Source: Wild Europe: "Wild Arctic"
This video segment from Wild Europe: "Wild Arctic" describes some of the plants and animals that make up the tundra biome, and captures the harshness of the treeless arctic environment and the adaptations organisms use to survive a year's worth of seasons there.
The tundra biome is characterized by climatic extremes and complex interrelationships between organisms and their environment. The world of any one species is an intricate web of land and ice conditions, seasonal changes, and interdependencies on other plants and animals. Changes that affect even a small part of this structure can have far-reaching effects on the ecosystem as a whole.
Ice shapes the landscape of the tundra biome and, somewhat paradoxically, allows for far more plant life to grow in this environment than would otherwise be possible. Precipitation levels in the Arctic (six to ten inches annually) are equivalent to those found in the world's deserts. Thus, water, even in summer, is at a premium. However, because of a permanently frozen underground layer called permafrost, water that falls to the ground as precipitation collects on the surface, rather than moving quickly through the soil and out of reach. This allows a wealth of plants to exist even in the driest parts of the Arctic.
There are about seventeen hundred species of plants in the Arctic, including grasses, mosses, herbaceous plants, and shrubs. All of these have shallow root systems, tend to grow low to the ground, and generally reproduce by budding rather than with flowers and seeds. This last characteristic causes many tundra biome plants to grow in clumps and, in some cases, to become reproductively isolated from related clumps growing nearby.
Indeed, scientists have found significant genetic variation between members of the same species of plant growing within a mile of one another. It is thought that these variations -- which probably correspond to differences in microclimate -- provide a long-term survival benefit, equipping the species as a whole with adaptations that allow at least some individuals to withstand dramatic climate shifts.
NARRATOR: The arctic is Europe's largest area of true wilderness. Ice defines this place as arctic. It affects everything here. It shapes the landscape. It shatters rocks, it controls the climate. And in all its forms, it's a challenge to life. This apparently barren place stretches from central Scandinavia to the North Pole. (wind howling)
Few places on Earth are as bleak, cold and hostile to life as the arctic in winter. Yet some animals have found ways to cope with the conditions. (birds trilling)
The first migrant birds to arrive from mainland Europe are snow buntings. Even in the middle of April, storms are common, so they bury themselves in the snow till the blizzard passes. The massive bearded seal. Although they have a thick layer of blubber to insulate them from the intense cold, the key to a seal's survival is year-round access to the ocean. For this reason, they follow the ice floes, as the water temperature is often 30 degrees warmer than the air. The arrival of the barnacle geese heralds the approach of summer. At first, the geese will land in the clear patches among the snow where the grass has already started to grow. After feeding here for a week or so, they'll move to nesting sites close to the sea where year after year, they've raised their chicks.
A male polar bear returns to a kill it made previously. One advantage of living in a freezer is that food is preserved for a long time. All bears will first strip a seal of the skin and blubber, for this gives them the most energy. Only later, if they return to a kill, will they eat the meat. Within seconds, gulls arrive, ever ready to pick up scraps. Belugas, possibly the most beautiful of all the whales, move in, ghostlike, following the food that gathers around the ice edges. The beluga, or white whale, is a true arctic species, spending all its life in these cold waters. So as not to be caught by the ice, it has no dorsal fin on its back. Summer brings a rare sight: the largest members of the seal family in the Northern Hemisphere—walruses. (roaring)
Groups of females with pups haul themselves out of the water onto quiet beaches to rest.
The middle of August is high summer in the arctic. Temperatures day and night can reach seven or eight degrees. Ice in the fjords has nearly disappeared. Tiny flowers bloom, short-stemmed to protect them from the near constant wind.
By the middle of September, the grass and flowers have seeded. The sun has dropped nearer the horizon, and the bird cliffs are empty and quiet. In the arctic, winter is never far away.
With the first snows, temperatures plummet and most of the wildlife that came during summer retreats south. Some animals, like the reindeer, the arctic fox and the polar bear, cannot leave. They must stay and face the most hostile weather on the planet.
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