A habitat is a place where an organism makes its home. A habitat meets all the environmental conditions an organism needs to survive. For an animal, that means everything it needs to find and gather food, select a mate, and successfully reproduce.

For a plant, a good habitat must provide the right combination of light, air, water, and soil. For example, the prickly pear cactus, which is adapted for sandy soil, dry climates, and bright sunlight, grows well in desert areas like the Sonoran Desert in northwest Mexico. It would not thrive in wet, cool areas with a large amount of overcast (shady) weather, like the U.S. states of Oregon or Washington.

The main components of a habitat are shelter, water, food, and space. A habitat is said to have a suitable arrangement when it has the correct amount of all of these. Sometimes, a habitat can meet some components of a suitable arrangement, but not all.

For example, a habitat for a puma could have the right amount of food (deer, porcupine, rabbits, and rodents), water (a lake, river, or spring), and shelter (trees or dens on the forest floor). The puma habitat would not have a suitable arrangement, however, if it lacks enough space for this large predator to establish its own territory. An animal might lose this component of habitat—space—when humans start building homes and businesses, pushing an animal into an area too small for it to survive.

Space

The amount of space an organism needs to thrive varies widely from species to species. For example, the common carpenter ant needs only a few square inches for an entire colony to develop tunnels, find food, and complete all the activities it needs to survive. In contrast, cougars are very solitary, territorial animals that need a large amount of space. Cougars can cover 455 square kilometers (175 square miles) of land to hunt and find a mate. A cougar could not survive in the same amount of space that a carpenter ant needs.

Plants need space, too. Coast redwood trees, like the ones in Redwood National Park in the U.S. state of California, can reach more than 4.5 meters (15 feet) in diameter and 106 meters (350 feet) in height. A tree that massive would not have enough space to grow and thrive in a typical community park or yard.

Space is not the same as range; the range of an animal is the part of the world it inhabits. Grassland, for example, is the habitat of the giraffe, but the animal’s range is central, eastern, and southern Africa.

Food

The availability of food is a crucial part of a habitat’s suitable arrangement. For example, in the northern part of the U.S. state of Minnesota, black bears eat mostly plants, like clover, dandelions, and blueberries. If there were a drought, plants would become scarce. Even though the habitat would still have space (large forest), shelter (caves, forest floor), water (streams and lakes), and some food, it wouldn’t have enough to eat. It would no longer be a suitable arrangement.

Too much food can also disrupt a habitat. Algae is a microscopic aquatic organism that makes its own food through the process of photosynthesis. Nutrients like phosphorous contribute to the spread of algae. When a freshwater habitat has a sharp increase in phosphorous, algae “blooms,” or reproduces quickly. Algae also dies very quickly, and the decaying algae produces an algal bloom. The algal bloom can discolor the water, turning it green, red, or brown. Algal blooms can also absorb oxygen from the water, destroying the habitat of organisms like fish and plants. Excess nutrients for algae can destroy the habitat’s food chain.

Water

Water is essential to all forms of life. Every habitat must have some form of a water supply. Some organisms need a lot of water, while others need very little. For example, dromedary camels are known for their ability to carry goods and people for long distances without needing much water. Dromedary camels, which have one hump, can travel 161 kilometers (100 miles) without a drink of water. Even with very little access to water in a hot, dry climate, dromedary camels have a suitable arrangement in northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Cattails, on the other hand, are plants that grow best in wet areas, like marshes and swamps. Dense colonies of these tall, spiky plants grow directly in the mud beneath lakes, stream banks, and even neighborhood ponds. A cattail habitat’s suitable arrangement depends on water. Imagine a pond at the bottom of a dirt-covered cliff. If enough loose dirt slid down into the pond, it could fill up the pond and absorb the water, not leaving enough for the cattails to grow.

Shelter

An organism’s shelter protects it from predators and weather. Shelter also provides a space for eating, sleeping, hunting, and raising a family. Shelters come in many forms. A single tree, for example, can provide sheltered habitats for many different organisms. For a caterpillar, shelter might be the underside of a leaf. For a mushroom fungus, shelter might be the cool, damp area near tree roots. For a bald eagle, shelter may be a high perch to make a nest and watch for food.

habitat
Red-eyed tree frogs live in a tropical rain forest habitat.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog
The red-eyed tree frogs habitat is in tropical areas from southern Mexico to northern South America. Although they are not endangered, their habitat is growing smaller. If their rainforest home continues to shrink, the red-eyed tree frog will not have the space it needs to survive.

absorb
Verb

to soak up.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

algal bloom
Noun

the rapid increase of algae in an aquatic environment.

animal
Noun

organisms that have a well-defined shape and limited growth, can move voluntarily, acquire food and digest it internally, and can respond rapidly to stimuli.

aquatic
Adjective

having to do with water.

bald eagle
Noun

white-headed bird of prey native to North America.

black bear
Noun

large animal (mammal) native to North America.

carpenter ant
Noun

common wood-eating black or brown ant.

caterpillar
Noun

larva of a butterfly or moth.

cattail
Noun

aquatic plant.

cave
Noun

underground chamber that opens to the surface. Cave entrances can be on land or in water.

Noun

steep wall of rock, earth, or ice.

climate
Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

coast redwood
Noun

tallest tree species on Earth.

colony
Noun

group of one species of organism living close together.

component
Noun

part.

cougar
Noun

large cat native to the Americas. Also called puma, mountain lion, and panther.

crucial
Adjective

very important.

damp
Adjective

slightly wet.

decay
Verb

to rot or decompose.

dense
Adjective

having parts or molecules that are packed closely together.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

destroy
Verb

to ruin or make useless.

discolor
Verb

to change from something's natural color.

dromedary camel
Noun

large pack animal with one hump, native to North Africa and the Middle East.

Noun

period of greatly reduced precipitation.

establish
Verb

to form or officially organize.

excess
Noun

extra or surplus.

Noun

material, usually of plant or animal origin, that living organisms use to obtain nutrients.

Noun

group of organisms linked in order of the food they eat, from producers to consumers, and from prey, predators, scavengers, and decomposers.

forest
Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

freshwater
Adjective

having to do with a habitat or ecosystem of a lake, river, or spring.

fungus
Noun

(plural: fungi) type of organism that survives by decomposing and absorbing the material in which it grows.

giraffe
Noun

large mammal with a long neck, native to Africa.

grassland
Noun

ecosystem with large, flat areas of grasses.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

hunt
Verb

to pursue and kill an animal, usually for food.

impact
Noun

meaning or effect.

Noun

body of water surrounded by land.

Noun

wetland area usually covered by a shallow layer of seawater or freshwater.

massive
Adjective

very large or heavy.

microscopic
Adjective

very small.

mud
Noun

wet soil.

mushroom
Noun

fungus, usually with an umbrella-shaped cap on top of a slender stalk.

Noun

an area within a larger city or town where people live and interact with one another.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

organism
Noun

living or once-living thing.

overcast
Adjective

very cloudy.

oxygen
Noun

chemical element with the symbol O, whose gas form is 21% of the Earth's atmosphere.

park
Noun

area of land set aside for recreational use.

perch
Verb

to sit or rest on a tree branch or other elevated position.

phosphorus
Noun

chemical element with the symbol P.

Noun

process by which plants turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into water, oxygen, and simple sugars.

plant
Noun

organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

pond
Noun

small body of water surrounded by land.

predator
Noun

animal that hunts other animals for food.

prickly pear cactus
Noun

American plant with spiny, flat pads.

puma
Noun

mammal, relative to a cat, native to the Americas. Also called a cougar or mountain lion.

range
Noun

agricultural land where livestock graze.

reproduce
Verb

to create offspring, by sexual or asexual means.

root
Noun

part of a plant that secures it in the soil, obtains water and nutrients, and often stores food made by leaves.

scarce
Adjective

rare.

shelter
Noun

structure that protects people or other organisms from weather and other dangers.

soil
Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

solitary
Adjective

alone or preferring to be alone.

space
Noun

amount of habitat an organism needs to thrive.

spring
Noun

small flow of water flowing naturally from an underground water source.

suitable arrangement
Noun

habitat with the correct amounts of food, water, shelter, and space for an organism.

Noun

land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.

territorial
Adjective

very protective of a specific area, especially defending it against intruders.

territory
Noun

land an animal, human, or government protects from intruders.

thrive
Verb

to develop and be successful.

tree
Noun

type of large plant with a thick trunk and branches.

typical
Adjective

ordinary.

vary
Verb

to change.

yard
Noun

land surrounding a house or building.