About the Nearctic Realm – What is it? | Culture & Biogeography

world map with question marks on it, related to biogeography and the nearctic realm
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Realm? What are we, crossing through the wardrobe of Narnia? It sounds a bit fancy, but Biogeographic (or Zoogeographic) Realms are a way that scientists have divided the world to connect its main biological and geographic features. The continents in all their glory can be a confusing and misrepresentative way to look at the world. We’ve discussed if Bio-Realms might be a better way to divide our planet before. Here, I want to go deeper into one realm in particular, including some of its main physical and cultural features. Don’t mind me, I just love geography–and biogeography, apparently.

world map highlighting the nearctic realm in green
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What is the Nearctic?

The Nearctic Realm is a part of the wider “Arctic” Biogeographical Realm that stretches across much of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s Ne-arctic, as in “New,” because it’s in the New World. That is, the world that was unknown by Eurasians and Africans up until a recent point. That is, the Americas. Put together with the Palearctic (“Old World” Arctic), they can be called the Holarctic (or the whole Arctic!). The Nearctic happens to coincide with what most people think of when they picture “North America.” It includes everything in that continent starting from the Arctic — including Greenland — and goes down until we reach the tropics. In the Southwest, this cutoff is somewhere in the middle of Mexico, while in the Southeast, the cutoff is Central Florida. 

Since we’re talking about the limitations of the realm, let’s look at the political geography. Only two countries take up the bulk of the Nearctic:

  • Canada
  • the United States

A good chunk of Mexico is in the Nearctic, though most of the country probably isn’t (it depends on definitions). Nearctic Mexico would be the deserts, shrublands, and temperate mountains in the north. The Kingdom of Denmark sneaks its way in by way of the massive constituent country, Greenland. France also has a piece by way of a tiny territory off the coast of Newfoundland called St. Pierre & Miquelon. Otherwise, that’s it!

Geography of the Nearctic

The Nearctic is known for having large, somewhat continuous biome types. Some major ones to remember are the Arctic tundra, Boreal forests / taiga, the Great Plains, the Nearctic (or North American) deserts, and the Eastern temperate forests. Much of those forests have been heavily urbanized or used for agriculture, but there are still some trees if you look. Oh, it’s not that bad.

cacti and flora in the sonora desert, southwestern nearctic realm
Sonora Desert – Brian Henderson

The realm is home to tons of lakes, big and small, with the largest (Lake Superior, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, etc.) being in the Great Lakes region. There are also some seriously long rivers here too, with some notable mentions being the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Yukon, and the Rio Grande.

forest, lake, and mountain scene in the rocky mountains, a major feature of the nearctic realm
Rocky Mountains – G. Lamar

Major mountain systems include the famous Rockies, the Pacific Ranges (or Cordillera), the East and West Sierra Madres, and the Appalachians. They are all very extensive too. The Rockies stretch from the Southwest United States up into Northern Canada. The Pacific Ranges basically run up the entire Pacific Coast. Depending on definition, the Appalachians go from the hills of Mississippi to the rocky shores of Newfoundland. Another big one is the Arctic Cordillera, a set of rugged mountains that stretch from Northern Labrador and Quebec all the way up to Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. 

unique temperate rainforest in the pacific northwest region of north america
Temperate Rainforest, Pacific Northwest – Tjflex2

There are a couple of biomes that stand out from the rest of the realm. The Pacific Northwest is home to the biggest — or longest — temperate rainforest in the world. On the other end, Appalachia is home to pockets of temperate rain and cloud forests. A large section of the Gulf Coast, especially around Louisiana, is home to vast wetlands and swamps called bayous. 

ice cap in the arctic tundra of canada
Ice cap in Canadian Arctic – NASA ICE

Another distinct area is Greenland’s Arctic desert (that’s right, they can be cold). That biome is a dry, snowy wilderness covered in snow year-round. Since we’re in the “Ne-Arctic,” the weather is just about everything but tropical. As we saw, it ranges from moist forests to dry prairies and arid deserts. Mediterranean climate is common in the matorral and chaparral shrublands of the West. Parts of the southeastern Nearctic aren’t quite tropical, but do have a humid subtropical climate. The main ecoregions include subtropical forests, temperate mixed and conifer forests, boreal forests, temperate and subtropical grasslands and plains, tundra, Mediterranean wood and shrublands, deserts, and even mangroves off the coast of Northwestern Mexico.

Ecology of the Nearctic

The Nearctic is home to many plants and animals. Some of the common big fauna are antelope (pronghorns), bison, wolves, foxes, bobcats, lynx, cougars (or mountain lions), deer, bighorn sheep, moose, bears, and musk oxen. There are also tons of rodents like rabbits, gophers, and squirrels, as well as beavers and porcupines. Armadillos, peccaries, and opossums came from further south. There are lots of bovids (cows) and horses too, but those were mostly introduced later. Camels, horses, and even a kind of cheetah were native to this region but endemic species have all died out.

turkey, an endemic and common fowl in the nearctic zone
Turkey – Tim Lumley

Alligators are common in some parts, as are many other reptiles, amphibians, and everything else. Major birds are crows, cardinals, turkeys, and hummingbirds, as well as many owls, hawks, eagles, ducks, geese, condors, and pelicans. Different berries and flowers, as well as specialized desert, tundra, and temperate zone plants are also found here. See this article for some interesting flora in North America.

Let’s Get Some Culture … of the Nearctic

As I mentioned before, one of the cool things about Bio-Realms is how they kind of coincide with human cultural interactions too. The dominating cultures in this realm tend to be this “Neo-Anglo” culture of the North American variety (it’s quite different from Neo-Anglo culture in the Caribbean, for example), and a Latin American culture, also of the North American variety. Neo-Anglo culture is strongest throughout, especially in much of the U.S. and Canada. Still, Latino culture is strong in the Southwest of the region. This is mostly in Mexico (duh!), but also in bordering U.S. states and several urban areas throughout the realm. 

“Neo-Franco” culture is strong in some areas like Canada, especially in Quebec province. It also has some influence in parts of Louisiana or St. Pierre & Miquelon, of course. Besides being a part of the same three countries, these areas are heavily influential in each other’s history and contemporary identities. They receive many immigrants amongst one another and share languages, slang, music, and cuisine across borders. 

Indigenous cultures are also still around, though much subtler than in the Neotropical Realm. Their cultures are more visible in the Western United States and Mexico or rural Canada. This is also true of the Arctic where the many Inuit peoples have a distinct culture and identity. Match that with Greenland where there’s this funky mix of Inuit and Danish cultural cues. 


We’ve come to the end of the Nearctic Realm, but there’s so much more to explore. What other cultural ties do the people of this realm share? Are there any other cool animals, plants, or geographic features you can think of in this realm? Had you heard about the Nearctic before? Tell us in the comments!

Follow if you enjoyed the article and feel free to read more posts. Thanks as always for stopping by. Sending you good vibrations. Peace!

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Bio-Realms – A Better Way Than Continents to ‘Divide’ the World?

Continents are confusing …

a world map with question marks over it, showing the confusion that comes with the current system of continents
original by Brett Zeck

There’s an ongoing question that pokes at the side of so many people in this world. Should I take my shower before or after work? Woah, not that! You dirty minds. While either way you choose has its benefits, I was thinking about the continents. Most people agree that there are seven continents … no wait, there are definitely five … maybe three real ones and a handful of small ones? 

You see the issue; it’s hard to define what a continent really is. Is it a large landmass completely separate from all others like a social-distancing master? Or, is a continent just any big chunk of land that generally fits together, separated only by a thin isthmus or huge range of mountains, for example? I get the feeling this was so much easier back in the Pangaea days.

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I’m not here to prove what is a continent and what isn’t. Instead of trying to define them, we can look at what could be a much better way of “dividing” our world — if we must divide it at all. This potentially better system is by way of the bio-realm. But first, why is the continent system so jacked up in the first place?

Why is the continent system jacked up?

For one, it’s hard to tell what a continent is and how it should be divided. The names of continents we have now were mostly named by outsiders, with proposed etymologies coming mostly from European or Middle Eastern origins. Keep in mind the names of some of these places are so archaic that they can get seriously hard to trace.

Some factors that make the continents confusing can be:

  1. There’s such a diversity of cultures and demographics on any given continent that an umbrella term can’t capture them all (“African” for Tunisia and the Congo, “Asian” for India and Japan)
  2. Many countries fall into a weird buffer zone (Is Egypt African or Asian? Is Armenia Asian or European? What is the Caribbean? The Middle East? Oceania?)
  3. Many countries can’t agree on what the real continents are anyway (North and South America, or just America? Is it Eurasia, or maybe Afro-Eurasia? Australia, Oceania, or Australasia? Good-ness!)

That is pretty jacked up. So, what are the bio-realms? Why might they be better than continents?

Into a new “realm”

Biogeographic realms, in this circumstance, are a way to look at the world by dividing it among major ecological and geographical areas. This means places that share a somewhat continuous ecology (plant and animal life, in most cases, climate and habitat types too). Plus, don’t you just love the word “realms?” It sounds like we’re traveling into some kind of fantasy dimension. 


Okay, so the bio-realms are:

  • Nearctic Realm (North America excluding the tropics)
  • Neotropical Realm (all of the Americas in or south of the tropics, i.e. Central & South America + the Caribbean)
  • Palearctic Realm (all of Europe and Asia north of the tropics, including Northern Africa)
  • Afrotropical Realm (all of Africa in or south of the tropics, including the tropics of Arabia and the Arabian Sea coast west of Pakistan)
  • Indo-Malayan Realm (all of Asia in or south of the tropics, going east from Pakistan)
  • Australasian Realm (Australia, New Zealand, and Melanesia, including Papua and Maluku Islands)
  • Oceanian Realm (Micronesia and Polynesia, generally the Asia-Pacific region)
  • Antarctic Realm (Antarctica and the surrounding seas)

*I like to separate between West and East Palearctic since the region is so huge, but that’s personal preference, not scientific or anything

One cool thing about this system of looking at the world is that it is more fluid. For example, Mauritius and Madagascar can be considered Afrotropical in terms of geography but Indo-Malayan in terms of culture and history. On a broader note, this grouping can help people get a truer sense of what the world really looks like. The bio-realms are intended to be solely geographical, but without really trying, they pretty well represent most of the historic and cultural interactions that people have had over the millennia too. 

For instance, Morocco had a lot more interaction and influence in nearby Spain than it did in faraway Uganda. Pretty much all of Latin America — and the Caribbean with which it shares many similarities — are in or south of the tropics anyway. South and Southeast Asia have been interacting with and have a lot more in common with each other than they do with the rest of Asia. North African countries have a lot more shared history and identity with Europe and the Middle East than they do with Sub-Saharan Africa in general. 

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Of course, the world is globalizing and interconnectivity between cultures is constantly on the rise. Even still, the divisions of bio-realms make a lot more sense when grouping places together based on shared geography, climate, and cultures. 

Like with the continents, there are definitely problematic zones that aren’t so easy to categorize. Places like Melanesia, the Sahara, and the Himalayas are still tricky because the cultural and geographic lines aren’t so clear-cut from one side to the other. Several countries like Mexico, China, and Indonesia would fall into two realms, while countries like Pakistan fall into three. That could get a little weird. Even with these issues, I appreciate that the bio-realms at least show how there are great levels of diversity within those countries, amplifying their special roles as doorways between realms. (See, isn’t this fun?!)

Going back to the purpose of this article, the bio-realm system wouldn’t be a way to divide people but to more accurately view the world the way it really is. They are not supposed to be a sharp clear line of separation, but rather a wide fuzzy line that combines similar areas into large general categories. The system is much more accurate at representing the world’s actual geography, somewhat better at grouping the world’s people, but still flawed like any other manmade labeling system.


What do you think about the bio-realms? Did you understand this way of dividing the world? Could it be valuable to utilize this system and the continental system together? Or would you rather stick with the good old continents? 

Thank you for reading, and take good care of each other, whatever realm you reside in! 

Contact or collaborate: tietewaller@gmail.com, or Give me a shout!