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The Natural Environment

Vegetation and Wildlife

The Arctic is not a frozen desert devoid of life on land or sea, even during the cold, dark winter months. Spring brings a phenomenal resurgence of plant and animal life. Low temperatures are not always the critical element—moisture, the type of soil, and available solar energy are also extremely important. Some animals adapt well to Arctic conditions; for instance, a number of species of mammals and birds carry additional insulation, such as fat, in cold months. Arctic summers with extended daylight attract breeding birds and other animals. Warming temperatures in recent decades have allowed some plants and animals that lived south of the Arctic to expand their ranges northward. However, pollution and climate change are also having negative impacts on Arctic wildlife.

The Arctic has more than 400 species of flowering plants. The vast stretches of treeless tundra that cover the plains and coastal regions consist of low creeping shrubs, grasses, thick growths of lichens and mosses, and herbs and sedges.

Abundant animal life inhabits the Arctic, both on land and in the sea. Arctic land mammals include polar bears, arctic foxes, ermines, martens, arctic wolves, wolverines, caribou, reindeer (domesticated caribou), musk ox, lemmings, and arctic hares. Marine mammals include seals, walruses, and many species of whales, including narwhals and belugas.

Birds are plentiful throughout the Arctic. The guillemot and little auk nest by the thousands along cliffs. Ravens, snow buntings, and sandpipers have been seen in the remotest northern land regions, as have the snowy owl and the gyrfalcon. Various species of gull, including the jaeger, also range far to the north. The Arctic tern spends the northern summer in the Arctic then flies to the Antarctic to spend the southern summer there. Among other characteristic Arctic birds are the eider duck, teal, loon, petrel, puffin, and ptarmigan.

Insects, found in the Arctic wherever vegetation exists, include bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, and grasshoppers. Mosquitoes, black flies, and midges are common in tundra regions, and feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals.

Coastal waters are relatively rich in such fish as cod, flatfish, halibut, salmon, and trout. A large variety of invertebrates have been observed in Arctic seas.

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