In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section North American Biomes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Online Databases
  • Historical Perspectives on Conceptualizing Biomes
  • Relationships between Biome Classification and Other Systems
  • Defining and Describing North American Biomes
  • Modeling Potential Vegetation and Plant Species Distributions
  • Mapping Land Use and Land Cover Classes
  • Animal Species Distributions
  • Patterns in Climate, Atmospheric Chemistry, and Soils
  • Patterns in Human Activities
  • Connectivity with Other Biome Types Globally
  • Climate Change and the Dynamics of Biomes
  • New Research Avenues and Contemporary Views

Ecology North American Biomes
Debra P.C. Peters, Stacey L.P. Scroggs, Jin Yao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0099


Biomes of North America are contained within the land area of Canada, the United States, Mexico, and countries in Central America. The area is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the west and south by the Pacific Ocean, and to the southeast by South America and the Caribbean Sea. This large area (over 24 x 106 km2) is characterized by a broad range of temperature and precipitation that result in nine biomes ranging from tropical rainforests and seasonal deciduous forests in the south near the equator to boreal forests and tundra at high latitudes near the North Pole. Temperate forests (deciduous, coniferous), grasslands, deserts, and Chaparral woodlands occur at mid-latitudes. Landscape-scale patterns in contemporary ecosystems within each biome reflect variability in climate and soil parent material combined with human activities that have increased in extent and intensity over the past several centuries. These patterns are often influenced by the redistribution of organisms, water and sediment, fire, and air chemistry. Connections with biome types on other continents on Earth can lead to invasion by exotic species including pests and pathogens, large climatic events such as hurricanes and drought, and changes in air quality through dust storms and volcanic eruptions. These tele-connections often occur infrequently, yet with large and surprising effects on ecosystem properties and dynamics. Directional changes in climate are expected to influence biome distributions and composition in novel ways. Increasing awareness of these broad-scale dynamics that connect biomes globally is leading to new avenues of research that intersect ecology with other disciplines.

General Overviews

There are several synthetic works that describe and compare biomes within the North American continent. Many, such as Bolen 1998, Molles 2005, and Whittaker 1975, are written for undergraduate courses and are not limited to biomes of North America but rather provide information on biome types located globally. Shelford 1913 and Shelford 1963 are classics that provide a compendium of information known at that time about what we now call biomes within the North American continent. The material in these books was recently updated by Bolen 1998. Vegetation types of North America are described in Barbour and Billings 2000 that go beyond the definition of biomes to include locally important vegetation types.

  • Barbour, Michael G., and William Dwight Billings. 2000. North American terrestrial vegetation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Descriptions of vegetation types within North America, including the vegetation composition, properties of the abiotic environment, conservation issues, management problems, and areas for future research. Unique resource for students and researchers. Also see Defining and Describing North American Biomes and Biogeography of Biomes.

  • Bolen, Eric G. 1998. Ecology of North America. New York: Wiley.

    An updated and expanded version of Shelford 1963, this book by Bolen is a very readable introduction to biomes that is designed to acquaint undergraduate students and others interested in understanding and protecting the biomes of North America. See also Defining and Describing North American Biomes.

  • Molles, Manuel C. 2005. Ecology: Concepts and applications. New York: Sinauer Associates.

    This is an excellent textbook that is widely used for undergraduate courses. Ten biomes are described with their global distribution.

  • Shelford, Victor E. 1913. Animal communities in temperate America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Although this book focuses on animal communities within 160 km of Chicago, it is notable for the biogeographic approach that was adapted by others for plants. The focus is a study of the ecology of animals within communities that lead to changes in species responses and community dynamics as the habitat changes.

  • Shelford, Victor E. 1963. The ecology of North America. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    This classic treatise describes important features and successional dynamics of the major biomes of North America north of 21oN latitude. Discussion of dominant animals within each biome updates and expands Shelford 1913. The book is notable for including both plant and animal dynamics across large areas. Also see Defining and Describing North American Biomes.

  • Whittaker, Robert H. 1975. Communities and ecosystems. New York: Macmillan.

    An introduction to population, community, and ecosystem dynamics with descriptions and comparisons of the major biomes of the world. Undergraduate and graduate students will find this book to be excellent background to more recent comparative analyses of biomes.

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