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Life in the Polar Regions. A short survey of plants and animals found in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions. Challenges to Life at the Poles. Plants and Animals must adapt to: Cold Drought Short growing season Long days, Long nights

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life in the polar regions

Life in the Polar Regions

A short survey of plants and animals found in the Arctic and Antarctic Regions

challenges to life at the poles
Challenges to Life at the Poles
  • Plants and Animals must adapt to:
    • Cold
    • Drought
    • Short growing season
    • Long days, Long nights
  • More recently, small changes in climate can mean dramatic changes for life at the poles
basic arctic biomes
Basic Arctic Biomes




Tussock Sedge, dwarf shrub, moss

Low Shrub

Sedge grass, moss wetland

Low grass, forbs, low shrub

tundra plants
Tundra Plants

Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia)

Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)

Reindeer Lichen / Caribou Moss(Cladonia rangiferina)

Arctic Moss (Calliergon giganteum)

tundra plant facts
Tundra Plant Facts
  • Often reproduce by rootstocks or runner
  • Grow in clumps to create microclimates
  • May bloom from buds that are one to two years old
  • Seed may germinate and grow while still attached to parent plant
  • Similar to desert plants, aerial parts reduced in favor of root mass, larger roots capable of storing enough energy and minerals to allow instant growth in spring

White and Black Spruce Picea glauca, Picea mariana

Jack Pine, Pinusbanksiana

Balsam Fir, Abiesbalsamia

taiga ecology
Taiga Ecology
  • Lower plant and animal diversity compared to tundra
  • Often succeeds tundra over long periods of time or due to changing climate (accelerated)
  • Typically needle leaf plants adapted to cold and drought
common arctic birds
Common Arctic Birds
  • Arctic tern (Sterna paradisea)
  • Common Eider (Somateria mollissima)
  • Snow Goose (Chen caerulescens)
  • Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus)
  • Herring gull (Larus argentatus)
  • Alcids (Guillemot, Puffin, Auk, Murre)
  • Ptarmigan (Lagopus spp.)
  • Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)
  • Snowy Owl (Nyctea scandiaca)
  • Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea )
less common arctic birds
Less Common Arctic Birds
  • Loons (common, pacific, Red billed, yellow billed)
  • Plovers (American golden, Black bellied)
  • Sandpipers e.g. Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
  • Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis)
  • Northern Fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis)
  • Laysan Albatross(Diomedea immutabilis)
birds by habitat
Birds by Habitat

Marine/Coastal – auks, puffins, gulls, terns, loons, ducks, geese, swans

Terrestrial – sparrows (primarily tundra), owls, hawks, eagles, falcons , plovers, ravens

spotlight on
Spotlight on..

Gyrfalcon one of the only birds to winter in the Arctic, found only above treeline, hatch early to “outhunt” other birds of prey, hunt by flying low to ground and chasing prey


Tundra (or Whistling) Swan

Before ballpoint or fountain pens, the quills of the whistling swans were a common implement for writing. Thousands of these birds were killed for their feathers and the whistling swan was driven almost to extinction. However, because of their isolation, Arctic populations have persisted.

herring gull

Herring Gull

One of the larger members of the family, monogamous, nesting on rocky coastlines, cosmopolitan feeding habits, have a good memory for predators

arctic tern



Only species migrating from arctic to Antarctic, live in large colonies +100 pairs, can dive up to 10 meters to feed. Live 30 years or more

migration of arctic tern
Migration of Arctic Tern

Direct flight = ~6165 miles

Long distance trip between ~late-July and October by an Arctic Tern banded as chick

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Puffin – surface dives to swim after small fish, catching and holding in its bill until it has a full load – known to have carried 61 fish in a single trip. Arranges fish crosswise in its bill using its raspy tongue to hold against the roof of its mouth while catching the next fish. Roof of its mouth has rearward-pointing spines to help hold the fish. Not graceful flyers, but can reach speeds of up to 88 km/hour. When arriving on land often end up crash landing!

Spotlight on..

common redpoll finch
Common Redpoll (Finch)

Smallest bird to overwinter in Arctic. (although some do migrate as far south as Central U.S.) Some breed as far north as Ellesmere Island. In the winter it survives by inhabiting the tunnels of lemmings, which run along the surface of the ground under the snow, where it is protected from harsh winds and can find seeds to eat.

american golden plover
American Golden Plover

Migration of American Golden Plover

Migrates along Atlantic Flyway- stops over in New England

arctic fish
Lake chub (Couesius plumbeus)

Burbot (Lota lota)

Arctic lamprey (Lampetra japonica)

Salmon (Whitefish, Trout, Arctic Grayling, Arctic Cisco, Herring, Arctic Char)


Smelt (including argentines)


Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)

Longnose sucker (Catostomus catostomus)




Cods, Mora’s and Grenadiers

Daggertooth (Anotopterus pharao)* Black scabbardfish (Aphanopus carbo)

Eels, Slatjaw cutthroat (Synaphobranchus kaupi), longfin sawpalate, (Serrivomer parabeani)

Eelpouts (many)*

Banded gunnel (Pholis fasciata), Pricklebacks

Atlantic hagfish (Myxine glutinosa)


Haeckel's chimaera (Harriotta haeckeli)

Lumpfish and Snailfish


Halibut and Flounder

Sand Lance

Deepwater redfish (Sebastes mentella)


Sleeper sharks (Greenland shark, Somniosus microcephalus)


Alaska Blackfish

Arctic Fish

*also found in Antarctic

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Spotlight on:

Lanternfish: deep sea fish - vertically migrate, possess photophores – light organs – on head and body. Level of light they emit is low enough to match the light coming from the surface of the sea and conceal the fish's presence from predators below, Swim in schools so large sonar pulses from boat navigational equipment often bounce off their swim bladders, giving the impression of a false ocean bottom!


Greenland Shark: largest fish in northern waters, Scientific name, Somniosus microcephalus – the tiny headed sleeper . Swims so slowly - often difficult to tell whether or not it is alive, this immense shark is a scavenger, shearing huge hunks of flesh off dead seals and whales or munching on the remains of dead fish or other marine organisms.


Arctic Cod: most northerly range of any marine species, swim in gigantic schools that can stretch for kilometers. The smallest of all the cods, now found encroaching on cod habitat in North Atlantic. One of the last remaining commercially viable cod species.


Arctic Char: most northerly range of any freshwater fish in the world, huge morphological adaptability – ranging from 10-100kg, must migrate out of oceans (fear of freezing)

alaska blackfish
Alaska Blackfish
  • a type of mudminnow, living in low-lying mossy ponds with soft bottoms. Capable of living without oxygen for a day and without food for a whole year. Can survive temperatures of -20 degrees C (4 F) and the complete freezing of some body parts, including their heads, for up to several days. Use a chemical much like antifreeze to prevent crystal formation in the blood.
arctic mammals charismatic macrospecies
Arctic Mammals (charismatic macrospecies!)

Whales (Beaked, Grey, Right, Sperm, White, Roqual)*

Dolphins (Orca, Long-finned, White-beaked, Atlantic)* + Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena)

Seals (Harbour, Harp, Hooded, Bearded, Ringed)*

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus)

Sea Otter (Enhydra lutris)

Polar bear (Ursus maritimus)

Grizzly Bear (Ursusarctos horribilis)

Caribou (Rangifer tarandus)

Muskox (Ovibos moschatus)

Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus)

Grey wolf (Canis lupis)

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

Yakut Horse

Lemmings and Voles (Norway Lemming, Lemmus lemmus, Brown Lemming, Lemmus sibiricus)

Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus)


Arctic ground squirrel, Citellus parryi

Ermine (Mustela erminea)

Least weasel (Mustela nivalis)

Wolverine (Gulo gulo)

* Also found in Antarctic

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Caribou Four sub-species in far north. Found primarily on tundra, spend winter in taiga. Their unpredictable migration patterns led many native cultures to herd them. Have countercurrent circulation like some birds and also extra phosphates in their blood to increase oxygen uptake in cold temps.,,


Smallest mammal in the arctic, brown in summer, white in winter. Do not hibernate – overwinter by burrowing into tunnels under snow and continuing to feed.


WalrusVery social – gather by the hundreds. Ranking established by tusk size. While diving, blood flow is diverted away from its skin and blubber; when it basks in the sun after a long dive in cold water, blood flow to the surface of the blubber is increased, allowing heat gain.

arctic fox
Arctic Fox

Lung branches longer with more surface area than temperate relatives. Lung structure enhances warming and mixing of cold inhaled air with warm exhaled air, improving heat conservation. Dens can have 4-12 entrances and cover up to 30 sq. m (323 sq. ft.). Some dens may be used for centuries, by many generations, and eventually become huge, with over 100 entrances.

rare animals in arctic
Rare Animals in Arctic
  • Eskimo Curlew (Numenius borealis) (rarest of all) Allegedly, guided Columbus to the New World six centuries ago, on its way to its breeding grounds on the arctic tundra. Pigeon-sized, sickle-billed shorebird once a dominant species in arctic. Its one pound, fat-laden body was appreciated by North American settlers who hunted this bird in the 1800s for food. Such a popular target, it was hunted to near extinction.
  • Pelican gulper (Eurypharynx pelecanoides) a type of eel, mouth 4 X larger than rest of body. Ambush hunter, lures prey by waving the luminescent organ at the tip of its tail in front of its mouth, once prey is close, fish lunges, opening its mouth at the last second. Water rushes into the mouth, ballooning out the pelican-like pouch. Once the prey is swept into the mouth with the current, the jaws snap shut. Water escapes through tiny gill openings. Found only in the Davis Strait in the arctic.
  • Snowy Owl(Bubo scandiacus) Unlike most owl species, snowy hunts mainly in daytime. Small – only weighing 2-4 pounds. Highly nomadic, movements tied to abundance of primary prey species, lemmings. Local numbers high when lemming population is high, lower when lemming population is low. Protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
  • Cook Inlet Beluga Whale(Delphinapterus leucas) isolated sub-species of beluga, noted for white color – found only in the Cook Inlet. Threatened by hunting and, increasingly by estuary pollution, population not bouncing back as expected. Listed as Endangered Species, the IUCN lists it as critically endangered.
what about invertebrates
What About Invertebrates?
  • 2,000 species overall, 550 in the high arctic
  • Diptera (flies), Hymenoptera (ants, wasps, bees), Lepidoptera (moths, butterflies), some ectoparasites of warm-blooded vertebrates, mites and Collembola (springtails), relatively more successful.
  • In extreme arctic and alpine environments, where cold limits the period suitable for flight, some species have reduced wings or antennae.
map of antarctica
Map of Antarctica

antarctica characteristics
Antarctica Characteristics
  • Covered in ice and snow – little ice-free land for plant colonization
  • “Summer growing season” (Dec. – Feb.) near freezing.
  • High winds all year round
  • A virtual desert inland, several meters of snow fall along coast annually
  • No trees or shrubs, only two species flowering plants,( in South Orkney Islands, the South Shetland Islands and western Antarctic Peninsula.)
  • Moss and lichen in wetter areas.
  • Greatest species diversity along western side of Antarctic Peninsula, where climate is generally warmer and wetter.
plant life in the antarctic region
Plant Life in the Antarctic Region

Antarctic Pearlwort Colobanthus quitensis

Hairgrass Deschampsia antarctica

Tussock Grass, Falkland Islands

Lichens, Verrucaria, Xanthoria, Turgidosculum (Mastodia), LecanoraMosses, Muelleriella crassifoliaTussock Grass Puccinellia macquariensis

Photographs by Rob Seppelt

antarctic birds
Antarctic Birds
  • Petrels (Wilson’s storm, Cape, Snow)
  • Albatross (black browed, grey headed, light mantled
  • Blue-eyed cormorant (Phalacrocorax atriceps)
  • Penguins (Emperor, Adelie, Chinstrap, King, Royal)
  • Arctic Tern
spotlight on penguins
Spotlight on Penguins

Macaroni, Eudyptes chrysolophus, most numerous of all the world's penguins, with an estimated world population of over 9 million breeding pairs. Breed on peninsula and many outlying islands

Photo by Yan Ropert-Coudert

Emperor, Aptenodytes forsteri - largest, found on mainland only

ad lie pygoscelis adeliae
Adélie, Pygoscelis adeliae

Most highly studied, named after an area of the Peninsula called Adelie Land (Adele, wife of explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville) Least conspicuous, very good camouflage from predators. Estimated at 2.5 million pairs, largest populatin near Ross Sea.

king aptenodytes patagonicus
King, Aptenodytes patagonicus

Like Emperors, King penguins make no nest, and instead lay a single egg of around 310g, which they hold on their feet for the entire incubation period of about 55 days. This adaptation allows breeding in much colder terrain than would be the case for species that lay their eggs on the ground, and negates the need for nesting material. The eggs are brooded by both parents in turn, with shift changes of 6 to 18 days; the non-brooding parent going to sea on extended foraging trips. Found on islands around peninsula.

antarctic fish and other sea creatures
Antarctic Fish and other sea creatures
  • Patagonian Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides)
  • Squid
  • Antarctic Ice Fish
  • Jellyfish
  • Starfish
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Spotlight on

Antarctic Ice Fish have antifreeze proteins that keep their blood from freezing, instead absorbing oxygen through their skin. Some lack hemoglobin (Thus the blood is more fluid and the animals save energy otherwise needed to pump blood through their body),.

Julian Gutt, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research

antarctic mammals
Antarctic Mammals
  • Seals (Leopard, Ross, Weddell,, Crabeater) *
  • Whales (Baleen – Blue, Humpback, Toothed - Sperm)*
  • Orca (in the dolphin family, referred to as toothed whale)*

*Also found in Arctic



Blue Whale


Leopard – Most ferocious

Weddell – Most well known


On the whole Antarctic continent, the only creatures that really live on the land are insects.

Midges and mites live in patches of moss that grow on rocky mountain sides, in spots that are sheltered from the wind, the insect eggs stay frozen all winter, and thaw and hatch the next year. The moss they live in often grows near bird rookeries, where it is fertilized by bird excrement -- called "guano.“

Ticks and lice also live on the sea birds, penguins, and seals

The largest land-living creature on the entire continent is the wingless fly, about six mm long (about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch).

Project Explore, Val Olnes, Univ. of Minn.

basic adaptation response avoidance or confrontation
Basic Adaptation ResponseAvoidance or Confrontation
  • Migration
  • Resistance
  • Hibernation
    • Poikilotherms
    • Homeotherms
bird adaptations to cold environments
Bird Adaptations to Cold Environments
  • Antifreeze eggs
  • Cold Feet, warm heart
  • Cozy homes
  • Dressing down
  • Feathered snowshoes
  • Knobbly feet
  • Posing for warmth
arctic and antarctic perfect laboratories
Arctic and Antarctic: Perfect Laboratories
  • In particular, Antarctic Peninsula excellent place to study evolution – home to many amazing adaptations.
  • Arctic – Historical Records deep in the ice – CO2
climate change impacts on biota some hypotheses
Climate Change Impacts on Biota: Some Hypotheses
  • Lemming Population Dynamics affected by snow and ice conditions – food sources entombed in ice/decrease snow depth impairs sheltering
  • Sea Ice Extent: Antarctic - Adelie Penguins, Arctic Polar Bears
  • Warmer Winters=Decreases in Krill populations
  • Successional Changes in Tundra/Taiga
  • Information on Tundra food web
  • Source for Food Web Game
  • Arctic Lesson Plans
  • Compendium of Arctic Species
  • Updates on Biotic Indicators in Arctic
  • Antarctic Lesson Plans
  • Biotic research from UCAR
  • Live krill cam in Antarctic -
tapping into ongoing work
Tapping into Ongoing work
  • SATELLITES – students and teachers, part of GLOBE project
  • TEA Armada – Teachers Experiencing the Antarctic and Arctic (www.tea.armadaproject)
  • PolarTREC – Nationwide and here at UMass – Julie Brigham Grette (Lake El’gygytgyn)
  • NASA Explorer School Teams
  • Antarctic research by local student, Maggie Waldron –Studying at and around Palmer Station (until late March)doing bacteria productivity studies in the bay and helping with penguin research., webcam of station -