An alvar is a biological environment based on a limestone plain with thin or no soil and, as a result, sparse grassland vegetation. Often flooded in the spring, and droughted in mid summer, alvars support a distinctive group of prairie-like plants. Most alvars occur either in northern Europe or around the Great Lakes in North America. This stressed habitat supports a community of rare plants and animals, including species more commonly found on prairie grasslands. Lichen and mosses are common species. Trees and bushes are absent or severely stunted.

The primary cause of alvars is the shallow exposed bedrock. Flooding and drought, as noted, add to the stress of the site and prevent many species from growing. Disturbance may also play a role. In Europe, grazing is frequent, while in North America, there is some evidence that fire may also prevent encroachment by forest. The habitat also has strong competition gradients, with better competitors occupying the deeper soil and excluding other species to less productive locations. Crevices in the limestone provide a distinctive habitat which is somewhat protected from grazing, and which may provide habitat for unusual ferns such as Pellaea atropurpurea. Bare rock flats provide areas with extremely low competition which serve as refugia for weak competitors like Minuartia michauxii and Saxifraga virginiensis. In a representative set of four Ontario alvars, seven habitat types were described. From deep to shallow soil these were: tall grassy meadows, tall forb-rich meadows, low grassy meadows, low forb-rich meadows, dry grassland, rock margin grassland and bare rock flats.

Alvars comprise a small percentage of the Earth's ecosystems by land extent; although some 120 exist in the Great Lakes region. In total there are only about 112 squre km left across the entire Great Lakes basin, and many of these have been degraded by agriculture and other human uses. More than half of all remaining alvars occur in Ontario. There are smaller areas in New York, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Quebec.

In North America, alvars provide habitat for birds such as Bobolinks, Eastern Meadowlarks, Upland Sandpipers, Eastern Towhees, Brown Thrashers and Loggerhead Shrikes whose habitat is declining elsewhere. Rare plants include Kalm's lobelia, Pringle's aster, Juniper sedge (Carex juniperorum), Lakeside daisy (Hymenoxys acaulis), Ram's-head Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium arietinum) and Dwarf Lake Iris (Iris lacustris). Also associated with alvars are rare butterflies and snails.

The use of the word "alvar" to refer to this type of environment originated in Scandinavia. The largest alvar in Europe is located on the Swedish island of Öland. Here the thin soil mantle is only 0.5 to 2.0 centimeters thick in most places and in many extents consists of exposed limestone slabs. The landscape there has been designated a UNESCO World heritage site. There are other more local names for similar landforms, such as a pavement barren although this term is also used for similar landforms based on sandstone. In the United Kingdom the exposed landform is called a limestone pavement and thinly covered limestone is known as calcareous grassland.

Read more about Alvar:  European Alvar Locations, Some North American Alvar Locations

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