Harman, Jay R. Department of Geography, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.
Last reviewed:November 2019
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A geographic boundary or transition zone between two different groups of plant or animal distributions. The term has been used to denote transitions at different spatial scales or levels of analysis, and may refer to any one of several attributes of the organisms involved. For example, an ecotone could refer to physiognomy (roughly, the morphology or appearance of the relevant organisms), such as between the boreal forest and grassland biomes; or it could refer to composition, such as between oak-hickory and maple-basswood forest associations; or it could refer to both. Ecotones are generally distinguished from other geographic transitions of biota by their relative sharpness. The ecotone between boreal forest and prairie in central Saskatchewan occurs over a hundred kilometers or so, in contrast to the transition from tropical forest to savanna in South America or Africa that is associated with increasing aridity and is dispersed over hundreds of kilometers. The “tension zone” between broadleaf deciduous forests in south-cental Michigan and mixed forests to the north is similarly sharp. Ecotones are thought to reflect concentrated long-term gradients of one or more current environmental (rather than historical or human) factors. Though often climatic, these factors can also be due to substrate materials, such as glacial sediments or soils. Regardless of their specific environmental basis, most ecotones are thought to be relatively stable.
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