Although at first glance they may not seem as impressive as craggy mountaintops or lush tropical rainforest, grasslands are anything but boring.
As their name suggests, these wide expanses of flat, mostly treeless open plain are dominated by the growth of grasses. These narrow-leafed plants are abundant worldwide and collectively form one of the largest habitats on the planet, covering an estimated 50 million square kilometres – around 40% of our planet’s land area.
Grasses thrive in good light but are able to survive extended periods of low rainfall and scorching heat. Their matted root systems can even withstand seasonal fires, allowing the leaves to regenerate when the rainy season arrives. Grasses owe their durability to the fact that their leaves continue to grow from the base even after the tips are damaged or consumed by grazing herbivores.
Around the globe, grasslands have different names: from the llanos and pampas of South America to the North American prairies, and from the steppes of Central Asia to the southern African veldt and the savannahs of East Africa. Each has its own unique mix of vegetation and inhabitants, depending on the amount of rainfall, temperature and soil quality, but all are incredibly fertile environments that support a tremendous diversity of species.
Grasslands are home to all manner of animals, from colossal herbivores such as elephants and rhinos to the teeming colonies of insects that underpin the entire ecosystem. Without grasslands we would miss out on some of nature’s most remarkable spectacles – from migrating wildebeest thundering across the African savannah and bison dotted across the American prairies, to herds of the unusual -looking saiga antelope picking their way across the Central Asian steppe.
Armadillos, aardvarks and anteaters hoover up the abundant invertebrates in their respective ranges; steppe eagles, servals and secretarybirds pick off the smaller vertebrates; and charismatic carnivores such as leopards and lions prey on the plentiful herds of large herbivores.