Grassland Animals: What is Threatening Them and Their Habitat
There are many biomes all over the Earth. Deserts, forests, arctic. But one of the more popular ones, which has been the location of one of the best Disney movies ever, the grasslands. If you have ever seen the Lion King, which come on, everyone has seen the Lion King, you have an idea of what the grasslands look like and what kind of animals live there. However, like many of the ecosystems on Earth, the grasslands are under heavy threat every day. Human activities are threatening the way of life of many grassland animals. What kind of threats do grassland animals face and how many of them are already endangered?
The grassland ecosystems can be found in both tropical and temperate regions of the world, though the specific ecosystems will vary slightly. The area mainly consists of grasses, few trees or shrubs, and many grazing mammals, herbivores, and of course predators. There are two main types of grassland ecosystems. Savannas, which are tropical grasslands, but seasonally dry. You’ll see a lot of predators and grazers here. Picture the movie The Lion King. The other are prairies. These are temperate grasslands, totally devoid of large shrubs and trees. Mostly all you will find here are mixtures of short and tall grass.
Grassland ecosystems are fairly fragile because water is so scarce. In fact, the grasslands in Australia, Africa and South America are usually dependant on episodes of fire for renewal. The fire renews the soil and the land by killing all of the dead grass and vegetation. Making it possible for new vegetation to grow in. Since the bulk of grassland animals are grazers, fresh vegetation is extremely important.
Unfortunately, grasslands are also prime targets for human development, due to their topographies. This ends up having devastating consequences on the grassland animals as well as the ecosystem as a whole. Humans plow grasslands to plant wheat and other crops, replace wildlife with livestock, and hunt down all animals, predator and prey. There are very few grasslands that are currently protected as wildlife preserves.
You can find grasslands all over the world. North America’s Great Plains, Africa’s savannas, Asia’s steppes, Australia’s rangelands, and South America’s pampas, llanos, and cerrados.
Types of Grassland Animals
The grasslands are home to a wide variety of animals. Grazing and roaming herbivores gather and group together to feed on the most abundant source of food and the reason for the name, grass, and grass-like plants. Meanwhile, predators lurk nearby and search for their next meal.
Some of the biggest land creatures that are on Earth are found in the grasslands. You got your elephants, bison, antelopes, giraffes, gazelles, buffaloes, kangaroos, zebras and rhinos. These are also all herbivores. The African Elephant is the largest animal on Earth. They can easily weigh up to 6 tons and be about 24 feet long. They are most commonly found throughout 37 African countries.
There are also many smaller critters that roam the vast grasslands. Because of The Lion King, many people are already familiar with meerkats like Timon, but there are many others. You can find prairie dogs, rabbits, gophers, black-footed ferrets, ground squirrels, and many mice. The black-footed ferrets are especially impressive. They managed to come back from the brink of extinction about 30 years ago and have continued to thrive. They are also the only ferret species that is native to North America.
On to the stars of the grassland animals, the predators. These guys are the ones who hunt down the big and small guys alike for their food. There are many predators in the grasslands. Jaguars, Sumatran and Malayan tigers, lions, leopards, hyenas, cheetahs, African wild dogs, wolves, and coyotes. There are also two endangered predators, both the Sumatran and Malayan tigers. Poaching and habitat destruction have driven these and many other species from the comfort of their homes, causing them to struggle for survival. The two species of tigers, Sumatran and Malayan, have a combined population of only about 900 members still alive.
Let’s take it to the skies. The grasslands is home to three of the largest birds in the world; the ostrich, the rhea, and the emu. In fact, the ostrich is the world’s largest bird. These incredibly powerful and fast birds are found throughout the African grasslands. There are plenty of other birds as well. Birds of prey have the honor of being the arch nemesis of many of the small mammals. Hawks, vultures, owls and eagles hunt prairie dogs, squirrels, mice and others, in addition to often munching on the leftovers of some of the larger predator’s kills. Meanwhile, smaller birds zoom around closer to the ground. These are birds like grouse, meadowlarks, pipits, finches, quails, sparrows, and plovers. These guys are able to find an abundance of seeds, berries, and insects to survive on.
Bottom of the food chain, probably the most populous species in the grassland. Insects are everywhere. In the grassland, you can find bumble bees, crickets, butterflies, locusts, grasshoppers, beetles, and a plethora of others. The grasslands is also home to another record breaker, Prairie mole crickets. These guys are the largest mole crickets in North America and can grow up to 2 inches long. These rare and nocturnal big small guys spend most of their time digging underground in the tallgrass of the prairies.
Threats Facing Grassland Animals
Human activity is something that threatens nearly every ecosystem on Earth. We pollute our oceans, land and air, cut down our forests, and hunt animals to extinction. Grassland animals are not ones to catch a break either. There are many human activities that threaten the grassland biomes.
One of the biggest impacts that humans have on most of the land on Earth is creating open areas or taking advantage of already open areas for use for farming or infrastructure. Developing on grasslands is relatively easier due to the fact that the ground is already level and there is not much altering to be done. The land development drives away the grassland animals from the populated areas. Doing this forces them to relocate their homes, nests, tunnel systems, to a new location. This process is extremely stressful for these animals and some can not adapt to the new lifestyle. In addition, the land development diminishes the availability of certain resources that these animals rely on for survival. Not to mention that whatever is built on that land will most likely contribute to the overall pollution and affect nearby ecosystems.
Agriculture and Farming
This is fairly similar to urban development. However, this has more direct confrontation between animals and humans. When crops are planted or livestock farms are created, the wild animals are looked at as pests. The grassland animals, view the farm as a source of food, leading the animals to eat the crops or the livestock. In turn, this causes the farmer to become violent and hunt the wild animals to prevent them from affecting his farm. If non-violent methods are taken, the animals may be forced to migrate to another location, making it hard for them to find new food.
Not only does the conversion of land into crops change the ecosystem, but so does the addition of livestock. Often times, the livestock animals graze in areas where wild animals live. Meaning that there is a new competition for food which can lead to the quick depletion of that food source. Overgrazing is especially a problem in the drier grassland regions. Other negative effects of agriculture of grassland areas are that over plowed land strips the soil of rich nutrients, salts from the irrigation waters can damage the soil and the surrounding ecosystems and animals.
This is a human activity that most people are familiar with. The hunting of grassland animals, has serious impacts on grassland biomes seeing as the animals are part of the natural cycle. The real problems come when overhunting happens. This happened in the early years of North America, when European settlers decimated the American bison population for their fur and meat. This nearly drove the entire species to extinction. Poachers are the real problem. They illegally hunt animals to make money from the trophies. For example, poachers will hunt rhinos for their horns and elephants for their ivory. It becomes even more of a problem when they target species that are already endangered.
Man made climate change also has impacts on the grassland biomes and their animals. With changing temperatures, weather patterns, and changes in the water cycle, throw the entire ecosystem into chaos, in which the animals are unable to adapt and often die as a result. Climate change causes what is called ecological succession. This is when an ecosystem of an area develops into another due to significant changes. The grasslands already have scarce water as it is, if the water becomes even more scarce, the animals may not survive the drought.
Grasslands tend to be pretty dry in terms of their climates, making plant life vulnerable to wildfires. While wildfires are part of the natural process of grasslands as they renew the soil and open up the possibility for new vegetation, increased wildfires could spell disaster for the whole ecosystem. What does this have to do with humans? Well, climate change has an impact on the water cycle, meaning water is becoming more and more rare. This makes the ground more dry and susceptible to fires. In addition, wildfires tend to originate more frequently near human populations, due to excess heat from machinery and other activities.
Endangered Grassland Animals
Due to a lot of human activity, especially poachers and land development, there are many grassland animals that are currently on the endangered species list. These animals have either been hunted to the brink of extinction or driven from their home enough times to kill them off. Some are also near threatened, meaning that they are very close to being endangered. The American Buffalo is one of these animals.
Two of the smaller mammals that are endangered are the prairie dog and black-footed ferret. Prairie dogs live mostly in the Great Plains of North America. Right now, five species exist and all of them have declined as a result of human settlers on their range. The most at risk species of prairie dog is the Mexican prairie dog, Cynomys mexicanus. As for the black-footed ferret, which was mentioned before, is a more tricky one. For a while, scientists did not know if the species had become extinct. However, some of the population were found to be alive and well.
Another species has been hit hard as well is the burrowing owl. This due to the fact that this particular owl uses the holes of prairie dogs as its home. So the decline of the prairie dog, means less holes for the owl to live in. All over North America, this owl is considered either endangered or threatened.
A member of the bird family, the whooping crane is an endangered species that only has about 187 members of its flock left. However, captive breeding programs have proved to be somewhat successful in bringing this animal back from the brink. Common to the situation with giant pandas.
In addition, Australia has multiple species that are considered to be endangered. Some of these species are the sandhill dunnart, and the numbat. However, the numbat has become more populated over the recent years, showing a good possibility for recovery.
How to Protect Grassland Animals
There are many organizations out there that do everything they can to protect grassland animals. The World Wildlife Foundation is doing a lot to counteract and stop poaching and other illegal hunting activities. When it comes to average joes and janes, what we can do is simple. Do not support companies or individuals who are part of trophy hunting. Vote against any legislation that tries to make trophy hunting legal. Also, do not support the development of grassland territories.
Doing your part to combat climate change is also extremely important. Not just for grassland animals, but for the Earth as a whole. Switching to renewable energy like solar or wind is a great start. Make sure you are conserving as much energy as you can. Practice the three R’s of recycling, reduce, reuse, recycle. For more information, visit Greenandgrowing.org.