Exploring the Unique Ecology of Yellowstone National Park

Take a tour through the unusual landscape of the world's oldest national park.

Yellowstone National Park
Geyers are just one unique feature about the ecosystems in Yellowstone National Park. Getty Images

Yellowstone National Park is a true piece of wilderness and one of the most unique systems on the American landscape. The park is home to a myriad of birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals not to mention trees, flowers, and assorted living things. It also forms the core of the larger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem - an area 34,375 square miles wide, that is one of the largest nearly intact and unspoiled temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth.

Yellowstone National Park is comprised of forests, rivers, meadows, prairies, calderas, and wetlands. But the most interesting features of the park landscape are the geysers and hot springs found within. The majority of Yellowstone sits atop a geothermic "hotspot," or area of intense geologic activity just under the earth's crust.

All of this activity creates heat and this heat is the reason why Yellowstone has the greatest concentration of geysers and hot springs in the world. In fact, half of the world's geothermal features and two-thirds of the world's geysers are found within the boundaries of this park. Old Faithful Geyser, easily one of the most well-known and visited features of the park, is one of the most predictable geologic features on Earth - erupting every 94 minutes. 

Let's talk a closer look at the ecology of Yellowstone by exploring the flora and fauna that call this ecosystem home.

Wildlife of Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park is home to roughly 60 species of mammals, including grizzly bears, black bears, bison, gray wolves, lynx, elk, moose, mule deer, mountain lion, coyote, mountain goat, and bighorn sheep. The park is also home to eighteen species of fish, six species of reptiles, four species of amphibians, and over 300 species of birds, including bald eagle, peregrine falcon, osprey, trumpeter swan, and harlequin duck.

Plants of Yellowstone

As you might imagine, the variety of habitat systems in Yellowstone make it an ideal home to many different plant species. Most vegetation in the park is similar to that found in the Rocky Mountains as well as that of the Great Plains, with pines, fir, juniper, quaking aspen, cottonwoods, maples, and sagebrush. There are three plant species found only in Yellowstone - Ross's bentgrass, Yellowstone sand verbena, and Yellowstone sulfur wild buckwheat. These plants rely on the unique thermal features found only in Yellowstone in which to live.

Threats to Yellowstone

The unique ecosystems found in Yellowstone National Park face many of the same threats - such as climate change and habitat loss - that are seen all over the world. In addition, the popularity of the park and its high visitation number create unusual pressures for the flora and fauna that call Yellowstone home. Finally, Yellowstone is home to a large number of fires - many of which are natural occurrences -  that threaten the existence of the plants and animals that live there.

Yellowstone by the Numbers:

  • 2.2: Millions of acres that make up Yellowstone National Park
  • 1872: the year that Yellowstone became a national park.
  • 96: Percent of Yellowstone National Park that lies in the states of Wyoming. The rest is in Montana and Idaho.
  • 8,000 feet above sea level: The average elevation at Yellowstone
  • 290: Number of waterfalls that can be found in Yellowstone
  • 1,700: Species of trees that are native to Yellowstone
  • 35: Average number of wildfires the park sees each year caused by lightning
  • 2 million: Number of tourists that visit Yellowstone every year
  • 9: Number of museums and visitor centers maintained by the national park service within Yellowstone