A Beginner's Guide to Habitats

Our planet is an extraordinary mosaic of land, sea, weather, and life forms. No two places are identical in time or space and we live in a complex and dynamic tapestry of habitats.

Despite the vast variability that may exist from one place to the next, there are some general types of habitats. These can be described based on shared climate characteristics, vegetation structure, or animal species. These habitats help us to understand wildlife and better protect both the land and the species that depend on it.

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What Is a Habitat?

Planet Earth Against Black Background
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Habitats form a vast tapestry of life across the Earth's surface and are as varied as the animals that inhabit them. They can be classified into many genres—woodlands, mountains, ponds, streams, marshlands, coastal wetlands, shores, oceans, etc. Yet, there are general principles that apply to all habitats regardless of their location.

A biome describes areas with similar characteristics. There are five major biomes found in the world: aquatic, desert, forest, grassland, and tundra. From there, we can classify it further into various sub-habitats that make up communities and ecosystems. 

It's all quite fascinating, especially when you learn how plants and animals adapt to these smaller, specialized worlds.

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Aquatic Habitats

Sea turtle swimming underwater in the Indian Ocean in the Maldives
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The aquatic biome includes the seas and oceans, lakes and rivers, wetlands and marshes, and lagoons and swamps of the world. Where freshwater mixes with saltwater you'll find mangroves, salt marshes, and mud flats.

All of these habitats are home to a diverse assortment of wildlife. Aquatic habitats include virtually every group of animals, from amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates to mammals and birds.

The intertidal zone, for instance, is a fascinating place that is wet during high tide and dries up as the tide goes out. The organisms that live in these areas must withstand pounding waves and live in both water and air. It is where you will find mussels and snails along with kelp and algae.

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Desert Habitats

The desert biome is, in general, a dry boime. It includes terrestrial habitats that receive very little rainfall each the year, generally less than 50 centimeters.
Alan Majchrowicz/Getty Images.

Deserts and scrublands are landscapes that have scarce precipitation. They're known to be the driest areas on Earth and that makes living there extremely difficult.

Still, deserts are rather diverse habitats. Some are sun-baked lands that experience high daytime temperatures. Others are cool and go through chilly winter seasons.

Scrublands are semi-arid habitats that are dominated by scrub vegetation such as grasses, shrubs, and herbs.

It is possible for human activity to push a drier area of land into the desert biome category. This is known as desertification and is often the result of deforestation and poor agricultural management.

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Forest Habitats

Forests are structured in vertical layers.
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Forests and woodlands are habitats dominated by trees. Forests extend over about one-third of the world's land surface and can be found in many regions around the globe.

There are different types of forests: temperate, tropical, cloud, coniferous, and boreal. Each has a different assortment of climate characteristics, species compositions, and wildlife communities.

The Amazon rain forest, for example, is a diverse ecosystem, home to a tenth of the world's animal species. At almost three million square miles, it makes up a large majority of Earth's forest biome.

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Grassland Habitats

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands
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Grasslands are habitats that are dominated by grasses and have few large trees or shrubs. There are two types of grasslands: tropical grasslands (also known as savannas) and temperate grasslands.

The wild grass biome dots the globe. They include the African Savanna as well as the plains of the Midwest in the United States. The animals that live there are distinct to the type of grassland, but often you'll find a number of hooved animals and a few predators to chase them.

Grasslands experience dry and rainy seasons. Due to these extremes, they are susceptible to seasonal fires and these can quickly spread across the land.

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Tundra Habitats

Autumn tundra landscape in Norway, Europe.
Paul Oomen/Getty Images.

Tundra is a cold habitat. It is characterized by low temperatures, short vegetation, long winters, brief growing seasons, and limited drainage.

It is an extreme climate but remains the home to a variety of animals. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, for instance, boasts 45 species ranging from whales and bears to hearty rodents.

Arctic tundra is located near the North Pole and extends southward to the point where coniferous forests grow. Alpine tundra is located on mountains around the world at elevations that are above the tree line.

The tundra biome is where you will often find permafrost. This is defined as any rock or soil that stays frozen year-round and it can be unstable ground when it does thaw.

Sources and Further Reading

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Beginner's Guide to Habitats." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/habitats-basics-4140409. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2021, September 1). A Beginner's Guide to Habitats. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/habitats-basics-4140409 Szczepanski, Kallie. "A Beginner's Guide to Habitats." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/habitats-basics-4140409 (accessed June 5, 2023).