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.
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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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