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Grasslands

Grasslands get more rain than deserts but less rain than forests, and are usually located between deserts and forests. This type of habitat is dominated by different types of grasses, and there is a lack of many trees or shrubs.

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Grasslands can be tropical or temperate, depending on where they are located. Tropical grasslands grow in areas along the equator, while temperate grasslands grow in areas to the North or South of the equatorial belt.

Tropical grasslands:

  • Occur between deserts and tropical rainforests.

  • Found in tropical latitudes, in Northern South America, India, Africa, and Australia.

  • They get more rain than temperate grasslands.

  • Grass can be taller here, and tends to be coarse and spiky. A few trees may live here.

  • The soil is not fertile.

  • There is a dry and a wet season, but it remains relatively warm all year.

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Temperate grasslands:

  • Occur between deserts and temperate rainforests. 

  • Exist in temperate latitudes, in South America, South Africa, Europe, North America and Asia.

  • These grasslands tend to be covered short grass with no trees.

  • The soil is very fertile.

  • Cold winters and hot summers with a little bit of rain.

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The grass on grasslands can be anywhere from 8 inches tall to 7 feet tall. "Grass" can include foxtail, wild oat, sunflower, buffalo grass, and purple coneflowers. Grasslands are called savannas and veldts in Africa. In South America, they are called pampas. In Europe and Asia they are called steppes. In Australia, they are called rangelands. In North America, they are called prairies or grasslands. Grasslands cover a large area of the Earth. Some were created when forests were cleared for agriculture, which transformed them into grasslands.

Natural grasslands are generally hot and dry, but not as dry as deserts. There is a rainy season that leads to seasonal rivers and ponds, which provide important habitats for wildlife. Seasonal streams provide important habitat, food, and water for a variety of plants and wildlife. Vernal pools (temporary pools of water) are important for many unique and endangered species. Fairy shrimp are one example, a species which hatches with the first rains, and live out their whole life cycle before the pool dries up. They have no defenses, so hatching in vernal pools keeps them away from predators. In other areas, depressions collect rainwater, which attract shorebirds and waterfowl.

Some areas, like the veldts of South Africa, would turn into other habitats without periodic drought, fires and grazing activities. In fact, these three factors are responsible for the maintenance of many grassland habitats. Small animals can hide from fires in underground holes, and birds use fires to feast on the insects fleeing from the flames. The roots of the grass survive fires, even though the dry stems burn. This can actually stimulate fresh growth in the grasses. When the rains return the grass will regrow very quickly, up to an inch in a day. The animals on the savanna depend on the return and rapid growth of grass to survive.

Animals that live in grasslands
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Prairie dog:

Prairie dogs are ecologically important to the grasslands of the United States. These social animals create intricate underground colonies (called prairie dog towns). This system of tunnels and chambers become shelters for jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, and toads. Prairie dogs create bare patches in the grass from grazing that attract insects. These insect patches attract feeding birds. Prairie dogs are also a food source for many animals.

Prairie dogs have a more extensive vocabulary than any other animal. They are also very fierce fighters.

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Ostrich:

Ostriches live in the savannas and deserts of Africa. At 9 feet tall they are the world's largest bird. Ostriches can run up to 43 miles an hour, and use their flightless wings to change direction. They live in small herds and all the females will lay their eggs in the one dominant females nest. Ostriches typically eat plants and seeds and get most of their water from these plants. 

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Kangaroo:

Kangaroos hop on their two back legs, using their tail like an additional leg to help them hop. They can move up to 34 miles an hour, and leap 30 feet in a single bound. Kangaroos live in Eastern Australia in "mobs" of around 50 individuals. They are marsupials, meaning the females have pouches that hold their baby while it grows. When the "joey" is about 4 months old, it can come out of the pouch for brief periods to graze on grass and shrubs.

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American bison:

These bison live in the grasslands of North America. They graze on grasses and shrubs. Females live in small groups consisting of one or more females and many of their offspring. Males form separate groups, but all groups come together during mating season to form one very large herd. Bison numbered 50 million before colonists came to North America, probably the largest aggregation of large animals in history. Buffalo were very important to Native Americans, who ate their meat, used their hides for clothing and shelter, and made tools with their horns and sinew. When Europeans arrived they killed all but about 1,000 bison. Bison exist now on reserves.

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Saiga:

Saiga are an antelope that live in Mongolia, Russia, and Kazakhstan, and are critically endangered. In 15 years their numbers have declined by up to 95%. One of their threats is that they are being poached for their horns for holistic Chinese medicine. Saiga live in herds of 30-40 individuals. They prefer open areas that allow them to spot predators. They have a long nose that may help filter out dust during dry months, and warm up the cold air during winter months.

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Lion:

Lions are apex predators on the African savannas. They are the only cat to have a tuft at the end of their tail, which hides a bone spur that is thought to be the remnant of tail claws found in ancient lions. Lions live in prides of up to a dozen related females, their female offspring, and a couple of unrelated male lions. The females are the primary hunters, and males guard the territory and watch cubs while the females hunt.

Threats to Grasslands

Poor agricultural practices: Grasslands are cleared to plant crops, and by planting a single crop and not rotating crops, the nutrients in the soil is depleted. The soil can become so infertile that nothing will grow in it for several years. The use of pesticides can also kill wild plants and animals around the cropland.

Grazing livestock that destroy grasses and selectively graze which may throw off the ecosystem by eliminating some plants and letting others overpopulate.

The three issues that threaten most habitats also threaten grasslands: climate change will dry out grasslands and convert them to deserts; land loss due to urban development and expansion; and invasive species that compete with native species.

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