Chaparral Biome: Locations, Plants, and Climate

This hot and dry biome is home to many diverse plants and wildlife.

View of the Chaparral

CampPhoto/Getty Images

Chaparral is one of the Earth’s major biomes. These areas undergo long, hot, dry summers and mild, rainy winters, but they vary a great deal from one another. Chaparrals can include forests, shrublands, grasslands, and savannas, depending on their location and topography. The variety of ecosystems means that the chaparral is home to a very diverse collection of plants and animals; in fact, while chaparral covers only about 2.2% of the planet, it is home to about one-sixth of the world’s vascular plants.

Locations

The word "chaparral" is usually used in the western part of the United States. There are chaparral biomes along the west coasts in the mid-latitudes of Europe, Australia, the Americas, and South Africa. The entire Mediterranean Basin — which includes coastal areas in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Spain, and Portugal — is considered Mediterranean forest

One of the biggest chaparral areas in the world is in California, and it includes much of both coastal and central California. The foothills of the Sierra Mountains, as well as the Central Valley, are part of the chaparral. The ecosystem continues north into southern Canada and south into Baja California in Mexico. 

Chaparral regions are popular around the world because they are so warm and dry. As a result, some chaparral areas have become vacation destinations and resorts. Santa Barbara, California is located in a chaparral zone, as is the French Riviera and resort areas of Spain, Italy, and Greece. Chaparral areas of Spain and Portugal, in particular, are famous for their olive groves, cork forests, and vineyards.

Plants and Wildlife

The plants and animals that inhabit chaparrals are well adapted to the climate. Many can live without water for long periods of time; others are able to store water.

Most of the plants in chaparrals have small, hard leaves with waxy outer layers. The outer layers make it easier for the plants to stay moist even during hot, dry summers. Different plants are common in different types of chaparrals; most must be able to thrive in the dry, dusty soil.

  • Depending on their location, forest chaparrals are home to oaks (California and the Mediterranean), eucalyptus (Australia), and scrub pines. 
  • Shrubland chaparrals, generally found near the sea, are best known for the evergreen shrubs that are actually called chaparral, as well as similar plants called maquis, matorral, and kwongan. Many of these plants are able to live in salty areas.        
  • The savanna or grassland chaparrals are located in central California. Several types of chaparral shrubs as well as sages, yucca, and some cacti thrive in grassland chaparrals.

Like chaparral plants, chaparral wildlife varies from location to location. In Europe, wild boar, eagles, rabbits, and sheep are common. In the Americas, chaparrals are home to jackrabbits, mule deer, coyotes, lizards, and an array of birds and insects. 

Climate Change

Climate change has had a significant impact on the California chaparral, and that impact is increasing over time. Not only is the chaparral experiencing more drought and higher temperatures, but it is also reacting negatively to the impact of increased wildfires.

Warming temperatures are stressing the chaparral biome, leading to several environmental changes. In some areas, chaparral vegetation is dying because it cannot handle increased heat and decreased moisture. In other areas, woodlands are receding, and hardier chaparral plants are expanding into once-wooded environments. In general, the environment is becoming both hotter and drier.

Chaparral is naturally hot and dry regardless of climate change, and, as a result, it is subject to wildfires. Typical wildfires can actually be beneficial to chaparral plants, which generally have long taproots as well as lateral roots that extend in many directions. When wildfires strike, the woody parts of the plants may burn — but they can easily regrow from their protected roots. Fire can help to recycle nutrients in the soil, and some chaparral plants even rely on wildfires to stimulate seed sprouting. Fire also removes dead plants, which makes more room for seedlings to thrive. 

Climate change, however, has increased both the number and the intensity of chaparral wildfires. Even hardy chaparral plants are finding it difficult to cope with so much fire occurring over such huge areas of the ecosystem. The results are already apparent and include: 

  • Decreased vegetation (biomass)
  • Decreased habitat for animals 
  • Decreased plant and animal diversity     
  • Invasion of non-native grasses and plants 
  • Decreased ability of the ecosystem to sequester carbon dioxide 

Researchers believe that the current trends will continue. That is: chaparral areas will continue to extend into previously forested areas while existing chaparral will suffer from decreased biodiversity and animal habitat. There are efforts underway to mitigate the likelihood of wildfires; these include new rules and regulations for lessening the risk of sparks through fireworks and bonfires as well as aggressive management of chaparral plants.

View Article Sources
  1. Rundel, Philip W et al. “Fire and Plant Diversification in Mediterranean-Climate Regions.” Frontiers in Plant Science, vol. 9, 2018, p. 851., doi:10.3389/fpls.2018.00851

  2. Underwood, Emma C. et al. "Global Change and the Vulnerability of Chaparral Ecosystems." The Bulletin Of The Ecological Society Of America, vol. 99, no. 4, 2018, p. e01460., doi:10.1002/bes2.1460

  3. Molinari, N.A. et al. "Climate Change Trends for Chaparral." Valuing Chaparral, E. Underwood et al., Springer, Cham, 2018, pp. 385-409.