Lessons from Travels: Upland vs. Lowland Tundra

by Carl Strang

Kokechik Bay, at the tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, provided a good opportunity to compare upland and lowland tundra communities.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

In western Alaska, the distinction is clear. The more elevated areas, relatively dry and seldom if ever inundated by tides or floods, develop an upland tundra vegetation mix.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Some animals are connected with the upland tundra.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Lowland tundra was where we spent most of our time, in waterfowl related studies.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

In coastal western Alaska, the lowlands are subject to at least occasional storm tide flooding. Many more species of birds nest in the lowlands.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

As the continental glacier advanced and retreated across northeastern Illinois, the vegetation close to it no doubt had some tundra character. Little evidence remains, however, to give us a clear picture of this. Pollen records are more informative about the vegetation communities that followed as the climate warmed.

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