Throughout the world, there are variations of flora, fauna, and environment that create biomes – the word that describes a given area’s particular natural characteristics. While there are several types of biomes in the world, ranging from deserts to frozen tundra, the coniferous forest is a type of biome that is seen all over the globe. These are predominantly made up of – you guessed it – coniferous trees, which are so called because their seeds take the form of cones. Coniferous forests are mostly found in regions of the Earth that experience long winters and short summers. Coniferous forests, therefore, are found mainly in the northern hemisphere, although some are found in the southern hemisphere.
Coniferous forests (fir, pine, spruce) make up one-third of the world’s forests and are found in northern parts of North America, Europe and Asia where temperatures tend to be lower and winter tends to last longer. Ever wonder what a pinecone really is? Pine trees are some of the best-known conifers, and pinecones are their way of spreading seeds. Most of the trees in coniferous forests are conifers (or evergreens) which are the toughest and longest living trees in the world. They have needle like leaves have a waxy outer coat which prevents water loss in freezing weather. Their branches are soft and flexible, pointed downwards, so that snow slides off them.
Because coniferous forests exist in a range of regions around the world, their climates depend on their location.
- Temperate coniferous forests are found in areas with temperate weather: plenty of rainfall, cool winters, and warm summers.
- Tropical and subtropical coniferous forests are found in areas with tropical latitudes, making their climates more humid.
- Boreal forest (taiga) is a forest biome that spans from Siberia to Canada, and has extremely cold winters, with summers ranging from mild to extremely hot.
Coniferous forests are found all over the world, from tropical islands to Switzerland. Some examples are:
- The Alps: Austria, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia
- Caledon: United Kingdom
- Carpathian: Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia
- Altai Montane: China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Russia
- Da Hinggan-Dzhagdy: China and Russia
- East Afghan: Afghanistan, Pakistan
- Elburz Range: Iran
- Hokkaido: Japan
- Mediterranean: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia
- Scandinavian: Norway, Finland, Sweden
- Himalayan: India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bhutan
- Coastal regions of the United States
- Luzon: Phillipines
- Sumatran: Indonesia
- The Bahamas
- Central American: Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua
- Hispaniolan: Haiti, Dominican Republic
Temperatures vary based on the location of the forest, but typically fall into these categories dependent on climate:
- Temperate: These areas have moderate temperatures, but experience seasonal changes. Depending on location, some temperate areas may have overall colder temperatures – such as parts of Russia – or greater amounts of rainfall – such as London.
- Tropical: Found in tropical locations, with a warm and humid climate. Temperatures are hot, with the requirement being that the average temperature year-round is 18 °C (64 °F) or higher.
- Boreal: The temperature changes in the boreal coniferous forests are by far the most extreme, with winters averaging -54° to -1°C (-65° to 30°F) and summers -7° to 21°C (20° to 70°F), although both seasons can experience far colder or hotter temperatures any given year.
As with any forest or environment that grows plants, water is a basic requirement. Levels of precipitation will be different from region to region, but all coniferous forests require enough rainfall to sustain and promote tree growth.
- Temperate: Precipitation amounts will range based on location. Typical average amounts are about 300-900 mm (12-35 in.) but some areas can see as much as 2,000 mm (78 in.) of rain a year.
- Tropical: With higher humidity amounts there is typically more overall precipitation in a tropical area. Some areas have “wet seasons,” which is when rainfall exceeds 60 mm (2.4 in) or more in a month.
- Boreal: Due to extreme cold temperatures in the winter, these areas typically see most of their rainfall in the summer, with amounts ranging from 300-800 mm (12-30 in) a year
Plants of the Coniferous Forests
Being forests, these areas are principally defined by their trees, but there are many varieties of conifers as well as a number of other plants that thrive alongside them.
- Black spruce: Named for it’s dark colored leaves and trunk, this tree is common in parts of North America and the boreal forest.
- White spruce: Like a black spruce, but with light leaves and trunk.
- Larch: These trees are small but incredibly durable, and varieties can be found in the coldest parts of the boreal forest.
- Lodgepole pine: Found in North America, particularly around the Pacific Northwest. Named because it was used by Native Americans to support “lodges.”
- Jack pine: Often found on hillsides and other terrain that isn’t flat
- Balsam fir: found in North America and best known for being used as a Christmas tree
- Eastern white pine: These trees can grow very old, and are found in North America.
- Bunya pine: A big tree found in Australia, and its wood is used for a variety of purposes.
- Yew: Found in parts of Europe and Asia, they can grow to be thousands of years old and are poisonous.
- Engelmann spruce: found in North America, particularly around Colorado
- Douglas-fir: These trees grow incredibly large – both in height and width.
- Red cedar: found in locations all over the world, typically more like a bush.
- Hemlock: This tree – not the plant – is found in cold regions in parts of Asia and North America.
- Redwoods: huge trees that grow in parts of California and the Pacific Northwest
- Giant sequoia: some of the world’s largest and oldest trees
- Siberian pine: Hardy trees that can live a long time and grow slowly.
- Parana pine: found in South America, particular on hillsides. It is slow growing and found in high elevations.
- Kauri pine: A conifer found in New Zealand, recently protected due to overharvesting.
- Saskatoon berry: Shrub found in North American forests that has edible berries and flowers in the spring.
- Thimbleberry: A common pant in coniferous forests that has small edible fruit, commonly seen on trails
- Salal: Thick growing shrub with edible berries in the Pacific Northwest
- Beaked hazelnut: Wild form of hazelnut that grows in Pacific Northwest
- Nootka rose: Forests in Northwest America and parts of Canada see these lovely flowers
- Pitcher plant: a “carnivorous” plant that eats insects for nutrients as an adaptation around the lack of light due to tree cover.
- Sword ferns: named for the “teeth” on their long leaves.
- Licorice ferns: Found growing in the trees as opposed to the ground
- Deer ferns: Plentiful on many forest floors.
- Mycorrhizae fungi: Typical of coniferous forests, these will typically live around the roots of conifers, and are helpful for maximizing the amount of nutrients in the soil.
- Slippery jack fungus: shaped like a toadstool, it is named because of the slippery substance that coats its cap.
- Reindeer moss: a very common lichen
- Plume moss: This dense covering moss is so-called because it looks like the plume of an ostrich. Very helpful in breaking down rotten wood.
Animals of the Coniferous Forests
Coniferous forests provide habitat for many different animals. Depending on location, animal species and amounts will vary, but most coniferous forests are home to creatures from tiny microbes to large bears.
- Nematodes: tiny organisms that live in soil and are responsible for decomposing dead organic matter.
- Mosquitoes: Found just about anywhere there is stagnant water, mosquitoes are seen in tropical forests and in the boreal forest
- Engelmann spruce bark beetles: named because they love the bark of this spruce, these beetles can be incredibly destructive to these trees
- Moths and caterpillars are typical of any forest region, and certain varieties can be harmful when in the caterpillar stage, as they feed off valuable new growth or harm branch development.
- Amphibians: frogs, toads, and salamanders can be found in warmer forests, particularly in moist areas
- Canada geese: while they migrate in the colder parts of the year, these birds are found all over North American forests.
- Crossbill: a bird that has a beak designed specifically to be able to eat the cone seeds of conifers.
- Rodents: mice, squirrels, and chipmunks are common in forest areas, both for the abundance of food available and for ample protection.
- Bears: seen in forests, they hibernate over the winter in order to survive dropping temperatures and less available food. Grizzly bears and black bears are some coniferous dwellers
- Beavers: Once much more common in forests, they were overhunted which led to severe declines in population
- Wolverines: basically no more than large weasels, these fierce creatures are found in forests in North America, Europe, and Asia
- Chamois: similar to a goat, and found on mountainous forests in Europe.