The broad zones of natural vegetation and soils of Russia correspond closely with the country’s climatic zones. In the far north a tundra vegetation of mosses, lichens, and low shrubs grows where the summers are too cool for trees. Permafrost, or permanently frozen subsoil, is found throughout this region. The ground is frozen to great depths and only a shallow surface layer thaws in summer allowing plants to grow. Forests cover some 45 per cent of Russia, the greater part lying in Siberia. Taken altogether, the country’s forests account for nearly 25 per cent of the world’s forest area. The forest zone is divisible into a large northern part, the coniferous boreal forest, or taiga, and a much smaller southern area of mixed coniferous-deciduous forest.
The taiga lies south of the tundra; it occupies the northern 40 per cent of European Russia and extends to cover much of Siberia and Far Eastern Russia. Much of this region also has permafrost. Although the vast taiga zone is made up predominantly of coniferous trees, in some places small-leaved trees, such as birch, poplar, aspen, and willow, add to the diversity of the forest. In the extreme north-western part of European Russia the taiga is dominated by pines, although significant numbers of fir, birch, and other trees are also present.
Eastward to the western slopes of the Urals, pines are still common, but firs predominate, and in some areas almost pure stands of birch exist. The taiga of the West Siberian Lowland is made up primarily of various species of pine, but along the southern fringes of the forest birch becomes dominant. Throughout much of the Central Siberian Platform and the mountains of the far eastern region, larch, a deciduous member of the pine family, becomes dominant. The trees of the taiga zone are generally small and rather widely spaced. In some areas, where the local drainage is poor, there are no trees at all, and marsh grasses and bushes form the vegetative cover. The soils of the taiga are podzolic in character and infertile, having been leached of most of their plant nutrients by the abundance of acidic groundwater.
The mixed-forest zone, comprising both coniferous and broadleaf deciduous trees, occupies the central portion of the eastern European Plain from St Petersburg in the north to the border with Ukraine in the south. Coniferous evergreen trees dominate the forest in the north, while broadleaf trees are dominant in the south. The principal broadleaf species are oak, beech, maple, and hornbeam.
A similar forest of somewhat different species prevails throughout much of southern Far Eastern Russia, along the middle Amur River valley and south along the Ussuri River valley. Grey-brown forest soils are found in the mixed-forest zone. They are not as infertile as those of the taiga, and with proper soil management, careful farming, and heavy fertilization they can be kept quite productive. To the south, a narrow zone of forest-steppe separates the mixed forest from the steppes.
Although now largely under cultivation, the forest-steppe has a natural vegetation of grassland with scattered groves of trees. Averaging about 150 km (95 mi) in width, this zone stretches east across the middle Volga valley and southern Ural Mountains into the southern portions of the West Siberian Lowland. Isolated areas of forest-steppe can also be found in the southern intermontane basins of eastern Siberia. A mixture of grasses with only a few stunted trees in sheltered valleys is the natural vegetation of the Russian steppe, a large region that includes the western half of the North Caucasian Plain and a belt of land extending eastward across the southern Volga valley, the southern Urals, and parts of western Siberia. Like the forest-steppe zone, virtually all of the Russian steppe is now under cultivation.
Animal life is varied and, in places, abundant, throughout many parts of Russia. The wildlife of the tundra along the Arctic coast, northern Pacific coast, and offshore islands is surprisingly diverse, and includes the polar bear, seals, walrus, the polar fox, reindeer, pika, marmot, and the white hare. Birdlife includes white partridges, snowy owls, gulls, and loons. Geese, swans, and ducks migrate into the region during the summer, which is characterized by the appearance of millions of mosquitoes, gnats, and other insects. Fish abound in the streams. The taiga forest serves as a habitat for the European elk, brown bears, reindeer, the lynx, the sable, and a variety of forest birds, such as owls and the nightingale. Swamps in this zone have been stocked with muskrats from Canada; along with squirrels, the muskrat is now the main source of pelts legally trapped in the wild. The broadleaf forests contain wild boars, deer, wolves, foxes, minks, and a variety of birds, snakes, lizards, and tortoises. The forests of south-eastern Far Eastern Russia are the habitat of the large Siberian tiger, as well as of the Amur leopard, bears, and musk and other species of deer. The steppe is inhabited primarily by rodents such as marmots, hamsters, and five species of suslik, a type of ground squirrel. Human activities have led to the extinction, or near-extinction of most large grazing mammals, and their predators. Those that remain include the saiga antelope, although this is under renewed threat, the steppe polecat, and the Tatar fox. Birdlife indigenous to the area includes the demoiselle crane, the steppe eagle, and the great and little bustard, finches, pratincoles, and kestrels and other falcons. The Caucasus region has a wide variety of wildlife, including mountain goats, the chamois, the Caucasian deer, the wild boar, the porcupine, the Anatolian leopard, the jackal, squirrels, bear, and such game fowl as the black grouse, turkey hen, and stone partridge. Reptiles and amphibians are also numerous. © "Russia" © Emmanuel Buchot y Encarta
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