Chaparral, or Mediterranean Forests, and shrub is a temperate biome, characterized by hot-dry summers and mild and rainy winters. Nearly all of the rainfall occurs in the winter and spring rainy season.
Mediterranean forests, woodlands, and shrub eco-regions occur in the world’s five mediterranean climate zones
To picture the chaparral biome, you don’t have to stretch your imagination as far as you might think. If you have ever seen a movie about the wild west, you most definitely have seen the chaparral. The word “chaps,” which are protective leather pant guards used by cowboys, actually comes from the Spanish word “chaparro” which means scrub oak, a tough woody plant that dominates here. However, if you aren’t too familiar with cowboys and the wild west, picture instead the beautiful, sweeping birds eye shots from coastal Greece or France that introduce many romantic movies. Either way, what you are probably picturing is a semi-arid expanse of land, filled with a variety of shrubs and grasses densely packed together under clear blue skies and a warm dry sun. Due to its favorable climate and coastal locality, many people live here and it makes for some great movie backdrops. It is also home to a huge biodiversity of plants and many interesting animals!
Note: Some chaparral ecosystems (the ones with low scrubby brush) are very similar to the desert scrub biome , but the chaparral specifically occurs in coastal regions and has much more varied vegetation, whereas desert scrub is a transitional zone between deserts and grasslands.
What defines the chaparral biome, and what adaptations do chaparral animals and plants have that allow them to survive here? Stay tuned, we’ll let you know.
Based on the lines of latitude (the imaginary lines that run east and west on our planet), we can divide the world into three regions: polar, tropical, and temperate. Polar regions are the most northern and southern (between 66° and 90° lat), with temperate regions further towards the equator (23° and 66° lat) and tropic regions in the center (between 0° and 23°) surrounding the equator line.
You will find this biome in the temperate regions between 30° and 50° north and south latitude, from sea level up to around 1500 m (~4900 ft) above sea level. This biome is often found where cool, moist air from the ocean hits dry, warm land masses, typically along the west coast, forming this semi-arid mediterranean climate. The chaparral covers somewhere between 2-5% of terrestrial earth and is found on multiple continents, each with its own name:
At the bottom of this page you will find an extensive list of the types and locations of different chaparral biomes worldwide.
Here’s a video about the typical California chaparral.
When defining a biome, we are interested in both the abiotic factors, or nonliving characteristics like precipitation (rain and snowfall), and the vegetation present. The chaparral is quite diverse in plant communities (discussed later on) but is often represented by a varied “mosaic” of plants and a relatively high plant biodiversity. They are generally dominated by densely growing, and very hardy, evergreen shrubs with an understory of various herbs and grasses. So, even though this biome is quite varied, what are the general abiotic factors that define the shrublands?
The climate here is considered semi-arid and summer and winter are quite distinct, though not nearly as extreme as a place like the arctic tundra. Summers are hot and dry, while winters are mild and moist. Droughts are common in summer, resulting in precipitation being the main limiting factor to plant life.
Summer lasts about 5 months, with temperatures ranging from 15–30°C (60–85°F), and highs reaching up to 38°C (100°F). Winter temperature in the chaparral ranges from 4° to 20°C (40–65°F). An overall annual average would be about 18°C (64°F). This mild climate is what draws so many people to live in these areas.
Though temperatures are mild year round, there is a drastic change between daytime and nighttime temperatures. This is mostly due to the lack of cloud cover—where direct sunlight warms the air and earth significantly during the day, there are no clouds to keep that heat trapped in once the sun goes down.
The main defining feature of the chaparral is that precipitation is generally unpredictable, but always very low in summer compared to winter.
In summer, it typically rains less than 5 cm (<2 inches), while in winter it rains 25–44 cm (10–17 inches).
Similar to the desert, low moisture in this biome results in low cloud cover and many bright, hot days. There is less daylight in winter, and more cloud cover than in summer, but it is not very extreme, and the difference is more notable in chaparral habitats further north or south.
Soils here for the most part are poor; they are dry, rocky, low in nutrients, and hold little water. Different regions, landscapes, and plant communities will result in differences in the soil, but in general, soils make life here difficult for plants. Overall, there is a lack of nutrients and water, resulting in interesting root adaptations (more on this later) and allowing only the toughest of plants to survive. This soil is also coarse and dry, leaving it vulnerable to erosion as it is easily blown away by the wind, especially because the chaparral is often found on rocky cliff sides along the coast.
The most common soil types are Luvisols in wetter areas and inceptisols and entisols in drier or more xeric areas
Interestingly, with the change of the seasons, there is a big change in soil properties as well. This mostly occurs because more rain in the winter will change soil processes, pH, and influence the life of tiny soil microorganisms important for nutrient cycling.
Another distinct feature of the chaparral is its relationship with fire. Similar to the boreal forest biome, the chaparral experiences frequent fires, and therefore life here has adapted to survive with it and even depend on it.
Whether natural or human-caused, fire has played a major role in shaping the ecology of the Mediterraneam ecoregions. Factors such as dry, hot summers make this region prone to fires, and lightning-caused fires are quite common. As for the plants in this region, many are pyrophytes, or fire-loving, and depend on fire to reproduce, recycle nutrients, and remove dead vegetation from the area. The native individuals of both the Australian and Californian mediterranean-climate ecoregions used fire to clear trees and brush to make way for grasses and herbaceous vegetation that supported both themselves and game animals. Due to the frequency of human-caused fires, the pyrophyte species in these areas grew more common and more fire-loving, while plants unable to adapt, retreated. However, fires in these ecoregions were suppressed with the arrival of European colonization, causing some unintended consequences such as fuel build up. Because of this, when fires do happen, they are much more devastating, and some species that are dependent on fire to reproduce are now threatened.
However, there is a key balance here. These regions need frequent fire, but not too frequent, because if native plants do not get the time to recover between these fires, it is easier for non-native plants to take over. Luckily, we are again starting to study and recognize the importance of fire in some ecosystems and prescribed burning, along with appropriate fire prevention, is becoming more common.
Here is a set of videos on understanding fires in nature. (Though focused on forests, many of the principles remain the same.)
As previously mentioned, the chaparral is composed of a variety of plant communities, the most iconic being shrubland and scrubland, while there are types of forests and grasslands that can also be placed within this diverse biome:
Shrubland: These are dense thickets of evergreen sclerophyll shrubs and small trees called chaparral (California), matorral (Chile and Spain), maquis (France and elsewhere around the Mediterranean), macchia (Italy), fynbos (South Africa), or kwongan (Southwest Australia). In some places, shrublands are the mature vegetation type, while in other places, the result of degradation of former forest or woodland by logging or overgrazing, or disturbance by major fires.
Scrubland: Scrublands are often adapted to the salt air and wind off the ocean and are most common near the seacoast. These low, soft-leaved scrublands around the Mediterranean are known as phrygana in Greece, batha in Israel, tomillares in Spain, and garrigue in France. Meanwhile, northern coastal scrub and coastal sage scrub, or soft chaparral, occur near the California coast. This is also known as coastal matorral in central Chile, strandveld in the Western Cape of South Africa, and sand-heath and kwongan in Southwest Australia.
Forest: Mediterranean forests are generally composed of broadleaf evergreen trees, such as the oak and mixed sclerophyll forests of California and the Mediterranean region, the Eucalyptus forests of Southwest Australia, and the Nothofagus forests of central Chile. Forests are often found in riparian areas, where they receive more summer water. Coniferous forests also occur.
Woodland: Oak woodlands are characteristic of the Mediterranean Basin and California. In California specifically, there are also pine woodlands and walnut woodlands.
Savanna and grassland: The California Central Valley grasslands are the largest Mediterranean grassland ecoregion, although these grasslands have mostly been converted to agriculture.
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The chaparral biome of the world takes up less than 5% of the Earth, and though they may seem difficult to live in, they are huge contributors to biodiversity and are estimated to contain around 20% of all vascular plants in the world! There also tends to be many endemic plants in these regions, meaning plants that are not found anywhere else in the world. For example, the fynbos in Africa is said to have as many as 6,000 endemic species! These facts not only make chaparral ecosystems important to world plant biodiversity, but also shows that they provide a very important habitat to various animals.
Throughout the areas that this biome covers, vegetation types can range from forests to woodlands, savannas, shrublands, and grasslands. It is common to see a mosaic landscape, where various plant types grow together, as this helps reduce competition for plants and provides crucial habitat for animals.
Despite this high variety, for the most part this biome is too dry for large trees and is dominated by woody, evergreen, sclerophyll vegetation that can withstand the frequent droughts and fires. Sclerophyll vegetation— sclerophyll meaning “hard-leaved” in Greek—generally has small, dark leaves covered with a waxy outer layer to retain moisture in the dry summer months. Within this biome, one can also find various cacti and an understory covered by herbaceous plants, various grasses, hardy encrusting lichens, and mosses.
Some examples of the plants you can find here are:
Note: Since the chaparral is found on multiple continents, not all plant life is the same depending on the region! This is a general list; if you are researching for a report make sure you confirm where the plant is found!
Animals can have three types of adaptations to deal with problems they face in their environment: structural (the physical traits of their body), physiological (how their hormones and metabolic systems deal with stresses), and behavioral (actions they take to better survive in an environment). So what adaptations do animals in the savanna have that enable them to thrive here?
The dry climate makes the chaparral biome difficult to live in for many animals, yet the high diversity of plants also helps to create lots of habitat and food for various animals.
Note: Since the chaparral is found on multiple continents not all animal life is the same depending on the region! This is a general list, if you are researching for a report make sure you confirm where the animal lives!
Some examples are:
Animals that live in chaparrals are similar, if not the same in some cases, to those that live in the desert. Both have to live with very little water through the summer, high heat, and with a relative lack of food, since so many plants are largely inedible.
Some common behavioral adaptations to deal with these problems are:
By doing this, they can breathe less, thereby losing less water. Water can also be obtained by eating instead of drinking, so many animals seek out food with high water content such as nectar or cacti.
Physical adaptations to reduce heat include having long appendages to help heat escape, such as the ears of a jackrabbit or arms of a kangaroo. Kangaroos specifically have a very interesting behavior of licking their forearms when it is very hot; the saliva evaporates and helps to cool them off.
Many animals also have adaptations to help reduce the need for water. A big part of water loss occurs during excretion of feces and urine. To deal with this, birds, for example, combine the two to avoid water loss. Other animals, like the kangaroo rat, can super concentrate their urine so it comes out more paste-like (4x as thick as ours!), saving water while still carrying out the very important process of getting rid of uric acid in the body. Many reptiles, like the bearded dragon, can also precipitate out the uric acid from liquid urine before they excrete it, reabsorbing some of the water. Lastly, animals such as rabbits, wombats (Vombatidae), and deer, greatly dry their feces out before it leaves their body. – Did you know that wombats have square poop?!
Despite the difficult and dry summers, animals have adapted to live here year long through both physical and behavioral adaptations. Humans also make much of this region their home, and continue to expand into wild areas.
The mediterranean climate is very attractive to live in, as it has mild temperatures and many clear sunny days. Technology has also allowed us to provide water to these areas even in times of drought, making it a great habitat for humans. Unfortunately, being a great place to live means that this land gets more and more developed every day, and we are slowly losing pristine chaparral in all continents around the world.
These regions are some of the most endangered on the planet. Mediterranean ecoregions are semi-arid, and often have poor soils, so they are especially vulnerable to degradation by human activities such as logging, overgrazing, conversion to agriculture, urbanization, and the introduction of exotic species like wild pigs or successful grasses that easily take over freshly burnt landscapes and prohibit native plants the time needed for regrowth.
The ecoregions around the Mediterranean basin have been particularly affected by degradation due to human activity, suffering extensive loss of forests and soil erosion, and many native plants and animals have become extinct or endangered. For example, California chaparral used to have grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), an important apex predator, but they are long since extinct in these areas.
The biggest problem that we are causing for our chaparral biomes, after development, is increasing fire frequency and intensity. Fire is an important part of this biome; however, with climate change resulting in hotter temperatures and even less rain, fires are becoming more frequent and fierce, which makes it difficult for even these fire-loving plants to make a comeback, which in turn hurts the animals that depend on them.
As well, too much fire suppression around urbanizations over time lets a lot of old plant material build up, also causing these fires to burn hotter and further than they normally would.
If you live in these areas, support planting native vegetation, encourage local natural fire management practices, and consider leaving some of your land in its natural state. You can also responsibly visit national parks in the chaparral, aid in their protection, donate to conservation initiatives, or see how you can volunteer to help with your initiatives such as clearing invasive plants. We can all do something to help in our own way.
This biome isn’t just an amazing stage for a classic cowboy shootout, but also home to a very important diversity of unique plants and animals that need to be protected. If we find a way to live not only in this biome but with the animals and plants that exist here, then many generations to come will be able to enjoy these incredible landscapes around the world.