Ecology And Environment

An Introduction to Animals of the Coniferous Forest Biome



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The forests of Northern Europe, Russia, Canada and the northern United States are often referred to as the coniferous forests biome. Biomes are geographically distinct regions which have distinct climates, floras and faunas.

The coniferous forests of  Northern Europe, Russia, Canada and the northern United States share a continental climate with hot summers and extreme winters. It is a very dry climate. In winter cold leads to a severe shortage of liquid water. As these latitudes winter days are short, summer days are long. To survive plants and animals need to make the most of the short summer season and hibernate or lie dormant during the harsh winter

The mammals that live in the coniferous forest have developed several strategies to survive the harsh winter.

The coniferous forest is home to the larger species of deer. The elk or moose is the largest deer.  Its bulk helps it to survive the winter. It has a low surface area to body mass ratio which reduces heat loss and essential organs lie deep within its body.  Both elk and roe deer graze within the forest. They migrate north and south with the seasons to mitigate against the coldest weather and to take advantage of the most fertile pastures. Although threatened with extinction, the woodland caribou has a range that extends across Canada.

The American black bear, the grizzly bear and the wolverine are associated with coniferous forests.  Although bears are commonly said to go into hibernation a more accurate description would be say that bears go into a state of false hibernation, typified by lethargy and a reduced metabolic rate during winter. The extent of the “false hibernation” depends upon the species. The black bear goes into a deeper state of hibernation than that of the grizzly bear and the wolverine. Before hibernation the bears become hyperactive eaters and put on weight. The grizzly bear will only enter its den after the first snowfall. This is thought to deter predators from finding the den. Bears have thick fur to counter the winter snow. The wolverine exudes a water repellent oil to prevent heat loss through damp fur.

The coniferous forest is home to many small mammals of the rodent family. Typical species include beaver, squirrel, mountain hare and voles. These small animals have high surface area to body mass ratios and are vulnerable to heat loss in winter. Their solution is to hibernate during winter in deep burrows. Small mammals shut down their body systems through hibernation much more thoroughly than bears, which is why zoologists have drawn the distinction between hibernation and false hibernation.

Generally there are few predators in the forest, most mammals being herbivores. Predation is too energy consuming to be efficient in a climate with a short growing season. Predators that can be found in the forest include foxes and weasels, living off the rodents, and lynx and wolves that prey on larger animals.

A wide variety of birds can be found in the forest. The coniferous forests of northern Europe, Russia and North America have large expanses of lake and bog. This is a legacy form the time when the land was glaciated. The lakes and bogs support a large number of insects and freshwater fish. Wading birds seek out the fish while other birds such as the Siberian thrush feed on the insects. Birds such as the rough necked buzzard and the raven feed on carrion. Predatory birds such as the owl and the eagle seek out small rodents.  Most bird species migrate from the forest as winter approaches.

Even though climatic conditions are extreme, the coniferous forests of northern Europe, Russia and North America are able to support a wide variety of animal species.

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