships and species depend on geographic location.

The interconnected nature of a food web means that as numbers of one species increase (or decrease), other populations change in response. An often-discussed tundra example is the lemming population. Lemmings are small rodents that feed on plants. Populations of lemmings fluctuate radically (from large populations to near extinction) in regular intervals. While scientists believed that populations of lemming predators (foxes, owls, skuas, and stoats) also fluctuated in response to these changes, there is now evidence that suggests that the predators themselves drive the changes in lemming populations.

Climate change is affecting tundra ecosystems in many ways. Thawing permafrost not only releases carbon dioxide but also leads to coastal erosion– an increasing problem in Alaska where villages are at risk. Warming also means that seasons are arriving earlier – a shift not only in temperatures but also in the emergence and flowering of plants. Biologists suspect that a mismatch between plant availability and calving is increasing mortality rates of caribou calves. Finally, species distributions may change as birds and other animals shift their range or migration patterns in response to changing temperatures.


Much less extensive than Arctic tundra, Antarctic tundra is found on the Antarctic Peninsula and several Antarctic and subantarctic islands. These areas have rocky soil that supports minimal plant life: two flowering plant species, mosses, algae, and lichens. Antarctic tundra does not support mammals, but marine mammals and birds inhabit areas near the coast. All species in Antarctica and the Antarctic Islands (south of 60 degrees S latitude) are protected by the Antarctic Treaty.


The World’s Biomes
An overview of biomes and information on six major types: freshwater, marine, desert, forest, grassland, and tundra.

Biomes and Ecosystems
General information about biomes and ecosystems, with links to pages about tundra, taiga, temperate forest, tropical rainforest, desert, grassland, and ocean biomes. This site may also be used with upper-elementary students.

Geography4Kids: Biosphere
Includes pages on ecology, ecosystems, food chains, populations, and land biomes. Appropriate for use with upper-elementary students.


The entire National Science Education Standards document can be read online or downloaded for free from the National Academies Press web site. The following excerpt was taken from Chapter 6.

Teaching about biomes (including the tundra) can meet a wide variety of fundamental concepts and principles, including:

K-4 Life Science

The Characteristics of Organisms

  • Organisms have basic needs. For example, animals need air, water, and food; plants require air, water, nutrients, and light. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their needs can be met. The world has many different environments, and distinct environments support the life of different types of organisms.

Organisms and their Environments

  • All animals depend on plants. Some animals eat plants for food. Other animals eat animals that eat the plants.
  • An organism’s patterns of behavior are related to the nature of that organism’s environment, including the kinds and numbers of other organisms present, the availability of food and resources, and the physical characteristics of the environment. When the environment changes, some plants and animals survive and reproduce, and others die or move to new locations.
  • All organisms cause changes in the environment in which they live. Some of these changes are detrimental to the organism or other organisms, whereas others are beneficial.
  • Humans depend on their natural and constructed environments. Humans change environments in ways that can be either beneficial or detrimental for themselves and other organisms.

K-4 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Changes in Environments

  • Environments are the space, conditions, and factors that affect an individual’s and a population’s ability to survive and their quality of life.
  • Changes in environments can be natural or influenced by humans. Some changes are good, some are bad, and some are neither good nor bad. Pollution is a change in the environment that can influence the health, survival, or activities of organisms, including humans.
  • Some environmental changes occur slowly, and others occur rapidly. Students should understand the different consequences of changing environments in small increments over long periods as compared with changing environments in large increments over short periods.

5-8 Life Science

Populations and Ecosystems

  • A population consists of all individuals of a species that occur together at a given place and time. All populations living together and the physical factors with which they interact compose an ecosystem.
  • Populations of organisms can be categorized by the function they serve in an ecosystem. Plants and some microorganisms are producers – they make their own food. All animals, including humans, are consumers, which obtain food by eating other organisms. Decomposers, primarily bacteria and fungi, are consumers that use waste materials and dead organisms for food. Food webs identify the relationships among producers, consumers, and decomposers in an ecosystem.
  • For ecosystems, the major source of energy is sunlight. Energy entering ecosystems as sunlight is transferred by producers into chemical energy through photosynthesis. That energy then passes from organism to organism in food webs.
  • The number of organisms an ecosystem can support depends on the resources available and abiotic factors, such as quantity of light and water, range of temperatures, and soil composition. Given adequate biotic and abiotic resources and no disease or predators, populations (including humans) increase at rapid rates. Lack of resources and other factors, such as predation and climate, limit the growth of populations in specific niches in the ecosystem.

5-8 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

Populations, Resources, and Environments

  • When an area becomes overpopulated, the environment will become degraded due to the increased use of resources.
  • Causes of environmental degradation and resource depletion vary from region to region and from country to country.

Natural Hazards

  • Internal and external processes of the earth system cause natural hazards, events that change or destroy human and wildlife habitats, damage property, and harm or kill humans. Natural hazards include earthquakes, landslides, wildfires, volcanic eruptions, floods, storms, and even possible impacts of asteroids.
  • Human activities also can induce hazards through resource acquisition, urban growth, land-use decisions, and waste disposal. Such activities can accelerate many natural changes.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright March 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.

5 thoughts on “Life in the Tundra

  1. this is kind of a good website but kid of not cause it doesn’t have the physical factors of the tundra which i need for a report so I’d give it a thumbs up barely though

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