Grasslands (also called greenswards) are areas where the vegetation is dominated by grasses (Poaceae) and other herbaceous (non-woody) plants (forbs). Plants of the sedge (Cyperacae) and rush (Juncaceae) families can also be found in grasslands. Grasslands occur naturally on all continents except Antarctica, and in many other areas they have replaced the natural vegetation due to human influence. In temperate latitudes, such as north-west Europe, grasslands are dominated by perennial species, whereas in warmer climates annual species form a greater component of the vegetation.
Grasslands can be found in most terrestrial climates. Grassland vegetation can vary in height from very short, as in chalk downland where the vegetation may be less than 30 cm high, to quite tall, as in the case of North American tallgrass prairie, South American grasslands and African savanna. Woody plants, shrubs or trees, may occur on some grasslands - forming savannas, scrubby grassland or semi-wooded grassland, such as the African savannas or the Iberian dehesa. Such grasslands are sometimes referred to as wood-pasture or woodland.
Grasslands cover nearly fifty percent of the land surface of the continent of Africa. While grasslands in general support diverse wildlife, given the lack of hiding places for predators, the African Savanna regions support a much greater diversity in wildlife than do temperate grasslands.
The appearance of mountains in the western United States during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, a period of some 25 million years, created a continental climate favorable to the evolution of grasslands. Existing forest biomes declined, and grasslands became much more widespread. Following the Pleistocene Ice Ages, grasslands expanded in range in the hotter, drier climates, and began to become the dominant land feature worldwide.
As flowering plants, grasses grow in great concentrations in climates where annual rainfall ranges between 500 mm and 900 mm (approximately 20 to 35 inches). The root systems of perennial grasses and forbs form complex mats that hold the soil in place. Mites, insect larvae, nematodes and earthworms inhabit deep soil, which can reach 6 meters (about 20 feet) underground in undisturbed grasslands on the richest soils of the world. These invertebrates, along with symbiotic fungi, extend the root systems, break apart hard soil, enrich it with urea and other natural fertilizers, trap minerals and water and promote growth (Chadwick 1995). Some types of fungi make the plants more resistant to insect and microbial attacks.
Natural grasslands primarily occur in regions that receive between 500 to 900 mm (15 to 30 in) of rain per year, as compared with deserts
, which receive less than 300 mm (12 in) and tropical rainforests
, which receive more than 2,000 mm (80 in).. Anthropogenic
grasslands often occur in much higher rainfall zones, as high as 200cm annual rainfall.
Average daily temperatures range between -20 to 30 degrees Celsius.. Temperate grasslands have cold winters and warm summers with rain or some snow.
Grassland biodiversity and conservation
Grasslands dominated by unsown wild-plant communities ("unimproved grasslands") can be called either natural or 'semi-natural' habitats. The majority of grasslands in temperate climates are 'semi-natural', although their plant communities are natural, their maintenance depends upon anthropogenic activities such as low-intensity farming. Farming maintains these grasslands through grazing and cutting regimes. These grasslands contain many species of wild plants - grasses, sedges, rushes and herbs - 25 or more species per square metre is not unusual. Chalk downlands in England can support over 40 species per square metre. In many parts of the world, few examples have escaped agricultural improvement (fertilising, weed killing, ploughing or re-seeding). For example, original North American prairie grasslands or lowland wildflower meadows in the UK are now rare and their associated wild flora equally threatened. Associated with the wild-plant diversity of the "unimproved" grasslands is usually a rich invertebrate fauna; also there are many species of birds that are grassland "specialists" - for example snipe
, or the Great Bustard
. Agriculturally improved grasslands, which dominate modern intensive agricultural landscapes, are usually poor in wild plant species due to the original diversity of plants having been destroyed by cultivation, the original wild-plant communities having been replaced by sown monocultures of cultivated varieties of grasses and clovers, such as Perennial ryegrass
and White Clover
. In many parts of the world "unimproved" grasslands are one of the most threatened habitats, and a target for acquisition by wildlife conservation groups or for special grants to landowners who are encouraged to manage them appropriately.
Human impact and economic importance
Grasslands are of vital importance for raising livestock for human consumption and for milk and other dairy products.
Grassland vegetation remains dominant in a particular area usually due to grazing, cutting, or natural or man-made fires, all discouraging colonisation by and survival of tree and shrub seedlings. Fire was used in North America by the Native Americans as a means of maintaining grassland. Some of the world's largest expanses of grassland are found in African savanna, and these are maintained by wild herbivores as well as by nomadic pastoralists and their cattle, sheep or goats.
Grasslands may occur naturally or as the result of human activity. Grasslands created and maintained by human activity are called anthropogenic grasslands. Hunting peoples around the world often set regular fires to maintain and extend grasslands, and prevent fire-intolerant trees and shrubs from taking hold. The tallgrass prairies in the American Midwest may have been extended eastward into Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio by human agency. Much grassland in north-west Europe developed after the Neolithic Period, when people gradually cleared the forest to create areas for raising their livestock.
Types of grassland
Tropical and subtropical grasslands
These grasslands are classified with tropical and subtropical savannas
as the tropical and subtropical grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
biome. Notable tropical and subtropical grasslands include the Llanos
grasslands of northern South America
Mid-latitude grasslands, including the Prairie
of North America
, the Pampa
, calcareous downland
, and the steppes
. They are classified with temperate savannas and shrublands as the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands
biome. Temperate grasslands are the home to many large herbivores
, such as bison
, and wild horses
and leopards are also found in temperate grasslands. Other animals of this region include: deer
, prairie dogs
, jack rabbits
Grasslands that are flooded seasonally or year-round, like the Everglades
or the Pantanal
.They are classified with flooded savannas as the flooded grasslands and savannas
biome and occur mostly in the tropics and subtropics.
High-altitude grasslands located on high mountain ranges
around the world, like the Páramo
of the Andes Mountains
. They are part of the montane grasslands and shrublands
biome, and also constitute tundra
Similar to montane grasslands, arctic tundra
can have grasses. However high soil moisture means that few tundras are grass-dominated today. However, during the Pleistocene ice ages
, a polar grassland known as steppe-tundra
occupied large areas of the Northern hemisphere.
Also called desert grasslands
, these are sparse grasslands located in deserts and xeric shrublands