The word “prairie” comes from the French pre´rie (later, prairie), meaning meadow. The term was first applied to the swath of mid-continental North American grassland in the 1600s by French Jesuit missionaries and explorers, because the landscape resembled, on a much vaster scale, the familiar agricultural meadows of western Europe.
Lands typically referred to as “prairie” tend to be in North America. The term encompasses the area referred to as the Interior Lowlands of Canada, the United States, and Mexico, which includes all of the Great Plains as well as the wetter, hillier land to the east.
The formation of prairies started with the uplift of the Rocky Mountains. The mountains created a rain shadow that resulted in lower precipitation rates downwind. This prevented trees from growing extensively east of the mountains, and the result was the prairie landscape.
Prairies cover almost 4 million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) of land in the US Rainfall decreases as you move from east to west. Eastern prairies tend to be moister, while western prairies are usually drier the closer they get to desert areas.
The vegetation is composed primarily of perennial grasses, with many species of flowering plants. Most authorities recognize three basic subtypes of prairie: tallgrass prairie, mixed grass prairie, and shortgrass prairie.
Prairies are composed of plants that are seldom found in other habitats. Examples of prairie grasses includes big bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass. Prairies also have unique wildflowers such as coneflower, dense blazingstar ,sawtooth sunflower, prairie dock, and spiderwort.
Even though the prairie may seem desolate, it is actually a fertile and diverse habitat that has been known to harbor 80 different mammal species and more than 300 species of birds in some places.
Native Americans hunted the bison for food and clothing. Using loud noises and waving large signals, Native peoples would drive bison in fenced pens called (buffalo pounds) to be killed with bows and arrows or spears, or drive them off a cliff (called a buffalo jump), to kill or injure the bison en masse.
When settlers arrived in North America, they encountered tens of millions of bison (often called buffalo). By the end of the 19th century, less than 1,000 remained. The bison has since been saved, but it no longer is a keystone species shaping America’s prairies.
Prairie are also the natural habitat of the coyote, pronghorn, deer, rabbits, prairie dog, muskrat, porcupine, badger, horned lark, meadowlark, prairie chickens, some songbirds and also various species of hawks and waterfowl.
Prairie dogs are named for their habitat prairie and warning call, which sounds similar to a dog‘s bark. The name was in use at least as early as 1774. Prairie dogs are a type of ground squirrel.
The very small hills on the prairie are called pimples, and they usually don’t rise taller than 1.5 meters (4 feet).
The tallgrass prairie has been converted into one of the most intensive crop producing areas in North America.
Research, by David Tilman, ecologist at the University of Minnesota, suggests that, “Biofuels made from high-diversity mixtures of prairie plants can reduce global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even when grown on infertile soils, they can provide a substantial portion of global energy needs, and leave fertile land for food production.”