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.
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:
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