Cold desert plants and animals

Updated February 21, 2017

Cold deserts are also known as polar deserts. Antarctica is the earth's largest cold desert, and the Arctic is the second largest. They are environments that receive less than 10 inches of rain or snow per year and that have extremely cold temperatures year-round---a cold desert never rises above 10 degrees Celsius in the summertime. Most of the Antarctic continent is made up of ice; only about 2 per cent of the land mass is barren rock. The type of environment represented by cold deserts is called tundra. This makes for a very harsh environment for plants and animals to survive in, but there are more than you might suspect.


Aristotle, the famous Greek scholar, theorised in 350 B.C. that the Arctic and the Antarctic were actual landmasses at the top and bottom of the world. "Arctic" comes from the Greek word "arkticos," meaning "bear." It wasn't until 1820 that the explorer Fabian von Bollinghausen saw the Antarctic. After that time, seal hunting began in the cold waters off the Antarctic. Whaling also was an active hunting activity in Antarctic waters, beginning in the 1800s. According to National Geographic, when the first adventurers set foot on the continent, they discovered lice, mites, springtails and wingless flies.


Penguins are the familiar birds that live in Antarctica, but not in the Arctic. They do not fly but can leap from the water onto land. They spend much of their time in the icy water. Seventeen species of penguin exist. One of the most common is the Adelie penguin, which grows to about 30 inches tall. They eat fish, krill and other small crustaceans (snail-like creatures). About five million Adelie penguins exist. Other species of penguin include the Emperor penguin, the Gentoo and the Chinstrap. Some penguins are found as far north as the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of South America. Penguin populations are not currently threatened.

Blue Whales

The largest creature on either sea or land is the blue whale. They grow to become 79 to 100 feet at maturity. They are a baleen whale, which means they do not have teeth but instead have plates inside their mouths that filter food from water. Typically blue whales are found in colder water areas. Their average weight ranges from 130 to 150 tons. Their diet consists of krill, which are similar to small shrimp. The blue whale is on the endangered species list.


Plants that grow in the Arctic regions must be very hardy and adapted to the extreme winter cold of these environments. As with many other annual plants, cold desert plants have a summertime growing season, but in the Arctic and Antarctic that season is short---often wildflowers and the other plants that manage to survive here are active only from June to July. Some of the names of the cold desert plants might sound familiar because other members of their genus grow in more temperate areas of the world. According to Saskatchewan Schools' Arctic Plant Life website, you can expect to find purple saxifrage, mountain avens, wild crocus, arctic poppies, buttercups, cinquefoil, moss campion, campanulas, arctic azaleas and arctic lupin. Several types of mosses, grasses, herbs and lichens also live here. Even some shrubs make the Arctic their home: among them are two small varieties of willow. In the Antarctic, the list is longer and includes algae, mosses, lichens, valerian, viola, yarrow, some succulents in the genus Sedum, aster, saxifrage, plantains in the genus Plantago (not bananas), a buckwheat (Polygonum genus), oxalis, lotus, mimulus, a type of wild lettuce (Lactuca) and gentian.

Global Warming

Many species of plants and animals are already classified as endangered in the cold desert regions such as the Arctic and the Antarctic. For example, in the Antarctic, four species of whale are classified as endangered. In the Arctic, three species of seal are being considered for the endangered species list, and the polar bear is currently on the list. In a May 30, 2008 article on, some scientists propose that all Arctic species should be listed as endangered because of the threat of global warming.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Barbara Fahs lives on Hawaii island, where she has created Hi'iaka's Healing Herb Garden. Fahs wrote "Super Simple Guide to Creating Hawaiian Gardens" and has been a professional writer since 1984. She contributes to "Big Island Weekly," "Ke Ola" magazine and various websites. She earned her Bachelor of Arts at University of California, Santa Barbara and her Master of Arts from San Jose State University.