The nature of the former Soviet Union (FSU) is diverse and beautiful. It makes the most geographic sense to look at it from the perspective of “biomes,” the largest ecosystem units. The biomes of Northern Eurasia are similar to those of Europe or North America: tundra in the north; taiga and deciduous forests in the middle; steppe and desert in the south. The extreme south has deserts or subtropical Mediterranean-like shrub vegetation. The boundaries of the biomes correspond closely to the major climate types.

For millions of years, Northern Eurasia and North America were connected to each other—mainly across the Bering Strait, but also sometimes via Greenland and Scandinavia. This resulted in an array of animals and plants that are shared by these two regions. In fact, much of the biota is so similar that biogeographers lump the two together into one “Holarctic” biogeographic realm. The flora and fauna of India (which is on the same continent as Russia), on the other hand, are completely dissimilar to Northern Eurasia's; they are more like Africa's. For example, North America and the FSU share many tree genera (e.g., pine, spruce, elm, maple, birch, aspen, and oak). Most tree species are different, but several look alike—so-called “vicariant” species. For example, the Siberian cedar pine (Pinus sibirica) generally resembles the North American white pine (P. strobus); the Norway pine (P. sylvestris)
is very similar to the Minnesota red pine (P. recinosa). At the lower levels of the plant kingdom (e.g., among mosses), the similarity is even greater. Large swaths of Russia's and Canada's boreal forests have the same mosses (Dicranum, Polytrichum, Pleurozium) and Cladonia lichens, for example. There is a higher degree of difference among flowering forbs and grasses, but many Russian wildflowers are still instantly recognizable to visiting American botanists as a “buttercup,” a “violet,” a “lily of the valley,” or a “lady's slipper,” even if they do not know for sure what species they are looking at. The overall similarity is greatest between eastern Russia and Alaska, the former parts of the Bering land bridge (Hult?n, 1937).

Russia: Biomes

Many animal genera or even species are identical in North America and Northern Eurasia: Arctic and brown bears, gray wolves, red foxes, moose, elk, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and black-capped chickadees, for example. If an exact match is missing, there is usually a pretty good substitute/vicariant species (e.g., American mink and Eurasian mink, otters, beavers, cranes, crows, etc.). The differences among songbirds are the greatest, because most of the migratory ones in North America originate in the neotropics, while those in Northern Eurasia originate in Africa or South Asia. For example, Eurasian warblers or flycatchers are unrelated to the American birds of the same names, although they are similar in their ecology and behavior. Some apparently similar biomes also exhibit a higher degree of difference and endemicity. For instance, the Russian Far East shares some remarkable combinations of plants and animals with areas to either the south (China) or the north (Chukotka). No such forests exist in North America. Great uniqueness is observed in the ecosystems of coastal California and southern Florida instead, and there are no strong analogues for such ecosystems in Eurasia.

The main five biomes of the FSU (tundra, taiga, deciduous forest, steppe, and desert) are stretched across the Eurasian continent in wide belts from west to east. In between, there are transitional types (e.g., forest–tundra, mixed forest, and forest–steppe). Each biome or natural zone has a corresponding climate, a zonal soil type, and a characteristic set of plants and animals. Some biomes are more extensive than others, depending on the climate pattern. Also, some are considerably better preserved than others. For example, whereas most of the taiga zone remains reasonably intact, with closed-canopy forests (even in areas with heavy logging), 99% of the virgin steppe has disappeared.

The overall diversity of the plants and animals in Russia is not great, because of its northern location. For example, there are 11,000 species of vascular plants, 30 of amphibians, 75 of reptiles, 730 of birds, and 320 of mammals in the Russian Federation. By comparison, the United States (a more southern country half the size of Russia) has 19,000 species of vascular plants, 260 of amphibians, 360 of reptiles, 650 of birds, and 360 of mammals.



Mixed and Deciduous Forests

Forest–Steppe and Steppe


Other Biomes