Newfoundland and Labrador Biosphere

The biosphere, all of life on earth, can be subdivided into distinct geographical regions called biomes. A biome is a region with a distinct climate and characteristic plants and animals. Newfoundland and Labrador is actually part of two different biomes - tundra and taiga.

The Tundra

The tundra is a sub-arctic zone characterized by long, cold winters and short, warm summers. Precipitation is low and in the form of rain and snow. It is sometimes referred to as a cold desert. The soil a meter down is permanently frozen and is called permafrost. Since water cannot easily drain through the soil because of this underlying permafrost, water tends to collect in shallow pools. The landscape, devoid of erect trees and tall shrubs, is dominated by low shrubs, mosses, lichens and small flowering herbaceous plants. The characteristic animals of the tundra biome include barren ground caribou, musk ox, arctic wolf, arctic fox, arctic hare, emmings, and a variety of voles. The polar bear is the dominant carnivore. Many birds migrate to this area in spring to lay their eggs and rear their young before flying south to warmer areas for the winter.

Tundra biome of the coastal barrens, northern Labrador
Tundra Biome of the Coastal Barrens, Northern Labrador
The antlers lying on the ground indicate the presence of caribou and other wildlife in this region.
Reproduced by permission of Brian C. Bursey. From Brian C. Bursey, Exploring Labrador (St. John's, NL: Harry Cuff Publications, ©1991) 87.

The Taiga

The taiga generally lies to the south of the tundra and is typified by very low winter temperatures, a longer growing season than the tundra, and more precipitation in the form of rain and snow. The soils are generally acidic and lack in important nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. This biome is dominated by coniferous trees, especially balsam fir and black spruce, with white birch, trembling aspen and mountain ash being the commonest deciduous trees. The characteristic animals of this biome include moose (the biome is sometimes called the spruce-moose biome), black bear, Canada lynx, red fox, pine marten, short-tailed weasel, and mink. Beaver, muskrat, and river otter abound in the numerous rivers, lakes and ponds. There are also large expanses of wetlands, especially bogs and fens in this biome.


Northern Labrador is a typical part of the tundra. Southern Labrador is an example of the taiga. The island of Newfoundland is not typical of either as it does not possess many of the animals and plants found in other areas of North America. This is due to the glaciers which covered the island during the last ice age until about 10,000 years ago. Since the island emerged from the ice age basically devoid of plant and animal life it had to be recolonized from the adjacent mainland. The predominantly westerly winds blew lichen and moss spores onto the island, and maybe even light seeds. But not all plants made the journey and so the island has fewer plants than adjacent mainland areas. Flying insects and birds came across, as could swimming animals (beaver, muskrat, otter) and some other animals crossed the sea ice that forms between the island and the mainland during winter. Only freshwater fish capable of surviving in seawater managed to swim to the island. No hibernating animals crossed (i.e. chipmunks, frogs etc.) The native mammals are few in number; while Labrador has some 42 native mammals, the island of Newfoundland is home to only fourteen. There are no raccoons, skunks or porcupines on the island. However, although snakes are not native to the island, since at least 2009 according to a CBC news report, they have been found breeding in western Newfoundland.

The Island of Newfoundland

The island has a very high proportion of alien herbaceous plants and insects. This is due to the long history of European settlement; human migrations are accompanied by floral and faunal migrations, either accidentally (in animal feed) or intentionally (as garden plants). Moose, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, striped chipmunk, and masked shrew, among others, have been introduced to the island through specific wildlife mandates.

The Coast

The marine waters around the province are considered to be boreal or sub-Arctic in nature. During winter sea ice forms along the coast of Labrador and along the west and north east coasts of the island of Newfoundland. Summer surface water temperatures rarely exceed 16 degrees Celsius.

Polar Bear
Polar Bear
Although common in the tundra region, polar bears are often seen in locations further south. This generally occurs in the spring as sea ice along the Labrador coast breaks up and is carried south by the ocean's currents.
Reproduced by permission of Brian C. Bursey. From Brian C. Bursey, Newfoundland and Labrador Souvenir Book (Canada: Friesen Printers, ©1997) 48.

Much of the coastline is rocky, providing attachment for a wide variety of plant and animal life. The dominant plants of the shoreline are the large brown seaweeds (especially the bladder, forked and knotted wracks, and winged and sugar kelps), although there are also a number of red and green seaweeds present. Common animals of the seashore region include barnacles, tortoiseshell limpet, periwinkles, blue mussel, sea anemones, sea slugs, sea urchins, sea stars, and rock crabs. The deeper offshore waters are home to a variety of fish (cod, sculpins, cunners etc.), and marine mammals (dolphins, porpoises, and whales). A number of seals are commonly found around the coasts with harp and hood seals giving birth to their young on ice floes during the spring.

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