Flora & Fauna
At the crossroads of the continent, the Great Plains draws from 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 grassland community, or prairie, makes up the heart and soul of the Great Plains. From the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where the shortgrass prairie covers the high plains, to Illinois, where the tallgrass prairie formerly extended, and from Saskatchewan to Texas, the Prairie dominates the center of the North American continent. Between the tallgrass and the shortgrass prairie lies a shifting band of habitat that has both tall and short grasses, yet is distinguishable as a separate community - the mixed prairie.
The Great Plains is subtle in its details.
There are no craggy, snow-capped mountain ranges, but there are isolated mountainous areas like the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma. 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 significant. Cheyenne Bottoms, located near Great Bend, is officially recognized as a wetland of international importance. Half of all North American shorebirds stop over there during the spring migration.
The variety of habitats and climate provides opportunities for a wide variety of animals and plants. In Kansas alone there have been recorded:
- 87 species of mammals
- 457 species of birds
- 67 species of snakes, lizards and turtles
- 32 species of amphibians
- 142 species of fish
- ~ 20,000 species of invertebrate animals including over 15,000 species of insects
- 46 species of unionid mussels
- ~ 200 species of woody plants
- over 800 species of non-woody flowering plants
- ~ 150 species of grasses
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.