spotting birds with a telescope, photo by John & Karen Hillingsworth, courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service

Once you are familiar with the plants, animals and ecosystems around your home, a whole new world opens itself up to you. That world is composed of the plants and animals beyond your home area.

If you should become a real nature-freak and spend nearly all your free time learning the names and characteristics of plants and animals just in your local community, and if you have a park or two nearby, some weedy areas and maybe even a small wooded area, it might take you three or four years before you begin feeling that you know your home area fairly well. If you have access to a natural area with various habitats, it will take longer.

At this point, it becomes an absolute pleasure to go to new places where different kinds of plants and animals exist.

Sometimes you don't have to go far to experience entirely different natural worlds. For example, if your local area has no wetlands, you'll find that if you can get to a swamp, marsh or beach just a few minutes away, many, many species will be different from what's found in your upland habitats. If you've only been paying attention to the lowlands and there's a nearby hill with rocky cliffs, simply by climbing the hill you'll discover new niches with new plants and animals.

Map of the world's biomes. This map has been created by Jim Conrad and is based on a black-and-white map in "Fundamentals of Ecology" by Eugene P. Odum, published by W.B.Saunders Company, Philadelphia & London, 1959. His map was on a 1949 book by Finch & Trewartha. As far as Jim is concerned, anyone may use this map for his or her own purposes, though he is not clear how copyright issues apply in this circumstance.

If you travel a few hours you may discover yourself in a whole new biome. Biomes are very large communities of plants an animals, such as North America's Temperate Deciduous Forest (with trees that lose their leaves), the Northern Coniferous Forest (with evergreen trees), and the Temperate Grassland or Prairie Province. Smaller biomes include those such as the Pacific Rain Forest, and the Pinyon-Juniper Biomes in the West. All biomes are ecosystems, but ecosystems can be larger or smaller than biomes. Radford University produces a  Web site describing and illustrating the Earth's major biomes.

In western North America it's easier to visit several biomes than in the East. That's because the West is more mountainous, and it's possible to pass through various biomes simply by traveling up or down mountain slopes; traveling a few hundred feet in elevation is equivalent, biologically speaking, to going north overland for hundreds of miles. In the East, to visit taiga, which is a swampy, coniferous forest in very cold locations, one must travel deep into Canada. In the west, you simply find a high mountain and climb until the trees almost peter out. Beyond the mountain's taiga, if the slope continues, there may be treeless tundra, similar to the arctic.

Two main things should be realized about the above map:

  1. In many but not all cases the boundaries between the zones are very indistinct -- they gradually intergrade with one another
  2. Every zone can be subdivided, and that subdivision can be subdivided, and that subdivision can be subdivided, etc.

The following map demonstrates the last point. Notice how many "forest regions" the following map shows in the Eastern US, though in the above map the same area shows only two biomes. Each of the "forest regions" below could be divided into many smaller zones. For example, in some places in the "Western Mesophytic" forest type, there are pure oak forests, in others pure beech and maple, and in some places, at least before the Europeans arrived, there were even natural grasslands!

Boreal/ Spruce-Fir




Western Mesophytic

Mixed Mesophytic



Southeastern Evergreen


Hemlock-White Pine-
Northern Hardwoods

(Chestnuts killed by blight)
Forest Types of Eastern North America. Map prepared by Jim Conrad from a black-and-white original in E. Lucy Braun's book "Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America," published by Hafner Publishing Company, New York & London, 1967. As far is Jim is concerned anyone may use this map for noncommercial reasons, though he is unclear about copyright issues in this case.

One good Internet site for exploring vegetation maps is the University of California Berkeley Library's Checklist of Online Vegetation and Plant Distribution Maps. At that site, for instance, you can click on Global Distribution of Current Forests and see a world map showing were most of the world's remaining forests are located, and what kind they are. Also notice the Global Biodiversity: Species Numbers of Vascular Plants link.

This  map of the "zoogeographic regions of the world" was prepared by Jim Conrad and based on a black-and-white map in John K. Terres' "The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds," published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1980. As far as Jim is concernered anyone may use this map for noncommercial regions, though he is not clear on all the copyright considerations in this particular instance.

Larger than biomes are the earth's biogeographic regions, which more or less coincide with the planet's continents. The above map is based on animals, so it is a "zoogeographic" map. A map showing the world's "phytogeographic" regions, based on plants, is very similar but not identical.

You might guess that when you travel into a new biogeographic region, once again you encounter species that never appear naturally in other biogeographic regions. For example, if you're a birder and you want to see wild rheas, which are primitive, flightless birds, and the only birds in their whole ORDER (all 9,000+ bird species belong to only 30 or so orders, of which the rhea order is one... ), you must visit the Neotropical Biogeographic Region, which includes South America, Central America, and much of southern and central Mexico. Similarly, emus are restricted to the Australian Region.

For North Americans, the closest "other biogeographic region," the Neotropical region, occurs in Mexico. Therefore, Mexico is home to many more species that are "exotic" to North Americans than might be expected.

For example, one order of bird found in Mexico but not in North America is that of the tinamous. These are secretive, primitive, chicken- like ground birds with very short tails, and they are much more often heard than seen. Also there is the order of the trogons, which are pretty, stocky fruit- eaters, entering our biogeographic region only along the region's southernmost fringes. Other exotic families of birds occurring in Mexico include pheasant-like curassows, guans, and chachalacas, the sungrebe, and the jacana; also Mexico has motmots, several species of parrot, and about fifty species of hummingbird!

Of course, these magnificent natural worlds of other biomes and other biogeographic regions won't mean nearly as much to you if you aren't familiar with plants and animals in your own backyard... If you don't know that trogons would never appear in your backyard, then seeing one in Mexico wouldn't give you much of a buzz.


One goal of the backyard naturalist is to learn enough about local nature so that when you go naturalizing in other places, what you see there will just blow you away!

You may want to review some books published by the National Audubon Society, profiling the general natural history of various regions of the US, available at, by clicking here.

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Conrad, Jim. Last updated . Page title: . Retrieved from The Backyard Nature Website at .