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Flora and Fauna of the Great Plains

Up Birds Reptiles Mammals Amphibians Fish Woody Plants Insects Unionid Mussels Species at Risk Other Animals & Plants Kansas Symbols

Plant of the Month For an in-depth portrait of a plant or animal of interest at this time of year, click on one of these links! Animal of the Month

At the crossroads of the continent, the Great Plains partakes of many influences.  The desert of the American southwest contributes drought-adapted plants.  The eastern deciduous forest sends woodland species out from its margins to try their luck amongst the grasses.  The northeastern third felt the crush of the Pleistocene glaciers, which left behind some near-Arctic species when they retreated.  Drought and flood, extremes of heat and cold, fire and the hand of man are constantly reshaping the area.

The Great Plains is subtle in its details.  There are no craggy, snow-capped  mountain ranges, but there are isolated mountainous areas.  The Black Hills of South Dakota and the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma are examples.  These areas are like islands in the prairie and often contain species whose nearest relatives may be hundreds of miles away.  There is no ocean shoreline, but the edge habitat along rivers, streams and the many natural and man-made lakes provide abundant opportunities for aquatic plants and the animals that depend on them.  The wetland habitats of the prairie are very significant.   Cheyenne Bottoms, located near Great Bend, Kansas, is officially recognized as a wetland of international importance.  Half of all North American shorebirds stop over there during the spring migration. 

North American Prairies However, it is the grassland community, or prairie, that makes up the heart and soul of the Great Plains.  From the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where the shortgrass prairie covers the high plains, to Illinois, where the tallgrass prairie formerly extended, and from Saskatchewan to Texas, the Prairie dominates the center of the North American continent.  Between the tallgrass and the shortgrass prairie lies a shifting band of habitat that has both tall and short grasses, yet is distinguishable as a separate community - the mixed prairie.

Any animal that lives on the Great Plains must be adapted for the grassland ecosystem and the extremes of climate that prevail here.  Rainfall varies from less than 25 cm. (10") per year on the high plains to around 112 cm. (45") per year where the tallgrass prairie blends into the eastern deciduous forest.  The annual swing of temperature can be as much as 130 degrees Fahrenheit (~ 55 degrees celsius) between winter and summer.  The wind can be a major factor as well.  Weather systems typically move fast on the Great Plains, stirring up the atmosphere with dramatic results.  Aerial creatures such as birds and insects must be able to cope with this constant shifting of the medium they inhabit.

The variety of habitats and climate provides opportunities for a wide variety of animals and plants.  In Kansas alone there have been recorded:

87 species of mammals
457 species of birds
67 species of snakes, lizards and turtles
32 species of amphibians
142 species of fish
~ 20,000 species of invertebrate animals
including over 15,000 species of insects
46 species of unionid mussels
~ 200 species of woody plants
over 800 species of non-woody flowering plants
~ 150 species of grasses

Within this area of our web site, we highlight the diversity and abundance of the living community of the Great Plains.  Use the links above to find out more about the animals and plants that make the prairie their home.

- This page was spun by Jim Mason -

Questions or comments?  Send Email to Jim Mason Spidey
Or write us at: 
Great Plains Nature Center
6232 E. 29th Street North
Wichita, KS 67220-2200             Call:  316-683-5499            Fax:  316-688-9555