Scientists Say: Prairie

These grasslands are home to many organisms, such as black-footed ferrets, that can live nowhere else

a photo of a prairie at sunset

Prairie is a term for flat, grass-covered ecosystems and is usually applied only to grasslands in North America. Prairies provide a home to many organisms, from bison to prairie dogs to sunflowers.

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Prairie (noun, “PRAYR-ee”)

A prairie is a very large stretch of grassland. Prairies have very few trees, and only small hills. They may not get a lot of rain. But they’ve got plenty of grass — more than 40 different species can grow there. Prairies are a type of temperate grassland, similar to savannahs or steppes. Temperate grasslands are cooler than those in the tropics, but warmer than those in polar areas. Usually, when scientists talk about prairies, they are referring to the grasslands in North America. There, prairies stretch from the area east of the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River.  

Prairies are more than big fields of grass. Hundreds of animal and plant species call prairies home — prairie dogs, bison, ferrets, birds such as grouse, plants such as prairie clover and cone flowers, and many, many more.  Prairies make a good place to live because they’ve got lots of soil, which the grass keeps from washing away. When the grass dies, bacteria and fungi break it down on the spot, putting nutrients right back in the soil. Prairies catch on fire fairly often. The burning keeps trees from growing — and also burns up old plants, returning their nutrients to the soil, too.

This all makes prairies very fertile places. That means they can grow lots of plants, which can support large, plant-eating animals such as bison. It also means that prairies make good farmland for corn, wheat or cattle. That has put prairies in danger, as people have plowed under many grasslands to grow crops. In fact, grasslands in the United States have decreased by 79 percent since the early 1800s.

In a sentence

Shallow ponds — called potholes — on the prairie serve as nesting sites for half of the ducks in North America.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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