Utah's Plants and Animals - Utah's Physical Characteristics

Where's the water?
High in the mountains you can find cold streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands. The area surrounding this water is called riparian. Riparian comes from the word Latin word ripa, which means bank or shore Riparian areas can also be great recreation spots. You can camp and fish in the high Uintahs. You can visit Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Boating and hiking near Lake Powell will also put you in contact with a riparian environment.

Get your feet wet!
Your fun weekend includes finding a comfortable log and sitting back on the shore and just relaxing. You have only studied the land areas associated with biomes. It is time to take off your shoes and socks and dip your feet in the water. It is time to get your feet wet. 

Riparian (ri-pair-e-un) what?
Water is the lifeblood of the planet. Almost every living thing on Earth needs it for survival. A riparian environment is found near or on the banks of a natural water course. This could be streams, rivers, lakes and tide waters. These environments are found on the highest mountain tops and the lowest valleys. It surrounds the ponds, rivers, streams and "wetlands" in other biomes. These are all places where the precipitation collects.

There are many kinds of riparian environments found in Utah, and the plant and animal life vary with each system. It seems that everyone wants to live near one. Plants can get water more easily when they are near the water, whereas animals often come to these places to drink. The water is filled with plant and animal life such as algae, fish, frogs and water fowl. Even people want to live near water.

Think about it!
There are so many different types of water environments in Utah that it would be difficult to list all of the plants and animals found. The largest riparian area in Utah is the shoreline around the Great SaltLake. Here we find the nesting ground of the white pelicans and plovers. The Farmington Bay and Ogden Bird Refuges are found here.

Getting away from it all!
It is a hot day in August. After hearing you complain about the heat all morning, your parents suggest they take you out of the scorching city heat. You hop in the car and head up the canyon to get out of the heat. When you reach the mountains, you notice that it is much cooler. The trees shade you from the sun, and provide you with a breath of fresh air. Getting into the trees and getting away from the city is a favorite activity for many. There is something about this biome that is peaceful and refreshing. This is the deciduous forest; which is comprised of trees that shed their leaves each year (annually).

Mountains of Trees!
Deciduous forests are large land areas where most of the trees shed their leaves in the fall. In Utah, the deciduous forests are found on the lower slopes mountains before you reach the conifers (pine trees). In North America, deciduous forests once covered a large portion of the eastern United States. The climate in this area has four distinct seasons. The winter in deciduous forests is cold, the summer is hot, and the fall and spring are mild. The average yearly rainfall measures between 75 and 150 cm (30 to 60 inches) in this area. Trees found in the deciduous forest include maple, birch, elm, oak, sumac, cottonwoods, hickory and cherry (these are hardwood trees). Also found below the trees where there is less sunlight are ferns, clover and grasses.

Animals that live in this biome include many types of birds such as woodpeckers and hummingbirds. Squirrels also live in the trees. Larger animals such as raccoons also live in the deciduous forest. One of the larger animals that you have probably seen on your visits to the mountains is deer. Living on the forest floor are salamanders, insects, field mice, and foxes.

Going higher
Now imagine that you are going for a long weekend get-a-way. You helped your parents pack up the sleeping bags, tent, Dutch oven and fishing equipment and headed for the Uintah Mountains. You have always loved this beautiful area filled with thousands of tall trees swaying in the wind. You find this beautiful, peaceful area. This is the coniferous forest; a forest which trees have needles and cones.

Baby it's (cold and snowy) outside!
The coniferous forest is found in the higher elevations of Utah. The winter in this biome is long and cold. Snowfall is heavy during the winter season. In the spring the ground often becomes soggy and swampy from the snowmelt. Summers are cool and pleasant.

Smell the pines!
There are many different types of life in the coniferous forest. The coniferous forest is full of plants and animals. The trees here include pines, spruces, hemlocks and fir trees. Conifers  have adapted to this harsh environment. Their needles have a waxy coating and a small surface area which keeps them from freezing. Other plants found in a coniferous forest  include larkspur, sagebrush, manzanita, and oak. Conifers are often called evergreens.

Some of the animals that live in the coniferous forest make it through the long, harsh winter by hibernating.  Chipmunks eat a lot of food during the early winter and then take a long winter's nap.  Their pulse rate and temperature drops and their breathing slows.  They will sleep without moving for over four months. Some animals build up a large layer of fat to keep them warm in the winter. Other species migrate to warmer areas during the cold season. Bears are not true hibernators, but they do take long winter naps.  During this time they give birth to their cubs.

The living forest!
Animals living in the coniferous forest include many bird species such as the golden eagle, owl, Steller's jays, and hummingbirds. Perhaps when you have visited the forest you may have spotted an animal. These are some of the animals you might have seen; such as a chickadee, coyote, bobcat, elk, deer, moose, porcupines, squirrels or chipmunks. Some of these animals, such as moose, are increasing in numbers in the forests of Utah. Can you explain why?

The disappearing act!
Not only is the coniferous forest beautiful, it is also valuable. These forests provide lumber for much of the world. As a result of lumbering, much of the coniferous forest is vanishing. Some animals are disappearing. That makes some people upset. At the same time however, there is an ever increasing need for these resources.

The Heat is On!
We now journey to the desert. You may have been there before, perhaps you even live there. Deserts are extremely dry. The annual rainfall of a desert is less that 25 cm. (10 inches). You may think that all deserts are hot, but there are two types of deserts: "hot" deserts and "cold" deserts. In Utah, a high temperature of 117°F has been recorded in the Southern part of the State. That is HOT! Nights in deserts; however, are cool.

The living desert
You might think that animal and plant life in the desert would be scarce. The high temperatures and lack of water keep many plants and animals from living in this area. Life does exist in the desert. Plants and animals adapt to allow them to live in these extreme conditions. Many animals conserve energy by sleeping in underground burrows during the day when it is very hot and hunt for food at night. Insects and spiders that live in the desert have thick, hard body exteriors that help maintain their body temperatures. Reptiles have scales which keep in moisture. Animals in Utah deserts include the road runner, desert tortoise, horned toad, turkey vulture, kangaroo rat, and sidewinder rattlesnake.

Plants in the desert also have adapted to the harsh environment. Many plants grow in just the few weeks during the rainy season. They produce seeds quickly and then they die. Other plants have shallow root systems that soak up water quickly after a rainstorm. Still other plants have very deep roots that can reach water deep within the ground.

Plants in the desert often have a waxy coating to reduce water loss. Cacti have needle-like leaves to protect against water loss. Plants that live in the desert include the bristlecone pine, sagebrush, juniper, Joshua tree, yucca, and cactus.

A cold desert?
The journey through the great state of Utah continues; and this part of your virtual trip takes you to some of the most beautiful and unique country on the entire planet, Bryce Canyon is an example of a cold desert. Another example of a cold desert in Utah is the "Great Basin" area. The temperature ranges in cold desert biomes are extreme. The Great Basin area is one of the few deserts on the planet where the temperature often falls below freezing. It is cold enough in the Great Basin desert to snow in the winter.

The Great Basin Desert in Utah has long periods of cold weather and somewhat higher precipitation than other deserts (10-20 inches). Much of this precipitation falls as snow which is no surprise to you if you happen to live in this area.

Cold desert animals
Animals that make their home in the cold desert must be able to adapt to the extremely cold winters and very hot summers. Animals that live in the cold desert include the badger, bald eagle, bison, coyote, gopher snake, antelope, jackrabbit, mule deer and prairie dogs. 

Cold desert plants
Plants that live in the cold desert include the sego lily (Utah's state flower), bitterbrush, rabbit brush, and sage brush, and various types of grasses. Of course these are plants that are "native" to the cold desert. The Great Basin area has many more types of plants than it did two hundred years ago. Can you suggest a reason why?

Since people have come into the Great Basin area, there have been changes. One change included introducing different animals which eat plants. People have planted plants which they wanted to grow in the area. The people also changed the way that water flowed by building canals and reservoirs.