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Savanna Biome

African savanna

African savanna (jacobeukman, iStockphoto)

African savanna

African savanna (jacobeukman, iStockphoto)

Format
Let's Talk Science
Readability
6.46

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Learn about the location, plants, animals, human impacts and conservation of the savanna biome.

The Terrestrial Biomes

The terrestrial world can be divided into areas called biomes. A biome is a large area of land classified by its plants and animals.

A biome is made up of many ecosystems. An ecosystem is the interaction of living and nonliving things in an environment.

Misconception Alert

An ecosystem is not the same thing as a biome. Biome is the specific geographic area in which ecosystems can be found.

In this backgrounder, major terrestrial biomes of the world are named based on the Whittaker classification scheme. This is not the only classification system because not scientists agree on the number and types of biomes.

Distribution of the Earth’s Major Biomes 

The map below shows where each of the eight major terrestrial biomes are located in the world. Canada contains four biomes. These are temperate deciduous forest, grassland, boreal forest/taiga, and tundra. A biome has the same characteristics no matter where in the world it is found. This means that the boreal forests of Canada look like the boreal forests of Russia.

The characteristics of each biome are dependent on its climate. Temperature and precipitation are the most important factors determining what living things can be found in a given biome.

Major terrestrial biomes
Major terrestrial biomes (Let’s Talk Science adapted from an image by Adapted from: H.J. de Blij and P.O. Miller. 1996. Physical Geography of the Global Environment. John Wiley, New York. Pp. 290.).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour world map illustrating the location of terrestrial biomes.

The map shows the world's oceans in blue, and its landmasses in stripes and blobs of eight different colours.

A legend on the right side identifies the biomes associated with each colour. Red is labelled "Tropical Rainforest." Yellow is labelled "Savanna." Gold is labelled "Grassland." Brown is labelled "Chaparral." Pink is labelled "Desert." Dark green is labelled "Temperate Deciduous Forest." Bright green is labelled "Boreal Forest/Taiga." Purple is labelled "Tundra."

Starting at the top, purple indicates Alaska, Canada's arctic, the tip of Greenland, Northern Russia, a strip close to the west coast of South America, and part of Central Asia, are tundra.

Below, most of southern Canada and Russia are bright green for boreal forest/taiga.

A gold blob in the middle of North America, another on the southeast coast of South America, a strip in an arc shape across part of the Middle East and southern Russia, a small part of the southeast coast of Africa, and small parts of the west and south coasts of Australia, indicate grassland.

Dark green appears on the west and east coasts of North America, the west coast of South America, large parts central and southern Europe, the UK, eastern Asia, the southeast corner of Australia, and all of New Zealand. This indicates temperate deciduous forest.

Pink areas are across the western United States, northern Mexico, a narrow strip of South America, most of North Africa and the tip of South Africa, Central Asia and the middle of Australia. These indicate desert.

The brown areas are small and scattered widely. They are along the southwest coast of the United States, the northeast coast and southern tip of Africa, most of Italy, Greece and Turkey, and small parts of southern Australia. These indicate chaparral.

Red is scattered across parts of the southern hemisphere. This includes Central America, northern parts of South America, a thin strip across most of Africa and the northern tip of Madagascar, most of Southeast Asia and the northeast tip of Australia. This indicates tropical rainforest.

Yellow is in two blobs in South America, most of the southern half of Africa, most of India, a small strip of Southeast Asia, and the northwest coast of Australia. This indicates savanna.

Savannas

Location

There are Savannas around the world. There are five different types of savannas:

  • Tropical and subtropical savannas are near the equator. Tropical rainforests and deserts can be found around them (e.g., the Serengeti in Africa).
  • Temperate savannas are in mid-latitude regions (e.g., temperate savanna of Southeast Australia).
  • Mediterranean savannas are also in mid-latitude regions. Specifically in the Mediterranean (e.g., the Alentejo region in Portugal).
  • Flooded savannas are in the tropics (e.g., the Pantantal in South America).
  • Montane savannas are in high altitude regions (e.g., the mountains of Angola in equatorial Africa).

Description

The land around savannas is very flat. There is a lot of different vegetation covering this land. As well, there are many animals that roam savannas. The climate in savannas is transitional. This means that the climate switches between dry periods and wet periods. The rainfall is also seasonal. Seasonal rainfall means that it only rains in a certain season. The land is very dry in winter because there is no rain. In the summer, it usually rains a lot.

Plants & Animals

Plants

Most of the plants are tall and short grasses. There are also low-lying shrubs and some trees. Savannas are usually a transitional zone between a forest and a grassland. This means that savannas have trees, like in a forest. But unlike in a forest, in a savanna, grasses cover the ground.

Acacia tree in the Serengeti/Un acacia dans le Serengeti
Acacia tree in the Serengeti, Tanzania (Source: Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of a vast landscape covered in grasses, with a few trees in the foreground.

Most of the land is flat with dry, pale green and yellow grasses. A gravel track curves from the bottom edge of the image, under a wide tree, sparsely covered in green leaves. Several similar trees are dotted across the landscape nearby. The sky above is wide and blue, with wispy white clouds.

Animals

Many types of grazing mammals are found in the savanna. Grazing animals are animals that eat grass. Grazing animals live there because large amounts of grass covers the land. Zebras, wildebeests, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles and buffalo are all grazing animals. It is common to see groups, or herds, of grazing animals in the African savanna. Hoofed animals, known as ungulates, are common. Ungulates include rhinoceroses, giraffes, camelshippopotamuses and elephants. The biome of sub-Saharan Africa has the most ungulates on Earth.

Three giraffes standing amidst the savanna
Three giraffes in Masai Mara National Park (Source: Byrdyak [CC CY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of giraffes standing in long yellow grass. 

Two of the giraffes are larger than the third. They are all looking towards the right side of the image. Their legs are hidden in the grass. Their necks stretch above the horizon, against the blue sky. In the background is one spindly tree with green leaves. A few more trees are visible in the distance.

Did you know?

Megafauna are the largest living wild land animals on Earth. The group includes elephants, giraffes and rhinoceros. The majority of the existing world’s megafauna are in Africa. Dinosaurs are an example of an extinct megafauna.

Rodents also live in savannas. Rodents are a mammal group which includes mice and rats. Rodents live in underground homes called burrows. They enter their homes through little holes above ground. In their burrows, the rodents can hide from predators and keep cool.

Savannas are home to predatory mammals and birds. Many of the mammals are either feline (e.g., lions and cheetahs) or canine (e.g., African wild dogs). Both types of mammals blend into the grasslands because of their colouring.

Lioness observing the savanna
Lioness and grassland (Source: garytog via iStockphoto).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of a lioness lying on a mound of soil. The animal's fur is shades of gold. The landscape around it is mostly flat, with long gold grass and a few green shrubs. 

There is a range of low, purple mountains on the horizon. The sky above is pale blue with a few long, white clouds.

 

Many birds of prey, known as raptors can be found here. This includes vultureseagles and goshawks). Raptors have eyes that see very well. From high above, they can see grassland creatures that are well camouflaged.

Tawny eagle/Aigle ravisseur (Aquila rapax)
Tawny eagle (Aquila rapax) (Source: Yathin S Krishnappa [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a close-up colour photograph of an eagle's face.

The eagle is in profile against blue sky. Only its head and neck are visible. It's looking to the left side of the image. It has dark brown eyes with dark patterns in the feathers around them. This gives the eagle an intense expression. Its beak is yellow near the face, with a dark, pointed tip that curves down at the end. The rest of its body is covered with white and beige feathers.

The plant-eating animals have learned ways to avoid predators. Some animals (e.g., gazelles and ostriches) use speed to try and outrun predators. Giraffes use their height to spot predators from far away. Elephants use their size and strength to keep predators away.

Human Impacts

Natural wildfires happen during the dry seasons in savannas. Humans can also be the cause of fires. Many savanna plants actually thrive after fires. But, when fires happen too often, the ecosystem can become damaged.

Savannas are often used for farming, which can be harmful to wildlife. This is a big problem for animals if large farms take over grazing or hunting lands. When farms are cleared to make room for crops, many trees are cut down. This destroys the habitats of animals and other plants that depend on these trees to survive. Domesticated animals, or livestock, sometimes graze on savannas causing a shortage of food for wildlife. This overgrazing can have negative effects on the native plants as well.

Poaching is a major threat for wildlife, especially in Africa. Poaching means hunting for animals illegally. Large grazing mammals (e.g., elephants and rhinoceros) are poached for their tusks and horns. These parts are sold around the world for very high prices. The loss of animals due to poaching can alter the entire ecosystem.

Elephant with missing tusk/Un éléphant avec une seule défense
Elephant with missing tusk (Source: Yathin S Krishnappa [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of an elephant climbing out of water.

The elephant is dark brown with a long trunk and tail. It has a curved white tusk on one side of its trunk, but not the other. Its front feet are on green grass. Its back feet are in a muddy puddle. 

Tree stumps dot the grass around it, and there is a forest in the distance.

Savannas and Climate Change

As with all biomes, climate change is a threat to savannas. Extreme weather events happen more often. Drought is an extreme weather event that affects savannas. When there is drought it is hard for plants and animals to get the water that they need to survive. The opposite of drought is flooding. Flooding is an extreme weather event that can also happen in savannas. It can wipe out plants and trees, changing the ecosystem. Human alterations of this biome means that savannas are more likely to flood and burn in an uncontrolled way.

Conservation

Environmental organizations and governments are taking action against poaching and illegal wildlife trade. Many countries make poaching a serious crime. Poachers can get sent to prison or pay expensive fines. Animal activists also protect animals on the frontline where poaching is happening.

Even with protection, decreasing the demand for illegal wildlife products (e.g., fur and ivory) is the best way to stop poaching. There will be no need to hunt the animals if people are not buying the products.

Men in the foreground watching elephants in the distance in Zimbabwe
Bumi Hills Anti-Poaching Unit Protecting Elephants in Zimbabwe (Source: Bumihillsfoundation [CC BY-SA 4.0] via Wikimedia Commons).
Image - Text Version

Shown is a colour photograph of three people watching two elephants in the distance.

In the foreground three people are seen from the back, out of focus. They are wearing pale green uniforms and backpacks. One person has a pair of handcuffs attached to their belt. They are all looking at two brown elephants, tiny in the distance. 

The landscape around has long, pale yellow grass. There is a line of green, leafy trees on the horizon. The sky above is bright blue and clear.

Sustainable farming is another way to protect the land and the wildlife of the savannas. This may involve growing more than one crop on a piece of land to use less space. Also, growing native species (e.g., trees) on farmland instead of cutting them down. Farmers feed their animals in stalls rather than letting them graze on the savanna. This avoids competition between the domesticated and the wild grazing animals. 

Learn More

Tembe Elephant Park Live Cam
The website Explore has many live webcams that allow you to watch wildlife in real time. The Tembe Elephant Park cam is located in Emangusi, South Africa.

Webcams - The Houston Zoo
The Houston Zoo has webcams that show a few of their exhibits. You can see giraffes being fed, elephants and rhinos in their yards!

The African Savannah – Virtual Field Trip (2020)
This video (3:17 min.) from NG Science takes students on a virtual field trip to the African Savanna!

References

Actman, J. (2019). Poaching animals, explained. National Geographic.

Ducksters. (n.d.). Biomes: Savanna grasslands.

Great Pacific Media. (2010). Biomes savanna.