The Great Plains stretch from northern Canada to southern Texas, and are host to a great diversity of life. Despite the limited rainfall and harsh winter and summer seasons, plant and animal life thrives. These difficult conditions have sparked adaptations in the way plants and animals survive. Only some plant types, mostly grasses, are able to grow here year after year. Animals have had to adapt to this, developing digestive systems tailored to the food available.
The North American Great Plains account for one quarter of the continent's land area. Plant and animal types vary by location and climate. In the north, long, cold winters and short summers make living conditions difficult. In the south, hot summers and short cool periods create similar, though opposite, challenges. The Rocky Mountains, to the west of the Great Plains, cast a rain shadow on much of the western prairie. As a result, vegetation is less prolific and animal life is more sparse. In the east, rain is more abundant and vegetation grows tall, offering plenty of food for animals.
Human development has changed the majority of the landscape. The original grasslands of the prairie are no longer there, with the exception of reserves and parks. Farms, cities and other forms of human development have altered the landscape. Animals such as buffalo, which once inhabited the land in the millions, have been severely depleted from hunting and food shortages. The buffalo population is now represented by the few remaining American bison, which were reintroduced through conservation and breeding efforts.
The dominant plant life in the Great Plains is grasses. Although much of the original grasses in the plains have been lost to human development, nature preserves and parks host landscapes that show how the ecology of the land once looked. Eastern regions feature taller grasses, reaching heights of 12 feet. Often these are either switch grass or big bluestem grass. Sagebrush and a short grass called buffalo grass are common in the western sections of the plains.
Many animals found in the Great Plains have become iconic of the region. American bison, prairie dogs, jackrabbits and coyotes are common sights among the prairie grasses. Grazing animals do well in the region, flourishing among the abundant grasses. Pronghorn sheep, which are often mistaken for a type of antelope, are the only antelope-like animal in North America. Carnivores take advantage of the herbivores throughout the plains. Wolves, coyotes and foxes feed on many of the animals they find grazing or popping up among the grasses. Rattlesnakes can be found throughout the region. All these animals face harsh conditions throughout the year.
Both plants and animals in the Great Plains have evolved and adapted to a special relationship with one another. Animals such as bison have developed special stomachs that allow them to digest otherwise difficult-to-process grasses. The cellulose in these and other plants are difficult for animals to break down, and the extensive digestive systems in grazing animals allow them to survive on this diet.
Plants, rather than developing a defense mechanism to protect themselves from herbivores, have evolved into heavily rooted organisms. Their extensive roots grow deep and numerous in the ground. They allow for consistent growth despite constant consumption of their leaves.
- National Park Service: The Great Plains
- "Physical Geography, 2nd ed."; Ralph C. Scott; 1992
About the Author
Jim Jansen has been writing articles since 2005 and has been featured in publications such as "The River Watch," and also contributes to Trails.com and LIVESTRONG.COM. He has a Bachelor of Arts in professional writing from Michigan State University. Jansen specializes in outdoor recreation and environmental topics.