North American Plant Distributions:
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

High school students practice skills interpreting graphs and drawing conclusions while learning about North American plant diversity and distribution. First, they investigate current patterns of plant diversity and distribution across North America, exploring broad latitudinal gradients of species richness and climate influences on vegetation type. Second, they build on this knowledge to predict changes based on current projections on global warming.

Several enrichment activities focus on regional and local patterns of plant diversity and distribution. This shift allows students to grasp the importance of scale in ecology. Students have opportunities to explore the roles of biotic and abiotic factors, the natural changes during ecological succession, and the impact of introduced species on diversity and distribution.

Learning goals: to define the elements of a biome and compare land biomes, to understand the abiotic factors that influence biomes, to identify patterns of diversity and distribution, and their changes over time

Key words: ecosystem, biome, temperate zone, tropical zone, climate, abiotic factors, biotic factors, diversity, distribution, communities, ecological succession, global warming

The North American continent treated in the Flora of North America covers 21.5 million km 2 of land, north of Mexico to the limits of plant life in the artic. It stretches between latitudes 26º and 85ºN, between longitudes 15ºW and 173ºE, and from sea level to high mountains. This great and varied landscape is home to about 20,100 plant species (about 21% of those are endemic). North America has most of the major land biomes found around the world: tundra, taiga, temperate forest, chaparral, grasslands, and deserts. Tropical forests and savannas are absent because the continent is centered in the temperate, not the tropical, zone.

Over Earth's long history the climate has shifted. The distribution of plants in North America has shifted too. Biomes map of ice-age periods and current conditions are strikingly different. Mean annual temperature during the last full-glacial period was about 6ºC lower. An ice sheet covered the northern half of North America. When warming began 18,000 years ago, this ice sheet retreated to the Arctic Circle and plants (such as spruces, pines, and oaks) advanced northward. Ice-age communities also included combinations of plants not seen today. Soil cores and fossils provide evidence of past conditions.

We rely on scientific predictions for an outlook on the future. Earth's climate has warmed by 0.6ºC in the last 100 years. The global climate is predicted to be 1.4 to 5.8ºC warmer by the end of this century. Plants are already responding to global change in some ways that meet predictions.

At high latitudes and alpine areas, where climate change is expected to be most severe, plant communities are shifting distribution. Shrubs are shifting northward and expanding into the Arctic. The treeline in North America, Europe, and New Zealand is advancing to higher elevations up mountain slopes. Plants in the Alps are shifting up slope by 1-4 meters in elevation per decade. Regional shifts in the distribution of particular plants species are expected. Responses in plant physiology and reproduction are also occurring. The length of the growing season in some areas has increased by about 3.6 days per decade over the last 50 years. What kinds of changes are expected (or already reported) in your region?

Minds-on Activities (Student Worksheets)

Enrichment Activities

  • Why are some plant groups found in eastern North America and eastern Asia? Research how and why the distribution of plants such as Liriodendron or Cornus have changed over time.
  • What patterns of diversity and distribution can you see in your schoolyard, backyard, or local park? As a class project, survey local diversity and distribution by sampling at least two vegetation plots. Identify differences in the plots and suggest explanations for patterns; then collect data to test the hypotheses (see the Lesson Exploring Local Biodiversity for details).
  • Grasslands once covered 25% of North America, and the large bison herds that once ranged across the region are all but gone. Create a map of past distribution patterns for prairies and bison (or prairie dogs). What role do animals play on a prairie? What about fire?
  • Do human activities help or hinder the natural cycle of ecological succession after a volcanic eruption, a major hurricane, or forest fire? Research a case study of ecological succession, such as Mount St. Helen's or Yellowstone National Park. Illustrate the natural stages from pioneer community to climax community, indicating how human actions can alter the process.
  • Which introduced plants are problems in your region? Design a study on an invasive plant pest. Here are some starting questions: How quickly has the plant spread? Does it negatively affect native plants or animals; if so, how? What is the most effective way to control or permanently remove the plant?
  • If land biomes cover only about 25% of the Earth's surface, what biomes cover the rest? What characteristics are important in describing these biomes? Map the global distribution of estuaries. Why do estuaries support so many organisms?
  • Is the evidence for global warming convincing? Evaluate the evidence. Write a letter to the President of the United States, a senator, or a representative supporting or opposing the official position based on your evaluation of the evidence.

Explore more!
MBGNet – Missouri Botanical Garden’s Education Department has biome photos and facts.

Regional Centers of Plant Diversity – The National Museum of Natural History, Department of Botany has maps and data on centers of plant diversity within North America and other areas.

Canyons, Cultures and Environmental Change – Learn about past and present environments and human activity in the four corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Nearctica - All things North American are the focus of this site, with biomes links.

United States Global Change Research Program, US Climate Change Science Program - These linked sites provide an overview of US climate change research and access to reports. and

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - Publications including the Third Assessment Report–Climate Change 2001–are available at this site.

World Wildlife Fund - Discover current research findings of WWF’s Climate Change Program.

What can you do?
Get involved! Discover new ways to understand, improve, and protect our world.
Globe – A worldwide program to involve primary and secondary students and teacher in collecting scientific data.

Mapping the Environment - Missouri Botanical Garden’s Department of Education provides easy to use GIS modules to analyze data on climate, ecoregions, and more.

Global Warming - The Environmental Defense Fund provides 20 simple ways citizens can reduce global warming.

Community-Based Environmental Protection - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency integrates environmental management and protection issues of local communities.

Suggested Readings and Resources
Bartlein, P. J., Whitlock, C., and Shafer, S. L. 1997. Future climate in the Yellowstone National

Park region and its potential impact on vegetation. Conservation Biology 11: 782–792.

Flora of North America Editorial Committee, eds., 1993+. Flora of North America North of
Mexico. 7+ vols. Volume 1. New York and Oxford.

Grabherr, G., Gottfried, M., and Pauli, H. 1994. Climate effects on mountain plants. Nature
369: 448.

Miller-Rushing, A. J. and Primack, R. B. 2004. Climate Change and Plant Conservation. Plant
Talk January, pp. 23–28.

Parmesan, C. and Yohe, G. 2003. A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts
across natural systems. Nature 421: 37–42.

Primack, D., Imbres, C., Primack, R. B., Miller-Rushing, A. J., and Del Tredici, P. 2004. Herbarium
specimens demonstrate earlier flowering times in response to warming in Boston.
American Journal of Botany 91: 1260–1264.

Ross, M. S., O’Brien, J. J., Da Silveira, L., and Lobo Sternberg, L. 1994. Sea-level rise and the
reduction in pine forests in the Florida Keys. Nature 341: 429–432.

Sturm, M. Racine, F. and Tape, K. Increasing shrub abundance in the Arctic. Nature 411:

Williams, J. W., Shuman, B. N., Webb, T. III., Bartlein, P. J., and Leduc, P. L. 2004. Late
Quaternary vegetation dynamics in North America: Scaling from taxa to biomes.
Ecological Monographs 74: 309–334.

Xiang, Q.-Y., Soltis, D. E., Soltis, P. S., Manchester, S. R., and Crawford, D. J. 2000. Timing the
eastern Asian–eastern North American floristic disjunction: Molecular clock corroborates
paleontological estimates. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 15: 463–472.
NRC Content Standards: Unifying Concepts & Processes 1.1, 1.3, 1.4; Science as Inquiry 2.1; Physical Science 3.6; Life Science 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6; Energy and Space Science 5.1; Science and Technology 6.1; Science in Personal and Social Perspective 7.3, 7.5, 7.6

Grades and Levels: high school, with modification for middle school

Adapting activities on plant distributions for middle school level

Introduce younger students to the biome in your region, ask them to suggest common native plants. Have students use a map of North America to shade in the distribution of several species that form the dominant vegetation type of your area. Also, have them chart the major climate variables for your region. Divide the class into groups covering North American land biomes (tundra, taiga, temperate forest, chaparral, desert, grassland). Ask each team to produce a poster illustrating the location of a biome in North America and its characteristic climate, plants, and animals. Or have students address similar questions at a local scale.

Download the Flora of North America base map at
. Or prepare and print maps of North America using the United States Geological Survey's site:

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