Nature Connection – Habitat 101.4 — Amazing Grassland!

Grasslands cover a large part of the land surface of the world, and I’m particularly fond of them, since I grew up on land which was tallgrass prairie prior to the settlement of the central United States about a hundred and fifty years ago. After settlement, west central Oklahoma became wheat country, with miles and miles of rolling prairie converted to plowed cropland. Today the area still grows wheat, as well as other grain crops like sorghum and alfalfa. The land even supports vineyards in years of ample rainfall.

Any place where enough rain falls, grasses grow. These places typically don’t get enough water to support the growth of trees, but grasses with their deep roots do just fine.  Less rain than that, desertland will exist because most plants can’t survive. If there is enough rain, trees take root and take over, eventually preventing the successful growth of grasses.

The borders of grassland areas move, depending on the amount of rainfall received that year. Trees are ever willing to intrude and take over wet areas; desert creeps in to take over when plants can’t survive.

Grasslands are the habitat of many, many animals. When visiting grasslands, you are likely to see many hawks and large soaring birds, as well as songbirds, owls and sparrows. Different species of rats and mice, voles, gophers, skunks and prairie dogs call grasslands home. Pronghorn, deer and bison, snakes, toads, ground squirrels and lizards live in grassland habitat.

Each of these animals is equipped to live best in grasslands. The food they prefer lives there, whether that may be grasses, herbs or small trees, or insects and small mammals. Their bodies can survive in grasslands, where plenty of space, water, food and shelter is found.

Thousands of insect species live in grasslands, and some of them help pollinate the grass plants. But they don’t live just above the surface. Many use the prairie earth for at least part of their life cycle, while others, like worms and various beetles, live exclusively in the soil.

Finally, it is estimated that millions of different microscopic creatures are found in a square yard of prairie soil. These microbes make the soil of grasslands the richest in the world, and are one reason prairies became prime farmland throughout the central Unites States.

One mammal truly shaped the prairie – the American bison, commonly called a buffalo. These huge animals are the largest grazing animal in North America. Prior to settlement, some estimates say that as many as 50 million bison roamed most of the central portion of the country. Bison provided food and hides to the Native American peoples; body parts like horns, hoofs, tails and even internal organs were used to create many everyday articles used by these indigenous tribes.

When cattle were introduced by European settlers, and the West was opened to settlement, bison were hunted almost to extinction. But it was the constant movement of this massive animal, as it searched for the best grass and plentiful water, which is believed to have created true prairie.

There’s so much more to prairie! Use your internet browser to locate other resources.

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