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Treeless, level or rolling ground above the taiga in polar regions (Arctic tundra) or on high mountains (alpine tundra), characterized by bare ground and rock or by such vegetation as mosses, lichens, small herbs, and low shrubs. Animal species are limited by harsh environmental conditions. In the Arctic tundra they include lemmings, the Arctic fox, the Arctic wolf, caribou, reindeer, and musk-oxen. In the alpine tundra many animals, including mountain sheep and wildcats, descend to warmer zones during winter. The climate of alpine tundra is more moderate and has a higher amount of rainfall than does Arctic tundra. The freezing climate of the Arctic produces a layer of permanently frozen soil (permafrost). An overlying layer of soil alternates between freezing and thawing with seasonal temperature variations. Alpine tundras have a freeze-thaw layer but no permafrost. Because Arctic tundras receive extremely long periods of daylight and darkness (lasting between one and four months), biological rhythms tend to be adjusted more to variations in temperature than to variations in sunlight. Arctic tundra covers about one-tenth of the earth's surface. Alpine tundras begin above the timberline of spruce and firs. Because of the small number of plant and animal species and the fragility of the food chains in tundra regions, natural or mechanical damage to any element of the habitat affects the whole ecosystem.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on tundra, visit Britannica.com.