Canada"s Arctic Tundra


In Nunavut, on Baffin Island, the tundra Views From The Top



Tundra on Bylot Island, Nunavut

Arctic tundra refers to the areas lying between the edge of the taiga (or boreal forest), or tree line, and the permanent ice caps nearer the North Pole or Arctic Ocean.With sweeping lowlands and towering mountains, it has a wealth of landscapes.Often perceived as a barren, somewhat rocky terrain, tundra surrounds the pole. It is an important biome in the Arctic and Subarctic regions.


World map showing Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine tundra in purple.In both North America and Europe, the Arctic tundra occupies the northern extremity of the continents.

Tundra can be found in Canada's Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northeastern Manitoba, northern Ontario, northern Quebec, and northern Labrador.It is found in Alaska, Greenland, Russia, Iceland, and parts of Scandinavia.


Aerial view of the tundra in the summer

.This creates a harsh climate.During the growing season, there are only 50 to 60 days per year when temperatures reach high levels.Tundra biodiversity is also low in comparison to many other biomes. Because few species can adapt to survive in tundra, it has a low diversity.As a result, soil is very slow to form.It is a thin layer of 25 to 100 centimeters of melt water in summer, called the active layer. The soil cycle of freezing and thawing is annual.This layer is followed by the permafrost, which remains permanently frozen.


Aurora borealis are common in the Arctic tundra at nighttime

It is long, dark, and cold in the tundra in winter.There is little snowfall, and most of the ground becomes covered with dense and hard snow.A high wind can create thick snowdrifts that harden into solid snow.Melting occurs above the active layer of the permafrost during the summer.Consequently, lakes, streams, rivers, and wetlands are created.Waterlogged soil and 24-hour sunshine are both conducive to rapid plant growth, and in lower latitudes of tundra, even densely packed plants can thrive.The landscape creates a beautiful environment and supplies food for wildlife that lives in the Arctic year-round or migrates there to take advantage of the abundance of food that is available suddenly in summer. TOP

Plants and Fungi


Dwarf Fireweed

The tundra is covered by nearly 2,000 species of plants, mostly mosses, sedges, grasses and flowering plants.As you move north of the tree line, the diversity of plants and animals decreases with each year.Because of the climate, permafrost, and short summers, tree species such as willow and birch grow horizontally here, not upward.Plants are also benefited by snow cover that provides insulation during the winter.During the short period of time when temperatures and sunlight are appropriate, tundra plants need to grow fast.Summer is a very colourful time of the year; flowering plants, such as dwarf fireweeds and mountain avens, are in bloom during this time.


TheNet-veined Willow, a dwarf Arctic willow

.They have shallow root systems that grow only in the active layer of the soil or soil that is not frozen during the summer.Tumour plants usually grow close to the ground, taking advantage of pockets of dark soil and rocks that absorb heat, which is why they are usually short, as is the case with purple saxifrage, the Net-veined Willow, and other tundra shrubs.As another method of keeping warm, plants grow in groups or in patterns such as rosette or thick mats, like the Moss Campion and Three Toothed Saxifrage.As a result, the air stays warmer between individual plants, allowing them to grow.


Iceland Poppy

Arctic flowers, leaves, and stems can also be adapted to the conditions in the Arctic.There are some tundra plants, like the Mountain Cranberry, that have desert plant-like adaptations, such as long, woolly hairs, thick leaves, and a thick, waxy skin to prevent water loss from the leaves.A number of plants do not have stems at all in order to prevent drying out!.Arctic poppies, for example, have giant flowers that can face the sun at any time.They are also designed to absorb heat.Some plants, like the Bog Rosemary, have downward facing flowers that act like little greenhouses.Seeds in flowers or transparent seed pods mature more quickly during the brief Arctic summer because they develop in warmer environments.A species' leaf colour also matters, which is why the Arctic blueberry turns red in the summer.Red leaves enable the plant to absorb a broader spectrum of light.The roots of some species begin photosynthesis as soon as the soil thaws.


The Cloudberry is one of the berry plants which grows in the tundra

As seed production requires a large amount of energy from plants, and seed survival is uncertain during harsh winters, some species produce nutrient-storing tubers, buds, or rhizomes that stay underground and are ready for growth in the spring.Seed-producing plants have structures that aid in dispersal.A Cottongrass is an example of a sedge with tufts that help carry seeds by the wind and are also good insulation.



Due to the abundance of wetlands and lakes around the tundra during the summer, many species of plant have adapted to growing in moisture-rich areas or even near water.Carnivorous bladderworts, for example, can float above water.They provide food and shelter to some of the animals that inhabit these ecosystems, including waterfowl, fish, and invertebrates.


Mosses and lichens alongside short tamaracks in the southern tundra

Mosses are extremely common and diverse in the tundra.Many species grow directly, without roots or stems, in the form of mats on rocks or soil.Permafrost is insulate by them, so they are vital in the tundra.In addition, these primitive plants reproduce through spores, which are dispersed by water or wind.Moist mosses need a lot of moisture as a source of both reproduction and growth (they absorb the water directly through their small, delicate leaves), but in dry areas like the Arctic, they go into dormancy in order to survive.Throughout the tundra, peat moss grows abundantly in bogs and other wetlands.The orange-red moss comes in many colors.


Lichens (in gray) on the tundra ground vegetation and fungi

Hardy lichens play an important role as a food source for many species, including barren-ground caribou, which mostly consumes reindeer lichen, a group of lichen species, in the winter.Like corals, lichen are the result of a symbiotic relationship.The fungi provide structure and use minerals from the environment (such as rocks, soil, or plants) to feed themselves and the fungi, whereas algae and bacteria are able to produce energy from light via photosynthesis.A multitude of algal and bacterial species live within the fungus, resulting in lichens with different colors and shapes.As with mosses, livechens must have moisture to thrive and can go into dormancy if conditions are too dry.Although they grow at a very slow rate, they can live for a very long time if left alone (as much as 4,000 to 5,000 years!).Litchis are sensitive to air pollution, so they serve as a bioindicator of air quality. Page Return



Arctic Hare in the summer

Tundra has harsh climate conditions and very few species thrive there due to the conditions.The tundra is home to a variety of animals year-round, or for at least a few months of the year.Lemming populations fluctuate up and down in cycles, as it is for many wildlife species.Despite the fact that the reasons for these cycles are unknown, they assist in regulating the populations of predator species that depend on lemmings for food.


Arctic Char

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Freshwater rivers and lakes of the tundra are home to a few species of fish.Their food supply is important for the birds of prey that spend their summers in the Arctic and for mammals that stay here all year.The Arctic Char is related to the salmon and spends a portion of its life cycle in fresh water and a portion in salt water.When landlocked, some individuals have become exclusively freshwater fish.In Canada, the char is found in any freshwater habitat and its range extends the furthest north of all freshwater fishes.Tundra trout and lake whitefish are also relatives of salmons found in tundra waters.The Arctic Cod, Ninespine Stickleback, and Northern Pike are among the other families of fish commonly found in the tundra. To Return To Top



King Eider, a waterfowl species found in the tundra wetlands

There is a great diversity of vertebrates in the tundra, mainly birds.The only remaining species in the biome over winter are the Common Raven, Snowy Owl and Rock Ptarmigan, which have the necessary adaptations.For breeding and rearing, all other birds migrate to the tundra; they return to warmer climates in the late summer and early fall.There are a number of species of waterfowl in this group including the Tundra Swan, the Long-tailed Duck, and many shorebirds including the Semipalmated Sandpiper and the American Golden-plover, which can be observed around lakes, streams and rivers in the summer, as well as in wetlands.


Snow Bunting pair

In addition, there are a variety of birds of prey, such as the Gyrfalcon and the Rough-legged Hawk, which feed on the variety of prey available.Gulls and jaegers take advantage of the large quantities of food (eggs, chicks, lemmings, voles) available during the summer breeding season.There are a number of songbirds found in tundra habitats, such as the Snow Bunting, Greenland Redpoll, Lapland Longspur and Common Redpoll.


Arctic Tern

Aside from sea ducks, such as the Common Eider, and seabirds, such as the Thick-billed Murre and the Arctic Tern, tundra habitat is also populated by other bird groups.The word "sea duck" and "sea bird" indicate that they live mainly near the Arctic Ocean and obtain most of their food from the marine environment.In the Canadian tundra, thick-billed murres, northern fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes nest on steep cliffs near the ocean.


Rock Ptarmigan in winter plumage

.In the winter, its white coloration helps it blend in with the snow and camouflage against predators just like other ptarmigans.When the weather is cold, it eats berries, dried plant buds, and dwarf birches under the snow by day and roosts in snow banks at night.Rock Ptarmigans often roost in shrubs during the winter when trees are scarce.They feed upon a variety of tundra plants, including willow, saxifrage and heather during the summer.



Canada is the only country where the Common Raven dwells almost everywhere, including the tundra.Being an omnivore, this species eats a wide variety of foods, which it also stows away in caches for winter.Despite living in the cold Arctic climate, this species scavenges from corpses left behind by predators such as polar bears and wolves, raids the winter caches of other animals like Arctic foxes, and nibbles on human garbage.


Peregrine Falcon of the tundrius subspecies

.The tundra birds they hunt during the summer are eaten by them.Their stoops, or descents for catching prey, can reach speeds of up to 300 km/h!


Snow Goose with gosling

Between June and September, the Snow Goose resides in tundra lowlands.In the north it nests so that it can feed throughout the day on roots and leaves of grasses, sedges, ferns, and other plants.Thousands of geese travel over 4,000 kilometers to reach the Arctic as part of their migration!


Snowy Owl

An owl's distinctive and distinctive characteristics make it one of the tundra's most recognizable birds.A large species of owl, this species breeds in tundra in southern Canada and northeastern USA. However, it is capable of overwintering in the southernmost regions of tundra as well.Adapted to cold weather, it has dense layers of down and feathers that cover its bill, toes, and claws as insulation. .During lemming declines, Snowy Owls feed on Arctic Hares, as well as a wide range of birds ranging from small songbirds to large geese. The Top



Red Fox

Species diversity is low on the tundra because mammals must adapt to the long, cold months with heavy snow.The tundra is home to just 20 species of mammals.In the Arctic, there are few species that can survive while remaining inactive throughout the long winter at such low temperatures (the Arctic ground squirrel is the only species that can hibernate).


The tundra mammals have a fur coat with multiple layers, a stocky body, wide and hairy feet, which act as snowshoes, a thick layer of fat, and small or short appendages and extremities (legs, tails, ears, etc.).The features these mammals possess help them survive in this harsh ecosystem.Due to the short summer, young of most species must be raised quickly.About 20 species of mammals inhabit the Arctic tundra.


Peary Caribou

.A majority of the populations, or herds, of this species migrate between the taiga, south of the tree line, and the tundra, but a few smaller herds (the Dolphin and Union herds) remain in the tundra year round, migrating between the wintering and summering areas over the sea ice.During the winter, caribou seek areas exposed to the wind that have little snow or ice cover, or softer snow, where they can scratch away snow to find food (mainly lichens).During the summer, they eat a variety of plants and shrubs.Because of the habitat and behavior differences between herds of this subspecies, there are some physical differences between them.Generally speaking, the members of the Dolphin and Union herds in the north are smaller than those who winter in the taiga.All caribou, though, are well adapted to life in the north and are equipped to conserve heat in the winter. They grow a thick winter coat and have short ears and tails and a compact body, along with a hairy muzzle.The federal Species at Risk Act classifies the Dolphin and Union herd as Special Concern.


Arctic Wolf pups

Throughout the year, the Arctic Wolf lives on the tundra of Siberia. It is smaller and lighter-colored than the Gray Wolf.Its thick, white fur may serve as a camouflage throughout the winter, when the wolf becomes less visible to prey.A wolf can be seen on the north shore of the Canadian mainland and on most Canadian Arctic islands, where they roam in packs or as individuals in search of caribou.



The Muskox is a relative of bison and cow that can only be found in the Arctic tundra.A species like this was a contemporaneous of the woolly mammoth, which lived until the end of the last ice age.Muscovy sheep survive the Arctic winters by digging craters under the snow and ice with their broad hooves and horns to gain access to and eat grasses and mosses.To maintain fat reserves, muskoxen must almost continuously feed, unless they are disturbed by storms.A winter coat of fur includes a woolly layer and a hairy layer, which keeps them warm.The woolly underlayer known as qiviut is shed by muskoxen in the spring.Inuit use qiviut to construct clothing and other crafts.


Several species of lemmings and voles live in the Canadian tundra.Mouse-like rodents are active throughout the year, but they usually spend winters in burrows or foraging in sheltered spaces between the snow and ground.Under the snow, they create a vast network of trails that even serve as restrooms!.Although most pups are born during the summer, lemmings are also known to nest in the warm ground between the snow and ground in the early spring.Their old nests and the trails they used all winter can be seen at the tundra after the snow has melted.They are some of the smallest tundra mammals, but they are considered a key species to the biome.


Polar Bear mother and cubs

Despite being considered marine mammals, polar bears depend on seals and other marine species to survive. .On land, Polar Bears are mostly inactive and rely on their fat stores to survive.However, they are opportunistic and feed on what is available if it is easy to obtain.They eat seabirds, carcasses, goose eggs, seaweed, and berries.During times of scarcity, they can slow their metabolism down at any time of the year, due to their ability to live in the Arctic.The fact that their white fur (which is actually translucent) and dark skin beneath reflects and conserves heat is another reason.The "white" coat also serves the purpose of camouflaging them by making them less visible to seals that approach their breathing holes in the ice.Polar bears are classified as Species of Special Concern by the federal Species at Risk Act.


Arctic Hare

Despite its short ears and thick fur, the Arctic Hare is well at home in the tundra.In the summer, this rabbit relative has black eyelashes that protect its eyes from the glare of the sun!.When they dig dens in the snow or soil, they roll into balls to conserve their body heat.Arctic wolves, for example, use camouflage to hide from it.Summer renders them blueish-grey, blending them into the surrounding rocks in the southern Arctic.Hares in the High Arctic turn white in winter and all year to hide from being seen.During the winter, hares eat shrubs, mosses, and lichens found under the snow to stay warm.


Arctic Fox

Foxes live in the Arctic tundra due to their adaptations to the cold climate and varied diet.During the winter, their thick furry tail acts both as a covering and for balance.A similar to the Arctic Hare, the Arctic Fox changes its color from summer (brown or grey) to winter (white).There have been large fluctuations in the population of Arctic Fox due to lemming fluctuations.Arctic Foxes consume birds, fish, eggs, and even plants.In lean years, this fox will travel great distances to find food and feed on carcasses left over from other predators, often following polar bears to scavenge. Ermine, Wolverine, Muskrat, Masked Shrew, Red Fox and others are other tundra mammals.


Arctic Bumblebee

Reptiles and Amphibians

As a result of the tundra biome's climate and permafrost, there are no reptiles or amphibians found there. View All


The tundra contains a wide variety of insects and arthropods, such as the Arctic Bumblebee, the common fly, the black fly, the mosquito, moths, butterflies, beetles, and spiders.Their life cycles differ from their southern counterparts due to their shortened summers.A larval stage of these moths can last up to seven years, but their adulthood can be shorter as well.Tundra insects must have the ability to survive very low temperatures for long periods of time.The Arctic tundra also contains bacteria, protists (a group of single-celled organisms similar to bacteria, but more complex), worms, and mites.The tundra biome relies heavily on these small animals.It is the purpose of the shorebirds to hatch their eggs when insect emergence is at its peak so that the chicks can eat loads of food!

Disturbances and Threats


As a result of its unique conditions, tundra is a delicate and sensitive biome.As a result of low biodiversity and slow growth, the ecosystems of the region are fragile, and any changes will have long-term consequences.


Polar Bear

The Canadian tundra has a wide variety of threatened species, like the Polar Bear, the Dolphin and Union populations of Barren-ground Caribou, the Peary Caribou, the tundrius specimen of Peregrine Falcon, the Eskimo Curlew, Red Knot, and Prosild's Bryum.Common threats to many of these species include climate change. .In the winter, tundra species dig through the snow to get food, and an increase in snow or ice thickness on land might lead to famine in the caribou population.Other tundra species, however, could be harmed by thin snow covers, since they rely on snow for protection.Increased industrial activities, such as mining and oil drilling, as well as other associated activities, like marine shipping, off-road vehicle use, and road construction and blasting, may lead to more traffic, both on land and at sea.For species at risk, these threats could include disturbances, habitat loss, fragmentation and pollution.


Peary Caribou

The tundra as a biome is sensitive to many threats. Climate change is probably the most important element threatening the tundra as a whole, since the landscape in itself, and the species inhabiting it, could change as a result of the melting of the permafrost and permanent ice, the drying of tundra ponds and changes in species’ timing of breeding and prey availability. The permafrost is not only melting because of higher temperatures, it is also affected by road and building construction. This melt could, in turn, release tonnes of carbon gases into the atmosphere, since a great quantity of organic matter is stored frozen in the tundra. The decay of this organic mass would increase greenhouse gas emissions, which feeds back into increasing the amount of melt. Because greenhouse cases contribute to ozone depletion, which increases ultraviolet ray intensity, especially at the poles, this would increase the rate of melting ice and speed up climate change.

Other impacts of such changes in temperatures could be the increase of tundra fires due to the drying of the vegetation and the number of thunderstorms, and the arrival of typically southern species that would find new habitat in the warming Arctic. These species would likely push native tundra species farther and farther north through displacement, resource competition and the spread of disease, and reduce native biodiversity. Overall, the size of the tundra could shrink, leaving less habitat for native species. Air pollution is also a threat to the tundra. Air pollutants from the south are transported to the poles by the global air circulation patterns. While in transport, or upon deposition in the Arctic, these pollutants can undergo a chemical transformation. Some pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and heavy metals, are resistant to breakdown and accumulate in the food chain. This accumulation can lead to health problems for fish, wildlife and humans. Also, many species of lichens, forming an important component of the tundra food chains, are sensitive to air pollutants and soil disturbance and can take decades to recover.

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Geese migrating in the tundra

The tundra’s species at risk are protected in Canada by the Species at Risk Act and by legislation in most provinces and territories. Also, migratory species, which make for a great proportion of bird species that inhabit the tundra during the summer, are protected by the Migratory Birds Convention Act.

To help protect both species and their habitat, Environment Canada has developed a network of protected areas like National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries. There are five National Wildlife Areas and 14 Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in the tundra biome. Several of these protect the habitat of species at risk, such as Polar Bear Pass National Wildlife Area on Bathurst Island, Nunavut, which is used by Polar Bear and Peary Caribou. Each Migratory Bird Sanctuary holds a significant portion of the Canadian or global population of one or more bird species at some point in the year. For example, the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary alone hosts one million shorebirds and over four million geese each year, and that doesn’t even count all the other bird groups like loons, ducks, birds of prey and songbirds. Parks Canada also has a network of protected areas representing environments of Canada’s natural heritage. At present, eight national parks can be found within the tundra biome. In the provinces and territories where the tundra lies, areas have also been set aside for conservation by some provincial and territorial governments.


Tundra and glacier on Bylot Island, NU

The tundra and its species must be protected, so researchers are studying the biome.Many of Canada's leading Arctic research scientists are employed by Environment Canada and millions of dollars are spent on Arctic monitoring programs each year.Also, the Center for Northern Studies at Université Laval in Québec City, the Churchill Northern Studies Center in Churchill, Manitoba, the Aurora Research Institute in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and the Nunavut Research Institute in Iqaluit, Nunavut, conduct many fascinating projects on tundra ecosystems and species.Several other research projects are supported by the Canadian Wildlife Federation through its Species at Risk Fund, including projects for polar bears, Ivory Gulls, and the Red Knot.Projects are being undertaken to investigate these species, understand their ecology, and improve their conservation. .Climate change and the impacts of modernization in coastal Canadian Arctic are the main objectives of the project, which has continued beyond the International Polar Year.


The tundra under the snow

Climate Change Impacts on Canadian Arctic Tundra (CiCAT), also created through the International Polar Year, has scientists from all over Canada studying terrestrial ecology and climate change's impacts.Another plan calls for the construction of a federal Canadian High Arctic Research Station. This would let scientists study the tundra and build on the work being done at the Polar Continental Shelf Program facility in Resolute, Nunavut, run by Natural Resources Canada.These projects will teach us more about the tundra and how to use its resources sustainably. The drying of the vegetation and the increase in thunderstorms could lead to tundra fires, while species from the south could find new habitat in the warming Arctic.These species would compel native tundra species to move farther north, cause resource competition, and spread disease, resulting in a reduction in native biodiversity.A shrinking tundra would mean less habitat for native species.There is also a threat from air pollution to the tundra. By the global air circulation patterns, air pollutants from the south are transported to the poles.

What You Can Do



If you are visiting the tundra, tread lightly on the ecosystem. Take only pictures, and walk on sturdy ground as footprints can last for years and leave the tundra destroyed in that area. Also, keep in mind that some plant and lichen species, and the underlying ice-rich permafrost, are very sensitive to trampling by all-terrain vehicles. Even if you are hiking, walk on rock where possible.

If you do not live in the Arctic, you can do much for the tundra. Since it’s sensitive to climate change, human activities and air pollution, some of your actions while in the South can have an impact in the North. Trees help clean the atmosphere of greenhouse gases! If you can, plant a tree in your yard, or organize a tree-planting activity in your community. Using less energy is a great way to curb climate change. Walk or cycle when possible, turn the heating or cooling system down a notch and use energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances!

To inspire your friends, family and community about protecting the tundra and its inhabitants, learn more about this epic biome and the species found there. Then share your knowledge!

Scientific Reviewers

Joël Bêty, Ph.D. Département de biologie et Centre d’études nordiques Université du Québec à Rimouski

Mitch Campbell Kivalliq Regional Wildlife Biologist Nunavut Department of Environment Wildlife Research Division Government of Nunavut

Grant Gilchrist Research Scientist - Marine Birds National Wildlife Research Centre Government of Canada

Mark Mallory Canada Research Chair, Associate Professor Biology Department Acadia University

Jennie Rausch Shorebird Biologist Canadian Wildlife Service Environment Canada Government of CanadaTyler Ross Environmental Education Specialist Nunavut Department of Environment Government of Nunavut

Pauline Scott Visitor Experience Manager & Prevention Coordinator Nunavut Field Unit Parks Canada Agency Government of Canada

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BBC One - Planet Earth, Great Plains, The Arctic Tundra

Canadian High Arctic Research Station

Northern Arctic Ecozone

Arctic Change - Land: Tundra

Frozen ground in the Arctic

National Geographic, Tundra

University of California, The tundra biome

Arctic Biodiversity Portal

Birds Protected in Canada Under the Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994

Species at Risk Registry

Important areas for birds in Nunavut

Canadian Wildlife Federation, Endangered Species Programme

Canadian Wildlife Federation, Below Zero Education Programme

Canadian Wildlife Federation, Voices of the North

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of the Environment, 2012. All rights reserved.