Life In A Temperate Grassland

How do these ecosystems differ from the grassy biomes of the savanna?

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands
Yellow prairie grass thrives in Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. Tetra Images/Getty Images

As much as one-fifth of the Earth's surface is covered in wild grasses in biomes known, aptly, as grasslands. These biomes are characterized by the plants that grow there, but they also attract a unique array of animals into their realm. 

Savannas and Grasslands: What's the difference?

Both are dominated by grass and few trees as well as hooved animals that can run fast from predators, so what's the difference between a grassland and a savanna? Essentially a savanna is one type of grassland found in tropical regions. It generally gets more moisture and therefore has a few more trees than grasslands in the rest of the world.

The other type of grassland - known more simply as a temperate grassland - experiences seasonal changes throughout the year that bring hot summers and cold winters. Temperate grasslands receive just enough moisture to support the growth of grasses, flowers, and herbs, but not much else.

This article will focus on the plants, animals, and regions of the world's temperate grassland biomes.

Where in the World Are Grasslands Found?

Temperate grasslands are characterized by their hot summers, cold winters, and very rich soils. They can be found throughout North America - from Canada's prairies to the plains of the midwestern United States. They are also found in other parts of the world, albeit they are known here under different names. In South America, grasslands are called pampas, in Hungary they are called pusztas, whereas in Eurasia they are known as steppes. Temperate grasslands found in South Africa are called veldts.

Plants in the Grassland: More than just grass!

As you might expect, grasses are the predominant plant species growing in grasslands. Grasses, such as barley, buffalo grass, pampas grass, purple needlegrass, foxtail, rye grass, wild oats, and wheat are the main plants that grow in these ecosystems. The amount of annual rainfall affects the height of the grasses that grow in temperate grasslands, with taller grasses growing in wetter areas.

But that's all there is to these rich and fertile ecosystems. Flowers, such as sunflowers, goldenrods, clover, wild indigos, asters, and blazing stars make their home among those grasses, as do several species of herbs.

Precipitation in grassland biomes is often high enough to support grasses and a few small trees, but for the most part trees are rare. Fires and erratic climate generally prevent trees and forests from taking over. With so much of a grass' growth occurring underground or low to the ground, they are able to survive and recover from fires more quickly than shrubs and trees. Also, the soils in grasslands, while fertile, are typically thin and dry, making it difficult for trees to survive.

Temperate Grassland Animals

There are not many places for prey animals to hide from predators in grasslands. Unlike savannas, where there is a large diversity of animals present, temperate grasslands are generally dominated by just a few species of herbivores such as bison, rabbits, deer, antelope, gophers, prairie dogs,and antelopes.

Since there are not many places to hide in all of that grass, some grassland species - such as mice, prairie dogs, and gophers have adapted by digging burrows to hide from predators such as coyotes and foxes. Birds such as eagles, hawks, and owls also find lots of easy prey in grasslands. Spiders and insects, namely grasshoppers, butterflies, crickets, and dung beetles are in abundance in temperate grasslands as are several snake species.

Threats to Grasslands

The primary threat faces by grassland ecosystems is the destruction of their habitat for agricultural use. Thanks to their rich soils, temperate grasslands are frequently converted to farm land. Agricultural crops, such as corn, wheat, and other grains grow well in grassland soils and climate. And domestic animals, such as sheep and cattle, love to graze there.

But this destroys the delicate balance of the ecosystem and removes the habitat for the animals and other plants that call the temperate grasslands their home. Finding land to grow crops and support farm animals is important, but so are grasslands, and the plants and animals that live there.