The Living World
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How Plants and Animals Adapt to Cold Environments


Ecosystems are interdependent, and cold environments are no exception. The abiotic (non-living) and biotic (living) components are closely linked, and a change in one component leads to numerous changes in others.

Due to the low biodiversity of cold environments, these ecosystems are delicate and can easily be disrupted by minor changes. Climate change is damaging the natural order of cold environments. For example, polar bears rely on ice to hunt and for their breeding cycle. As the ice melts due to increasing temperatures, the polar bears lose their way of life. 

Another example is the food chain in Antarctica, reliant on phytoplankton. This is illustrated below:

Phytoplankton is a single-celled organism that is one of a few producers in Antarctica. As there are very few plants, it’s crucial to the food web of Antarctica. Phytoplankton depend on ocean currents carrying nutrients to them, and without it, they’ll die. If that happens, the food web will collapse, and many species will struggle to survive.

Every biotic and abiotic component within cold environments is reliant on another, making them vulnerable due to limited biodiversity.

If you’d like to learn more about interdependency, please click here.

Adapting to Cold Environments

Adaptation refers to the changes that flora and fauna undergo to survive in each ecosystem. Successful adaptation is necessary for a species to thrive; failed adaptations can lead to eventual extinction.

Cold environments present unique challenges, not least of which are the extreme temperatures that many plants and animals would fail to survive in.

Plant Adaptations

Plants must adapt to challenging conditions in cold environments, where biodiversity is lower compared to many other ecosystems.

Polar regions present a more difficult environment for plants, while tundra regions offer more nutrient availability and greater variety. In the Tundra, the soil is frozen for most of the year, with very little light in winter. However, in summer, the top layer of soil thaws, becoming boggy and waterlogged.

Some plant adaptations in the tundra include:

  • Shallow Roots: Due to the thick permafrost underneath the top layer of soil, long roots aren’t practical. Plants in the tundra have shallow roots to access nutrients from the top layer and small leaves to reduce moisture loss.
  • The Arctic Poppy: This plant has a hairy stem to retain heat and can track the sun to maximise sunlight exposure for photosynthesis.
  • Quick Growth and Flowering: Plants have a short growing season of less than two months due to the brief, wet summer. They grow and flower quickly to attract insects for pollination.
  • Size and Shape: Taller plants are damaged by winds in the tundra, so plants have adapted to become smaller and rounder. Cushion plants and cotton grass are low-lying plants that do this successfully.

  • Dormancy: plants have adapted to become dormant or inactive to survive the winter. These plants wait patiently for summer, when they can take in nutrients, flower and attract insects.
  • Lichen: Plants like the lichen have adapted to not require soil for growth. Lichen grow very slowly, withstanding extremely low temperatures and survives beneath fallen snow.

Animal Adaptations

Animals in cold environments must adapt to the same conditions as plants, and they are among the most striking examples of evolutionary adaptation to extreme conditions. Some adaptations found in these animals include:

  • Insulation: Key for many animals. For example, seals have a layer of fat called blubber, and caribou in the tundra have two layers of fur. Many birds also have two coats of feathers.

  • Hibernation: Some animals, like the Arctic ground squirrels, hibernate for months at a time. Ground squirrels can even survive with body temperatures below freezing. Brown and black bears also hibernate in dens in the tundra winter, ready to come out to feed in Spring.
  • Migration: Many species of birds, like the Arctic tern, fly south to Antarctica for the winter. Land-dwelling animals like the caribou also migrate south for more bearable temperatures.
  • Burrowing: Lemmings and ermine burrow in the winter, living underground where temperatures are more manageable. 

  • Camouflage: Essential for both predators and prey. Polar bears have white coats to help them sneak up on prey, and Arctic hares are also white to blend in with their surroundings.

Key Terms

InterdependentTwo or more components depending on each other for survival
PermafrostA thick subsurface layer of soil that remains below the freezing point throughout the year

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