Natural environments are ecosystems that contain resources unique to supporting animal life specific to that ecosystem. Comprised of lakes, streams, different soil types, plants, and seasonal variations, natural environments are also impacted by changes to nonliving elements included in the ecosystem. For example, an earthquake or flood could dramatically alter a natural environment by depriving its animal and plant life of the resources they need to survive.
In this article we look at 12 different types of natural environments, and learn some interesting facts about them!
12 Types of Natural Environments
1. Temperate Forests
Temperate forests experience four distinct climate seasons–winter, spring, fall, and summer. They consist of oaks, maples, and other deciduous trees as well as seasonal plants. Animals living in temperate forests adapt to winter and fall by hibernating or becoming mostly dormant during cold weather to conserve energy.
2. Tropical forests
Characterized by nearly daily rain showers, high humidity, and temperatures averaging between 90 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, tropical forests are found in the equatorial regions of Africa, Australia, southern Asia, and South America. Tropical rain forests like the Amazon contain a remarkably diverse array of plants and animals compared to boreal or temperate forests.
The stability of a tropical forest’s climate and the absence of surface upheavals, like earthquakes or floods, makes it easy for this type of natural environment to support thousands of different animal and plant species.
3. Boreal Forests
Found in the northernmost regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, boreal forests consist mostly of white spruces, jackpines, white birches, and trembling aspens. Glaciers forming during the last Ice Age (between 11,000 and 115,000 thousand years ago) formed the land beneath boreal forest ecosystems.
The trees and animals native to boreal forests have successfully adapted to the environment’s cold, dry climate and short, warm seasons.
4. Lakes and Ponds
A diverse community of animals lives in the shallow waters near the shores of large ponds and lakes where more sunlight can be absorbed and retained. Called the littoral zone, these shallow areas harbor creatures ranging from microscopic diatoms, algae, and hydra to crustaceans, snails, amphibians, and small fish.
The littoral zone is a vital part of the lake and pond ecosystem because it provides food for ducks, snakes, turtles, and larger fish.
5. Streams and Rivers
Streams and rivers share the following characteristics:
- Water flows mostly in one direction.
- Instability of water temperatures, water depth, and flow speeds means rivers and streams experience constant modification to their ecosystems.
- Development and extinction of microhabitats occur frequently as flow and depth fluctuate.
- Plants and animals living in streams and rivers have certain adaptations that make it easier for them to survive in flowing water.
Stream and river animals like river otters or eels have long, slender bodies that help them swim in fast-moving water. Crabs have evolved strong pincers they use to hold onto plant leaves when water is flowing forcefully.
In addition, the continual movement of water in streams and rivers allows oxygen molecules to easily enter the water. Many stream and river animals cannot live in stagnant ponds and lakes due to insufficient oxygen levels in non-flowing water.
6. Oceans and Seas
Nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans and seas. The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean on the planet and provides about 30 percent of the oxygen animals and humans breathe. Seas are much smaller than the Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, and Indian oceans. With the exception of the Sargasso Sea, all seas are partially landlocked.
Seas and oceans contain saltwater, not freshwater. However, saltwater is needed to make freshwater found in lakes and rivers. Water vapor rising from the seas and oceans eventually gets rid of salt as it evaporates. This “fresh” vapor then accumulates in clouds until precipitation occurs in the form of snow, hail, rain, or sleet.
Areas where various amounts of water cover the ground all year, or at least during the growing season, are called wetlands. The percentage of soil saturation is the primary factor that determines what kind of animals and plants live in wetlands. Some wetlands are capable of supporting both aquatic and terrestrial animals.
Coastal/tidal wetlands are located along the Gulf, Pacific, Atlantic, and Alaskan coasts. Fresh water and seawater combine in coastal wetlands to create a natural environment that makes it difficult for plants to grow. However, wetlands in Puerto Rico and southern Florida called mangrove swamps are salt-water wetlands that harbor a unique variety of plants and animals that have adapted to water salinity.
8. Coral Reefs
The most famous coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, is an ancient natural environment existing in both shallow and deep ocean waters. Often referred to as the “rainforests of the oceans”, coral reefs are considered to be the planet’s most fertile ecosystem, offering food, protection, and stability for thousands of aquatic animals.
Coral reefs are currently being devastated by climate change, pollution, overfishing, and deteriorating water quality. Corals are forced to expel a food source called alga zooxanthellae due to these environmental stressors. This expulsion causes “coral bleaching”, a condition that can only be reversed by removing stressors.
Found only in the Antarctic and Arctic, tundras are vast swathes of permanently frozen subsoil that can only sustain small shrubs, lichens, mosses, and hardy grass. During the summer season, tundras develop moving streams, lakes, and marshes as snow and ice melt and remain melted for several months.
Animals living in the tundra include wild sheep, mountain goats, caribou, birds, and polar bears. Global warming is rapidly displacing many tundra animals that depend on water resources to remain frozen for most of the year. These animals must travel great distances over frozen water and land to find food.
Deserts comprise about one-fifth of the planet’s surface, with the Sahara, Arabian, and Gobi deserts being the largest in the world. Characteristics of a desert include extreme heat during the day, colder temperatures at night, and little to no rainfall. Only animals and plants that have evolved to live without water for long periods survive in the desert.
Camels, scorpions, snakes, burrowing insects, and a few reptiles are the most common creatures found in the desert ecosystem. Cacti and other plants grow exceptionally long roots that reach deep underground to detect moisture.
Alpine ecosystems are found only at high altitudes, such as in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Since there isn’t enough oxygen in this type of natural environment, only heaths, grasses, and shrubs provide food for goats, elk, bighorn sheep, and other herbivores.
A few species of birds and insects live in alpine regions. Freezing winter temperatures, minimal availability of resources, soaring levels of UV radiation, and abbreviated growing seasons make the alpines as difficult a place for animals and plants to live as desert regions.
Temperate and tropical grasslands are regions that receive too much rain or snow to be considered a desert but not enough moisture to be technically called a forest. As the name suggests, grasslands offer a variety of grass species with a few shrub-like plants emerging in wetter areas. Tropical grasslands have rainy seasons and dry seasons. Temperate grasslands have dormant seasons and growing seasons.
Grasslands covering central Eurasia are referred to as steppes. South American grasslands are called pampas. The Midwest grasslands in the U.S. are known as prairies.