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What is a Terrestrial Ecosystem? - Definition, Examples & Types

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Taught by

Derrick Arrington

Derrick has taught biology and chemistry at both the high school and college level. He has a master's degree in science education.

There are a variety of different ecosystems all over the world. In this lesson we will examine terrestrial ecosystems. This will allow us to gain an understanding of the living and nonliving factors that makeup these dynamic ecosystems.

Definition of Terrestrial Ecosystems

An ecosystem is a collection of communities of both living and nonliving things that are interrelated. While many ecosystems exist on land and in the waters of the world; terrestrial ecosystems are those that are found only on land. The biotic, or living things found in an ecosystem, include various life forms, such as plants and animals. The abiotic, or non-living things found in an ecosystem include the various land-forms and the climate.

Types and Examples of Terrestrial Ecosystems

While there have been many classification schemes developed over time it is now generally accepted that there are six types of terrestrial ecosystems. These include taiga, tundra, deciduous forest, grasslands, tropical rain forests, and deserts.

Taigas are cold-climate forests found in the northern latitudes. Taigas are the world's largest terrestrial ecosystem and account for about 29% of the earth's forests. The largest taiga ecosystems are found in Canada and Russia. Taigas are known for their sub-arctic climate with extremely cold winters and mild summers. They primarily consist of coniferous trees, such as pines, although there are some other deciduous trees, such as spruce and elm, that have adapted to live in these areas that receive little direct sunlight for much of the year. Taigas are home to large herbivores such as moose, elk, and bison as well as omnivores such as bears.

This image shows the dense forests that make up the taigas.
An image of the Taiga.

The tundra ecosystems of the world are primarily found north of the Arctic Circle. They consist of short vegetation and essentially no trees. The soil is frozen and covered with permafrost for a large portion of the year. Caribou, polar bears, and musk ox are some of the notable species who call the tundra home.

This picture depicts the cold arctic tundra.
A picture of the tundra.

Deciduous forest ecosystems make up the eastern half of North America and a large portion of Europe. They typically have an average yearly temperature of fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and they average about 30-60 inches of rain per year. These forests are inhabited by a variety of wildlife including deer, bear, foxes, as well as numerous species of trees, shrubs, and flowers. If you live in or have ever traveled to the eastern United States you have been to a deciduous forest.

The forests of North Carolina are classic examples of deciduous forests.
Image of a deciduous forest.

Grasslands are also known as the plains and prairies. If you imagine the wild west with tumbleweeds blowing across the plains and large herds of deer and buffalo you are imagining the grasslands. These ecosystems are characterized by 20-35 inches of rain per year and a predominant covering of various species of grasses. They are also known for their very rich soil.

The prairies of Nebraska are examples of grassland ecosystems.
Image of a grassland.

Tropical rain forest ecosystems have the greatest diversity of plants and animals of all of the ecosystems. They exist 28 degrees north or south of the equator and are known for their high average temperatures as well as a significant amount of rainfall. The lush forests of the Amazon in South America are classic examples of tropical rain forest.

Lush tropical rain forests are home to the greatest numbers of plants and wildlife.
Tropical rain forest picture

Close your eyes and imagine walking through mountainous dunes of sand as the blistering sun parches your mouth as you search for water. This scene gives you a look at the final terrestrial ecosystem which is the desert. These ecosystems are hot and dry with very little vegetation and very few species of animals that call them home other than reptiles, arachnids, and birds. The large Saharan desert takes up much of the northern part of the African continent.

Desert ecosystems are the driest places on earth.
An image of a desert.

Summary of Terrestrial Ecosystems

As you can see, all ecosystems that exist entirely on land are terrestrial ecosystems. They range from the coldest places on earth at the extreme northern latitudes to the hottest deserts found around the equator. Each ecosystem is inhabited by species of plants and animals that have evolved to thrive in them.

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