Differences Between the Grassland & the Tundra

By Ethan Shaw
Caribou are one of the significant large mammals found on Arctic tundras.

Tundras and grasslands look superficially similar—they are vast expanses without much in the way of trees. But the ecology of these biomes are distinct, mostly because of differing geographies.

Distribution

Tundras occur beyond the tree-line in both the Arctic and Antarctic, as well as high mountain environments. Grasslands are far more widely distributed, found in tropical, sub-tropical and mid-latitude regions on all continents except Antarctica.

Plant Communities

As the name suggests, grasslands are dominated by grasses, although forbs, shrubs and trees may be in association. Some grasses grow on the tundra, as well, but the groundcover is equally built by lichen, moss, herbs and matted shrubs.

Trees on the Tundra

The word “tundra” stems from a Finnish term for “treeless plain." If trees exist at all on a tundra, they’re highly scattered and stunted—mostly on account of the short growing season and cold temperatures.

Trees on Grasslands

Trees may be significant components of grasslands.

Trees are restricted on grasslands, too—by low precipitation and fires, mainly—but they may be significant components of the landscape. Widely spaced trees notably punctuate grass-dominated savannas, for example. Galley forests of cottonwoods often line floodplains in North America’s shortgrass plains.

Wildlife Densities

Bison are major grazers on the North American mid-latitude grasslands.

In historical times, the fertility of many grasslands—especially the savannas of Africa and the prairies and steppe of North America—supported amazing concentrations of large grazing animals. The greatest densities of wildlife on the Arctic tundra are those of breeding birds and insects.

About the Author

Ethan Shaw is a writer and naturalist living in Oregon. He has written extensively on outdoor recreation, ecology and earth science for outlets such as Backpacker Magazine, the Bureau of Land Management and Atlas Obscura. Shaw holds a Bachelor of Science in wildlife ecology and a graduate certificate in geographic information systems from the University of Wisconsin.