Ten Days on the Tundra (6)

Mushrooms grow among mosses and Ledum plants as part of the tundra.

The word tundra refers to treeless ecosystems where winters are long and cold, and summers are short and cool.  It comes from the Finnish word tunturi which means treeless plain.  Where trees stop growing at the northern latitude of about 65 degrees North, the biodiversity of plants and animals decreases.  From here north to about 72 degrees latitude live low shrubs, lichens, mosses, sedges, and grasses.  Our location at Toolik Lake is roughly 68 degrees North latitude and in the Arctic Foothills ecoregion.

Wildlife sightings are not so common as species like caribou, wolves, musk ox, dall sheep, lemmings, and voles are spread out over the vast expanses of land here.  We were fortunate to see many bird species and a herd of caribou but most often we saw evidence such as scat, antlers, or burrows that told us these animals were here.

Caribou wandering the tundra in a small herd.

On a day trip south over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range we were fortunate to spot dall sheep on a distant cliffy mountain.  Short-eared owls seemed to be in abundance in the lower lands, hunting voles and lemmings from a few feet above the vegetation.  A herd of roughly 200 caribou passed by the northeast edge of the field station one morning, giving us all a great look at the different ages and sexes of these animals.  On a bike ride north of the lake I was fortunate to see a bull moose hi-tailing it across the tundra.

In Toolik Lake live the Arctic Grayling, a cold-water fish species closely related to salmon and trout.  On one of the work days, one of our teachers was able to go out with the fish sampling crew to help with fish capture.  That same day I was fortunate to be out with the aquatic invertebrate crew to sample insects [hatching and living] above the river that are thought to be what the fish are feeding on in late summer.

Ecoregions of Alaska

As one moves north and into the Arctic Coastal plain, the plant and animal diversity changes.  Read more about that in my next post.