The taiga is a forest of the cold, subarctic region. The subarctic is an area of the Northern Hemisphere that lies just south of the Arctic Circle.


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Biology, Earth Science, Geography, Physical Geography

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Morgan Stanley

The taiga is a forest of the cold, subarctic region. The subarctic is an area of the Northern Hemisphere that lies just south of the Arctic Circle. The taiga lies between the tundra to the north and temperate forests to the south.

Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia have taigas. In Russia, the world’s largest taiga stretches about 5,800 kilometers (3,600 miles), from the Pacific Ocean to the Ural Mountains. This taiga region was completely glaciated, or covered by glaciers, during the last ice age.

The soil beneath the taiga often contains permafrost—a layer of permanently frozen soil. In other areas, a layer of bedrock lies just beneath the soil. Both permafrost and rock prevent water from draining from the top layers of soil. This creates shallow bogs known as muskegs. Muskegs can look like solid ground, because they are covered with moss, short grasses, and sometimes even trees. However, the ground is actually wet and spongy.

Plants and Fungi

Taigas are thick forests. Coniferous trees, such as spruce, pine, and fir, are common. Coniferous trees have needles instead of broad leaves, and their seeds grow inside protective, woody cones. While deciduous trees of temperate forests lose their leaves in winter, conifers never lose their needles. For this reason, conifers are also called “evergreens.”

Conifers have adapted to survive the long, cold winters and short summers of the taiga. Their needles contain very little sap, which helps prevent freezing. Their dark color and triangle-shaped sides help them catch and absorb as much of the sun’s light as possible. In the taiga, tree growth is thickest beside muskegs and lakes formed by glaciers.

Taigas have few native plants besides conifers. The soil of the taiga has few nutrients. It can also freeze, making it difficult for many plants to take root. The larch is one of the only deciduous trees able to survive in the freezing northern taiga.

Instead of shrubs and flowers, mosses, lichens, and mushrooms cover the floor of a taiga. These organisms can grow directly on the ground, or have very shallow roots. They can survive in the cold, and with little water or sunlight.

Animals of the Taiga

Many kinds of animals live in the taiga. All animals have to be well-adapted to the cold. Birds native to the taiga usually migrate south during the freezing winter months. Small animals, mostly rodents, live close to the floor. Many birds of prey, such as owls and eagles, hunt these animals from the trees of the taiga.

Moose, the largest type of deer in the world, is able to live in the cold taiga. Like all deer, moose are herbivores. They favor the aquatic plants growing on the taiga’s bogs and streams.

Few large carnivorous animals live in the taiga. Bears and lynx are fairly common. The largest cat in the world, the 300-kilogram (660-pound) Siberian tiger, is a native taiga species. Siberian tigers live in a small part of eastern Siberia. They hunt moose and wild boars.

Threats to Taigas

Taiga ecosystems are threatened by direct human activity and climate change. Animals of the taiga, such as foxes or bears, have always been hunted. Their warm fur and tough skin, turned into leather, have helped people survive in harsh climates for thousands of years.

The most serious threat to taigas does not come from hunting activity, however. Civilization is dependent on sturdy buildings for homes, industry, and schools. The trees of the taiga are cut down for lumber projects, as well as paper, cardboard, and other supplies. The export of wood and paper products is one of the most economically important industries in Canada, for instance.

Clearcutting is the most popular type of logging in taigas. Clearcutting involves cutting down all the trees in a designated area. This destroys habitats for many organisms that live in and around the trees, and makes it difficult for new trees to grow. Clearcutting also increases the risk of erosion and flooding in the taiga. Without a root system to anchor it, a taiga’s soil can be blown away by wind or worn away by rain or snow. This exposes the bedrock and permafrost beneath the taiga, which does not support many forms of life.

Climate change puts taigas in danger in different ways. Warming climate contributes to a partial thawing of the permafrost. Since this water has no place to drain, more area of the taiga is taken over by muskegs. Few trees take root.

Warming temperature also changes animal habitats. It pushes native species out and attracts non-native species. Animals such as the Siberian tiger are not adapted to warm weather. Its coat is too heavy, and it stores too much body fat to thrive in a temperate habitat. Non-native insects such as the bark beetle can infest trees such as spruce. Millions of these insects bore into the bark of trees, laying eggs. The infested trees die. Bark beetle infestations can kill entire forests and thousands of hectares of taiga.

Fast Fact

Tipsy Timber
In drunken forests, trees tilt in different directions. These trees arent tipsy from beer or other alcohol, but from taiga soil conditions. When permafrost layers in the soil thaw, the ground sags. This causes nearby trees, which have very shallow roots, to lean toward the depression.

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Kim Rutledge
Melissa McDaniel
Santani Teng
Hilary Hall
Tara Ramroop
Erin Sprout
Jeff Hunt
Diane Boudreau
Hilary Costa
Mary Crooks, National Geographic Society
Tim Gunther
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
Educator Reviewer
Nancy Wynne
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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