Two hundred million years ago, Earth looked very different. There was only one supercontinent Pangaea, surrounded by a single ocean Panthalassa.
The earth’s lithosphere, the crust that has formed above the hot liquid core, has been continually breaking into sections and moving. Lithosphere has pulled land masses apart to form separate continents or in some places has pushed them together. These collisions have caused mountains to erupt, land masses to slip below others and sometimes have trapped seas between land masses.
Over the ages, the major land masses have drifted apart so that we now have seven continents occupying different areas of the earth, each with its own climate and land features. Continents are surrounded by five oceans. The land is not barren and uniform. It is teeming with life of flora and fauna, which has evolved distinctly on each continent, giving rise to Earth’s amazing diversity of life.
Let’s have a look at the exact meaning of flora and fauna and their importance for us all.
The definition of flora
In Roman mythology, Flora was the goddess of flowers.
In the 1600s, botanists began using the term flora to refer to all the plant life within a particular region .
What is native flora & why is native flora important?
Native flora is the plant life that grows naturally in a particular region. It is indigenous which means that it has not been introduced by humans from another region. It flourishes naturally there.
Over the years, native flora has evolved in connection with the other plants and animals in its region. Through evolution and adaptation, nature maintains a perfect balance to support the coexistence of healthy native plant and animal populations in an area. Sadly, people can unwittingly upset that balance.
A perfect example is the monarch butterfly and milkweed. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs only on certain milkweed plants. However, milkweed is considered a weed by us and routinely destroyed. If a monarch butterfly cannot find any milkweed on which to lay its eggs, its lineage ends.
The important role of native flora
Healthy native flora benefits the planet in many ways. Let’s start from the most important ones.
#1 Oxygen production and carbon dioxide sequestration
First and foremost, plants balance carbon dioxide and oxygen in the environment. Presently we have an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In fact, it is the most prominent greenhouse gas and the factor contributing most to global warming.
Plants use the energy of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide from the air to carbohydrates needed for their growth. In this process, called photosynthesis, plants also produce oxygen, which we need to breathe.
Trees are particularly good at storing carbon dioxide within their bodies for long periods of time.
#2 Food source for a whole ecosystem
Native flora provides food not only for humans, but food for the animals who live in the area and for those passing through.
A native plant may be a direct food source. A deer, for example, grazes on grasses or leaves of trees.
Native flora also provides food indirectly. For example, some insects rely on a plant as a habitat for laying eggs. Larger insects, birds or or small mammals then feed on those insects or their eggs.
96 percent of the terrestrial birds in North America rely upon insects for their diet . Flora secures food to birds by providing a safe insect nursery. Various plants are a great shelter for birds, making them safe and nourished. And birds in return help to disseminate plant seeds, allowing more plants to grow and feed other animals within the ecosystem.
#3 Shelter and resources
Native flora provides construction materials for shelter and warmth. Local animals, not just terrestrial, but fish and birds also find shelter in plants and use nearby plant materials to build their nests and homes.
We too harvest trees and plant fibers for shelter. We use plant fibers for clothing, to upholster our furniture and for blankets to keep us warm.
#4 Essential ecosystem services
Native flora provides essential services to the environment like fertilizing soil and filtering water for drinking.
When plants die their material falls to the ground. Dead plant parts then become a fodder for bacteria and fungi and for the decomposers who create fertile soil. Only fertile soil is capable of filtering water so that it is fit for consumption.
#5 Erosion control and land protection
A large portion of native flora performs erosion control. Plant roots hold soil in place from rains or tides washing it away.
Mangroves are especially powerful in erosion control. They not only serve well as a nursery and refuge for marine life, but their bundles of strong roots protect the inland from destructive storm surges of seawater.
We know that many plants contain healing compounds. Indigenous peoples have traditionally passed down their knowledge of the medicinal value of native flora.
#7 Supporting other living organisms
In many situations, native plants enter into a symbiotic relationship with their neighbors.
For example, soil bacteria can help a “nitrogen-fixing” plant draw nitrogen gas from the air and then convert it into a valuable nutrient that can be absorbed through the roots of the plant.
A tree may emit chemicals to warn neighboring trees of nearby predators so that they can mobilize their defenses like pulling up toxic substances to their leaves .
An untold number of plants benefit from fungi, whose fine threads which wrap around and penetrate a plant’s roots are helping them to extract nutrients and water from the soil. The plant’s photosynthesis in turn provides the fungus with the sugar it craves .
Native flowers attract pollinators. Pollination is necessary for the production of fruit and of seeds to create more plants.
Native flora have unique characteristics that attract pollinators. Many flowers have evolved to support local pollinators who visit them. A flower’s shape, size and color attract the right pollinators.
For example, the long nectar spurs of plants in the mint family protects its nectar from insects who would drink it but makes it available to birds with a long proboscis like the hummingbird. Beetles and other non-hovering pollinators need a flower with a landing pad so they can rest while they feed and plants that support them have these. Nocturnal flowers are generally white or pale with a heavy fragrance to attract bats and moths .
Symbiotic relationships within an ecosystem
The very architecture of the natural growth of native flora benefits its ecosystem. Plants grow naturally in an arrangement of canopies to provide requisite shade or light to the undergrowth.
Plants growing close together are often those whose roots are differing in lengths or configurations. Their roots absorb nutrients from different areas of the soil to leave enough nutrients for others. Some plants may require different nutrients altogether, so that the relationship with other plants is not a competitive one.
The architecture of the ecosystem is site-specific to benefit the ecology.
The amount of nutrients available to each plant governs the size of the population. And somehow nature gets it right, supporting just the right balance of life, both in the amount of nutrients and number of each species, to maintain a healthy and sustainable ecosystem.
Balanced populations of native species
When a region has rich biodiversity of natural flora and fauna, pressures from insects, disease and animals are prevented from having too big impact on the health of the native populations.
Virtually every creature has natural enemies within its ecosystem to keep its population below a damaging level, whether those enemies are other animals, insects or even a plant toxic to a predator.
The greater the biodiversity of native plants and animals in an area which has co-evolved over time, the more likely that biological control agents will be part of a local community of organisms and the predator/prey balance will be successfully managed naturally.
When does flora become an invasive species?
Species that grow and spread quickly with the potential to adversely affect the ecosystem are called “invasive species.” An invasive species can be any living organism – plant, insect, amphibian, fish, fungus or bacteria – that upsets the balance of the ecosystem to its detriment .
An example of an invasive plant species introduced to the United States is the kudzu vine. It is known as “the vine that ate the South.” It was brought to the United States from Japan at a centennial exposition in 1876 as an exotic plant that gardeners might want.
Southern farmers thought it might be useful to control soil erosion. But in short order it took over. It is a hearty vine that can grow a foot a day and covers trees, smothering them. You can almost see it growing as it stretches across everything in its path, draping over bushes and trees.
Kudzu vine can work its way into cracks in buildings and can be seen creeping up utility poles and weighing down power lines. It can be seen mile after mile every summer along roadsides in much of the southeast, a dense cloak burying all the foliage in its path.
Kudzu even covers old barns, pulling them down. Many municipalities work at chopping it back or burning it, but the kudzu is winning the battle. And with climate change, it is now moving northward .
How to deal with invasive flora?
Classical biological control of some invasive species has been successful, but it is a complicated endeavor. It involves the deliberate introduction of exotic natural enemies into the area.
These programs, implemented by government agencies or university facilities, require careful consideration of whether the new enemies will survive in the area at manageable levels which can be naturally maintained without causing an imbalance of some other species population.
The new enemies must be quarantined before introduction to ensure they are not carrying yet another foreign species and they must be closely monitored to determine how well they adapt to the new environment. If the new enemies do not survive, then other biotypes or species may be introduced instead.
Various examples of flora across the continents
Australia has long been isolated, having fully separated from Antarctica about thirty million years ago. Accordingly, it has a large number of unique species of flora and fauna.
It boasts somewhere between 18,000 and 24,000 species of endemic plants, including exquisite and delicate vasculars, unusual aerophytes and spectacular wildflowers .
The wattle, Acacia pycnantha, is a small evergreen with fragrant green flowers. Adopted as the national flower, it is so popular that the first day of Spring is known as National Wattle Day and it is customary for folks to wear a sprig that day.
While Australia is well-known for its hot deserts, it is also home to a tropical rainforest. The Wet Tropics of Queensland has been designated a World Heritage Site for its significance in providing an unparalleled record of ecological and evolutionary processes.
Having found a fossilized seed, botanists believe that Idiospermum australiense locally known as the Dragon Tree, has remained unchanged since dinosaurs roamed the earth. The tree is also commonly called the Idiot Fruit Tree because its fist-sized seed is fatally toxic and one would be an idiot to eat the fruit.
When Antarctica split from Gondwana two hundred million years ago and drifted toward the frigid South Pole, only a few plants were able to adapt to the climate change.
The adaptation is easier for lichens, algae, fungi and bryophytes as they do not take nutrients through roots. But two vascular plants do thrive there: Antarctic hair grass, a grass so hardy that it can withstand the trampling of seals and penguins and Antarctic pearlwort which can grow among the rocks and even displays small yellow flowers.
Asia, covering 30 percent of the world’s land mass, is densely populated in many places which forces many species to near extinction. But given its vast expanse, it also has some areas so remote from human civilization that flora and fauna has survived practically undisturbed.
Asia is very diverse. This continent has a mix of biomes. Southeast Asia has tropical rain forests. East Asia has temperate mixed forests. South Asia has tropical rain and dry forests. Central and West Asia have desert and steppe ecoregions and taiga and tundra are found in North Asia.
The largest flower in the world, the rafflesia, Rafflesia arnoldii, native to Indonesia in Southeast Asia can exceed three feet in diameter and weigh 15 to 20 pounds. The rafflesia is a parasite. It affixes to tree trunks for water and nutrients. It appears to be all flower with beautiful coral fleshy petals seeming to erupt from the tree bark, but it is also known as the corpse flower because it smells like rotting meat.
The Namib desert in South Africa is one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world, averaging only 5 millimeters of rain annually in the west and 85 millimeters in the east.
Despite the aridness, one of the oldest plants in the world flourishes here, absorbing moisture through its leaves from the fog which rolls in from the Atlantic Ocean a few times a week.
The Welwitschia mirabilis is a low growing plant with colorful cones, their shape dependent upon their sex and just two long leaves which wrap around the root hairs to protect them from losing moisture. These two leaves continue to grow over its life, which can be anywhere from 400 to 1,500 years, and understandably they become pretty wind tattered.
The Welwitschia leaves turn red when it becomes very hot to protect the plant from the sun’s radiation. The leaves tone down to green when temperatures drop so the plant can conduct photosynthesis. It is a special kind of photosynthesis where it only exchanges gases at night to protect it from water loss during the day.
More than two-thirds of Earth’s plants grow in tropical rainforests .
The lush jungles of the Amazon rainforest, covering almost 40 percent of South America are widely considered the most biodiverse region on the planet , home to as many as 80,000 plant species .
Native plants have had to adapt with some ingenious strategies to survive because of the sheer number of insects who would feed on them and due to poor soil from frequent pounding rains.
When we picture a rainforest, we often think of the splendid orchids and bromeliads high in the trees. These are epiphytes. They have evolved an ability to live above the forest floor, trapping the little soil they can collect from wind and rain to develop a litter base and roots on tree branches. Even at heights though, a plant may be subject to hungry insects.
Well, why not trap them and use their corpses as nourishment?
Yes, many beautiful plants, like the pitcher plants are carnivores! There are more than 100 species of pitcher plants, all with brightly colored and fragrant hanging vase-shaped cups holding sweet nectar to entice an unwary insect to its impossibly slippery rim where it can only plunge into the pitcher of sticky acidic liquid which is essentially the plant’s stomach .
Hot lips attract butterflies and hummingbirds
The Psychotria elata is called hot lips because that is exactly what its red blossoms look like. They grow in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America. Their flowers are actually colorful leaves called bracts but they look like flowers and act like flowers. Their main task is to attract butterflies and hummingbirds to drink their nectar, collect the pollen and pollinate the plants .
Is it a… giant pineapple?
In the Andean steppe of Peru and Bolivia, 4000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level you might come upon a very tall tree that has you feeling suddenly like you are Alice in Wonderland.
Ten meters (33 feet) tall, the Titanca tree, Puya raimondii, looks exactly like a huge pineapple. Quite the oddity: the tree bears fruit when it is over one hundred years old !
The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia, is well known for its rich biodiversity of life and its value in serving as a sanctuary for a significant number of marine species, but lesser known and also of significant value are the Posidonia Oceanica meadows of Ibiza and Formentera.
The meadow of seagrass, native to the Mediterranean Sea (and part of the World Heritage Site of Ibiza) is the largest and longest living organism we know of .
The Formentera meadow is fifteen kilometers (9 miles) long and somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 years old . It is a refuge and breeding grounds for much marine life. The meadow is a significant carbon sink. It also stabilizes the seabed by tempering sea swells and waves and is known as “the lungs of the Mediterranean” for the oxygen it provides the coastal waters with.
The definition of fauna
Fauna refers to all animal life within a particular region.
The word “fauna” is the poetic form of Faunus, a horned woodland god from both Roman and Greek mythologies. The term was first used by a botanist Carl Linnaeus in the 1700s as a title to a compendium of animal life that was a companion to his popular earlier study of flora .
What is native fauna & why is native fauna important?
Native animals are those animals born and raised in a particular area. This includes migratory animals who regularly spend periods in a particular area because they play important roles in their ecosystems.
Animals acting as predators keep populations of other animals from becoming too numerous in an area. Conversely, the insects and variety of prey animals make the diet of predators. Predators would starve if it was not for them.
Herbivores manage vegetation growth and help in maintaining ecological balance within a region.
Decomposers: worms, flies, and woodlice among them perform critical recycling services. They digest rotting plants, animal detritus, fungi and bacteria while secreting minerals and nutrients into the soil. These substances are in turn essential to the native plants which readily absorb them .
Examples of fauna across the continents
The platypus, native to Australia, was once thought as a joke. The first preserved platypus body examined by European naturalists was considered a fake. They assumed that the body was probably made of sewing together a duck, a beaver and an otter.
The platypus is indeed unusual. It is one of only five living species of monotremes – mammals who lay eggs and are able to sense prey through its natural electricity. As harmless as this small, furry, aquatic animal appears with its large rubbery-looking duck bill, a spur on its hind foot can deliver a potent venom. This venom is being studied as a possible treatment for type 2 diabetes .
Make a right!
Wild budgies are small, but long-tailed colorful nomadic parakeets native to Australia. Since much of Australia is very dry, where there is open water up to a million wild budgies at a time head full speed toward it. So, how do they avoid collision? They always turn to the right.
Life for the world’s southernmost animal is a bit stressful. The Eastern Arctic Plateau regularly reaches minus 89 degrees Centigrade ( minus 128.2 degrees Fahrenheit) during winter nights.
Surprisingly, it is not so much the biting cold air that bothers the Weddell Seal. Although, it is not uncommon for newly born pups to freeze to death before their mother is able to return to feed them.
The bigger problem is the necessity of finding a breathing hole in the ice to grab a gulp of fresh air or to crawl back out of water when coming from their fishing expeditions. But the danger doesn’t end there. Once safely on top of the ice floe, it may fragment as well and leave the seal on a small floe that a killer whale can readily tip, letting dinner slide right into its open jaws.
The only reliable moisture in the Namib desert is the ocean fog. A small black beetle, the Stenocara gracilipes, adapted the ability to pull in moisture via waxy bumps on its body.
To get some water, the beetle climbs a dune and stands on its head. This way it leans into the wind and lifts its wing scales with the tiny bumps to the fog. The bumps readily attract moisture and the beetle let’s it drip down into its mouth .
There are few places left in the world where migrating animals still have full command of their natural migratory range. The Serengeti Ecosystem is one of them.
The Serengeti Ecosystem includes the Serengeti National Park which is 1.5 million hectares of savanna in Tanzania world famous for the migrations of 1.5 million wildebeest and 250,000 zebra. The park is also well known for its lions, leopards, Nile crocodiles and honey badgers.
The neighboring Ngorongoro Conservation Area is home to rhinoceroses, gazelles, wildebeests, zebras, African buffaloes, lions, hippopotamuses, blue monkeys, spotted hyena, and the distinctive silvery cheeked hornbill among many other species.
The Serengeti Ecosystem also includes the Maasai Mara National Reserve bordering with Kenya. It is home to the African leopard, cheetah and bush elephant.
The Great Migration also passes through rolling hills and grassy plains of the National Reserve and takes advantage of the two rivers that cross through it: the Mara and the Talek.
A midsummer’s night dream
The prairie dogs are likely asleep in their burrows with the pups in the nursery. Although there may be a scout on duty near the tunnel entrance where he can quickly scramble up to warn them of danger.
Prairie dogs are herbivorous burrowing rodents native to the grasslands of North America. They are a ground squirrel. An adult weighs around two pounds and stands a little more than a foot tall on hind legs. They look quite human like as they stand and scan the surrounding terrain for danger.
Seize the moment!
The pronghorn is not deer and not antelope but looks like them. It is its own species and though often cited as the second fastest animal on Earth after the cheetah. It is actually the fastest animal on Earth as it can run faster and longer than cheetahs can.
Pronghorns, Antilocapra Americana, can be found in North America and are distinctly American, going back twenty million years !
Is anybody out there?
Iguacu Falls, near the Brazil-Argentina border, is a powerful cataract waterfall with massive volumes of water rushing in 275 individual waterfalls over a steep horseshoe-shaped cliff 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) long. Not only is the waterfall an impressive sight, but the great dusky swifts who roost behind the protection of the falls are equally astonishing. These birds fly through the pummeling falls daily.
Getting out from behind the falls is bad enough but the parents have to punch back through at exactly the right spot to reach their hungry fledglings.
And the fledglings… Well, imagine never having seen any more of the world than the water rushing in front of you and taking that very first flight out through pounding water with enough speed to get through and at just the right angle not to break your neck.
The Amazon is one of Earth’s last sanctuaries for many animals found only there.
To name just a few:
- The pink river dolphin;
- The giant armadillo which grows to five feet long and can weigh 120 pounds;
- The giant river otter which can also grow five feet long plus three feet of tail;
- The South American tapir, a mammal that can grow up to 6.5 feet long and weigh up to 550 pounds ;
- The red-backed bearded saki monkey;
- The white-cheeked spider monkey.
We should not forget many colorful and intelligent birds like the crimson-bellied conure parakeet. While there Amazon is home to many endangered and vulnerable species, the jungle is so dense that there is much we still don’t know about.
The snow leopard, Panthera uncia, is a large cat that has evolved to live in highest mountain ranges under the harshest conditions on Earth.
Snow leopards are four to five feet (150 cm) long with tails that can extend another three feet (90 cm) and they can weigh between 60 and 120 pounds (30 to 54 kg). This beautiful cat is powerful and graceful, easily scaling steep slopes. Its hind legs are especially strong, it can leap six times the length of its body. The snow leopard has a light grey coat spotted with black rosettes, blending in so perfectly with the rugged snowy landscape of the high mountains that when it is first discerned against the snowy cliffs, it looks more a mystical apparition than a powerful cat.
Snow leopards are vulnerable to extinction for several reasons. Herders protecting their domestic animals have killed them. Poachers have hunted them for their beautiful pelts. They have also been killed for their body parts for their use in traditional Chinese medicine.
They need a large range to roam, males need 80 square miles (200 square km), and their habitat has been vanishing with human expansion. And much of their mammal prey diet has become extinct for the same reason. There is concern that global warming will further shrink their habitat and spur competition for the mountain sheep and the mountain goat with other large mammals that roam the alpine habitat: the wild dogs, leopards and tigers.
On a brighter note, some countries are affording the snow leopard protection now. Snow leopards can be found in the Himalaya and southern Siberian mountains as well as the Tibetan Plateau and across a range that extends from China to the mountains of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan offering protection has been a salvation as it is a corridor for snow leopards traveling between the north and south ends of their range .
Adult mayflies live many places around the world. In fact, there are over 3,000 species, yet not one of them lives more than 24 hours. The mayfly emerges into the air and mates. If female she then lays her eggs and die within a half hour.
They are delicate-looking insects with one or two pairs of translucent triangular wings, flexible antennae, large compound eyes, non-functional mouth parts since they don’t live long enough to bother with eating, and both the female and the male have two sets of genitalia.
They live as nymphs in water sometimes for years, molting. Most adult mayflies range in size between 0.6 cm and 2.8 cm (0.2 to 1 inch), but the mayflies that merge in celebration above the Tisza River in Hungary are a whopping 8 to 12 cm (3 to 5 inches) long.
They all fly up from the Tisza river at once! What a spectacular sight of millions of and millions mayflies as they dance, mate and die within a few hours.
What is the importance of flora and fauna for life on Earth?
Flora and fauna together are crucial for a healthy biosphere. They require each other. This is important to understand as we are watching the rapid extinction of both. The extinction of fauna is more visible to us, and often contemplated without considering the impact on flora.
It was noted above that insects need flora to survive and that birds need insects to survive. Consider for a moment the other side of this balance: Birds eat 400 to 500 million tons of insects annually. Without birds, insects would decimate the world’s flora .
Generally, neither flora nor fauna can survive outside its region without creating an imbalance which leaves its native populations vulnerable and prone to extinction.
Native flora is an integral part of the web of life sustaining us, as is fauna. The air we breathe and the water we drink is dependent upon an ecosystem teeming with life.
Conservation efforts of flora and fauna worldwide
The United Nations Environment Programme sets the global agenda for strategies advocating a healthy biosphere, coordinating the conventions and protocols relating to protecting the biodiversity of flora and fauna as well as the environmental dimensions of the sustainable development goals.
One such convention is the Convention on Biological Diversity dedicated to sustainable development and signed by 150 government leaders at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.
Another is CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which regulates both legal and illegal trade and is aimed at ensuring wildlife trade does not threaten the survival of the species.
Other important agreements include:
- the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar Convention),
- the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which includes the conservation of living resources and consideration of the protection and preservation of the marine environment,
- the World Heritage Convention,
- the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) geared toward protecting plants from pests and disease,
- the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) which shares scientific expertise.
Top international organizations addressing issues of conserving flora and fauna include:
- Fauna and Flora International
- Conservation International
- the Global Wildlife Conservation
- the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
- the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation
- the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
- the Society for Conservation Biology
- the World Wildlife Fund for Nature
- the Nature Conservancy
- Birdlife International
- Wetlands International
- the Rainforest Alliance
- the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
Most of these non-government organizations sponsor projects which are a collaboration with governments, businesses and local community members, allying the stakeholders necessary to ensure the success of its initiative.
 “Why Are Native Plants Important?” extracts from Bringing Nature Home, Tallamy, Douglas, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, 2009, https://conservect.org/northcentral/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/why-native-plants-1.pdf
Medicinal Botany, retrieved from the USDA website April 13, 2021, https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/medicinal/
 The Hidden Life of Trees, p.13
The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971