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What is a Prairie?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A prairie is a stretch of open, relatively flat land covered in grasses, herbs, and small shrubs, without any trees present. Many people think of central North America when they hear the term, although similar plains exist in places like Russia and South America as well. The prairie is a unique ecosystem, supporting plants and wildlife that are not found in other environments. Humans have contributed immensely to the shape of the world's temperate grasslands for thousands of years.

The word is taken directly from the French word for “meadow,” and it was first used to describe the high grasslands of central North America in 1773. The concept of the prairie was completely alien to European explorers, who were not accustomed to the sight of tall grasses waving to the horizon. Many of the animals there were also unusual and unexpected, and these explorers recognized that the flatland was a unique environment.

Gentle slopes and large flat areas are the hallmark of a prairie, which has a mixture of grasses that may grow as high as a person's head. Wildflowers and aromatic herbs are usually abundantly distributed throughout the grass, and small shrubs may be found in some regions as well. Numerous animals call the tall grasses home, while others burrow into the soil for shelter. The prairie also hosts unique birds, such as larks.

Larger animals have also historically depended on the prairie. In the Americas, the buffalo is probably the best known example of a large animal species which was once abundantly distributed across these lands. These animals helped to churn and fertilize the soil as they wandered, scattering seeds across the land with their hooves. The rich soil of the plains turned out to be highly beneficial for humans settling in the area, since they could establish large farms that supported both animals and crops.

Although prairies appear to be totally natural features, archaeologists believe that they may have been heavily influenced by animals and people, who contributed to their ecology over thousands of years of farming, hunting, and roaming. The unique conditions in the prairie were probably created through a combination of feeding animals, deliberate early human shaping, and factors of nature and geology. Some biologists are concerned about the health of these grasslands, as the land has been heavily exploited for farming and industrial use. They fear that the disappearance of the prairie would be a great loss for mankind, as it represents such an interesting and unique ecology.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Apr 07, 2012

@kentuckycat - One of the other reasons I think they plowed over a lot of native prairies was just because they were scary and dangerous. For anyone who has never been in a tallgrass prairie, most prairies plants can easily grow to 8 feet tall. At that height, it's difficult to see what's around you even if you're on a horse. Given the threat from some Native American tribes and various animals, it was just safer to get rid of prairies.

I am glad to hear that there is a movement to restore some of the native prairies. They really are beautiful and are home to lots of interesting wildlife and insects. Prairie hawks are especially interesting, in my opinion. They have great eyesight and can pick out mice and snakes and other animals and then swoop down to pick them up. It is very neat to watch if you ever get the chance. Most other hawks get their food the same way, but the prairie makes it much easier to see everything happen.

By kentuckycat — On Apr 06, 2012

I grew up in Illinois, which was almost entirely covered by tallgrass prairie at one point before European settlers arrived. Like jcraig mentioned, the soil beneath prairies is extremely fertile, so much of the area in current farming states like Illinois, Iowa, Kansas etc., was plowed up.

At least in Illinois, there is less than 1 percent of the original prairie that has been left intact. Prairies don't serve much purpose as far as directly benefiting humans, and the alternative of farming it was just too good to pass up.

Luckily, there has been a movement as of late to restore a lot of areas back to their original prairie status. Like I already mentioned, there isn't a lot of economic use to prairie, so most of the places are just small parks where new plants have been seeded in and allowed to grow.

By jcraig — On Apr 06, 2012

@TreeMan - Those are all good questions. I think I can probably answer the question about where prairies exist (or did exist at one time). The one thing that wasn't directly mentioned in the article is that there are two different types of prairies - tallgrass and shortgrass.

Tallgrass prairies are the kind that has really been hit the hardest. They stretched from about Illinois over to central Kansas and Nebraska. Like the name implies, tallgrass prairie plants are generally taller and are what the article mostly mentioned. Most of these were removed for farming, because they have extremely fertile soils.

Shortgrass prairies are much more common today and stretch from Kansas and Nebraska where the tallgrass stops to around Colorado and even into southern Canada. Most people refer to these areas as grasslands or ranges. Nowadays, these areas are mostly used from grazing cattle and raising other types of livestock in the West.

By TreeMan — On Apr 05, 2012

Maybe this is an odd question, but what exactly happened to all the prairie in North America? I have lived in California my whole life, so obviously, I've never really had a chance to see it here. The article briefly mentions some prairies getting removed for farming. Is that what happened to all of them? I just ask, because I don't recall ever hearing about prairie still existing in the US.

If there is anywhere that you can still see native prairie, where is it? Are there any national parks or anything devoted to prairies that are popular? Like the article also says, the word prairie is usually associated with the central part of North America. Are there any areas in Canada or Mexico that also have prairie?

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 05, 2012

Walking in a prairie can be scary in the summertime, when wildlife is bustling about. I live near a big prairie that my grandfather owns, and I find it a little intimidating to venture across it.

For one thing, when you are walking, you disturb lots of birds that make their homes there. Several types of small birds that build nests in the brush rather than in trees suddenly fly up in your face, and some of them are aggressive, because they perceive you as a threat.

Also, there is the possibility that you could step on a snake. The tall grass makes it hard to see potential dangers like this.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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