Activity #2: The Story of the American Prairie (10 min)

When you are telling The Story of the Prairie that appears below, the following points are the most important to cover:

  • how big it was
  • the grasses and flowers that were in it
  • the harsh weather with temperatures ranging from extreme heat, 100 degrees or better, and drought in the summer to bitter cold winters with excessive negative temperatures and frigid winds.
  • roots of the plants: the majority of the plant grows below the ground – their roots are searching for water
  • fire: the ash enriched the soil and destroyed unwanted plants and trees
  • settlers come to farm the land – plowing the land taking out plants and roots
  • with the grasses and forbs of the prairie gone, strong winds come,
  • blowing away the top soil and ushering in the Dust Bowl of 1935
  • prairie restoration

Watch: American Prairie Reserve Profiled by National Geographic – to see what a prairie should be – only the first 4 minutes

    The Story of the Prairie

    “Eight thousand to ten thousand years ago, prairies began growing on the North American continent. Once the glaciers had moved through four hundred years ago, this grassland covered 400,000 miles in North America. It stretched from the Rocky Mountains east to Indiana and from Saskatchewan in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. This area receives very little rain. Winds carrying the rain blow in from the Pacific Ocean and rise to meet the Rocky Mountains. When the air cools, it condenses and then the rains come to the mountains. The winds that do cross over the mountains hold very little moisture. That is why not many trees grow in the Great Plains of North America. Grasses and forbs can grow in this ecosystem.

    In one of these prairies, there can be 40 to 60 different grass species and 300 different flower species surviving in an ecosystem with temperatures that could range from extreme heat (100 degrees or better) and drought in the summer to bitter cold winters with excessive temperatures and frigid winds. It has been estimated that 30 to 60 million buffalo once roamed through all North American prairies along with herds of elk, deer, and antelope. Bears and wolves became the top predators of the prairie. Hundreds of thousand of insects made their home in this ecosystem as well as gigantic hoards of birds and underground dwellers. Two hundred years ago 86% of the land in DuPage County, where we live, was covered with prairie and Illinois became known as the “Prairie State.”

    One of the predators of the prairie was fire. Fire could have been caused by lightning or started by Native Americans to: get rid of insects, drive game out, clear a path for travel, or clear land for planting. Even after a
    huge fire, the prairie would survive because the main part of prairie plants remains under ground. The part of
    the prairie plant that we see on top of the soil is collecting the sunlight to nourish the larger part of the
    plant, its roots, that grow deep into the soil. There is a ratio between the height of the prairie plant and how far
    the roots descend below the ground. For every foot of the plant that is above ground, there are two to three feet
    below ground. Some prairie plant’s roots descend 15 feet below the soil. They are looking for water!

    The Native Americans knew how to manage the land. They burned the prairie after the harvest so the ash would mix with the earth forming a very fertile soil to insure success of the next years crops. This fertile ground warmed more quickly in the spring so it could absorb the spring rains better and foster earlier plant growth.

    Two hundred years ago, in the early days of America, the pioneers found this billowing sea of grass with its fertile soil to be what was needed for crop production. They began plowing the grasses under to plant wheat, corn, and other crops. They found this great soil full of roots. Many farm implements were destroyed trying to take the roots out. The pioneers did not realize that these roots helped make this soil so fine because they broke up the soil which creates spaces for storing air and water. They also helped to guard against soil erosion.

    The farmers of the prairie did not realize that once the prairie plants were plowed under much of the rich top soil was gone. When drought and winds hit in the 1930s, the wind picked up the dry soil that had nothing to hold it down. Great black clouds of dust clouded the sun and dust fell on everything. Crops were destroyed and people found it hard to breathe. This became known as the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. It lasted ten years with an estimation in the thousands of the number of people that died during that time. Children and elderly people were effected the most as were plants and animals. John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath describes families escaping the effects of the Dust Bowl.

    Today, this great ecosystem has been reduced to about 1% of its original area. The prairie has become one of the rarest and most endangered ecosystems in the world. Now, we are trying to educate people about prairies. Many states are rehabilitating what is left of their prairies and reintroducing the native wildlife and plants. They are seeking to preserve an almost extinct ecosystem with its animals and plants. As we shall see in the Biodiversity lesson, we need to keep all of the natural world.

    The largest remaining area that has not been plowed is in a rocky and hilly region of Kansas called the Flint Hills. This region stretches from the Nebraska border south into the northern part of Oklahoma. If you are going that way, be sure to stop to see this vanishing ecosystem. Right here closer to home, you can see the prairie at the Morton Arboretum and the Wolf Prairie on 31st & Wolf Road. You can see the Bison and some prairie at Fermi Lab in Batavia.”

    Have the class make predictions of why the prairie plants had to make adaptations.

    “Now that you have heard The Story of the Prairie, do you have any idea why prairie plants needed to make adaptations? That’s right, there was very little water.”

    “*Author’s Note: Once again, as with pollination, it is striking how these prairie plants, that the children will be studying, made the adaptations that were necessary to survive in this ecosystem. Here is another example in nature of form following function and function following form.”

    ~ Danette “Danny” RIehle ~