A grassland is a unique ecosystem with surprising diversity; there are many different types of both plants and animals. In this lesson, you'll learn about grasslands, how food chains work, and who eats who in a grassland ecosystem.
What Is a Grassland?
Before we can start talking about what kinds of plants and animals live in a grassland, it would help to know what a grassland is! As the name suggests, a grassland is an area of land that is dominated by grasses; less than 10% of the area is covered by trees or shrubs, and usually these are only found along waterways. Grasslands get less than 30 inches of rain each year; if they got more rain than that, they would likely turn into a forest over time. Grasslands may look pretty simple from afar, but they actually have some of the greatest biodiversity in the world!
What Is a Food Chain?
We're off to a good start now that we've learned a little bit about grasslands and what makes them unique. Now what about a food chain? A food chain is a linear depiction of who eats who within an ecosystem. Animals eat to get energy to live, so a food chain shows how energy moves throughout an ecosystem.
Organisms can be divided into two categories: producers and consumers. Producers are capable of making their own food, like plants and grasses. They use water and energy from the sun through the process of photosynthesis to make their own food (in the form of sugar) and grow. Consumers are organisms that cannot make their own energy; they have to eat other organisms to survive.
A Grassland Food Chain
The first step of the food chain (sometimes referred to as the bottom of the food chain) is usually made up of producers - organisms that can make their own food. In a grassland, the producers are the different species of grasses and wildflowers that grow there.
Now let's work our way up to the next step of the food chain, focusing on the organisms that eat the plants: insects. In the grasslands, for instance, grasshoppers are insects who eat plants. Because these insects are the first consumer in the food chain, they are called primary consumers. If we move along the chain, we see that frogs eat the grasshoppers. Because they are the second consumer in the chain, they are called secondary consumers. What eats frogs? One predator is a snake. The snake eats the frog and is called a tertiary consumer. Do you see the trend here? This labeling system goes on for as many consumers as a system has.
You might think the snake is the end of the chain, but don't forget about the top predators! Birds of prey, like the hawk, will eat the snake. If the hawk leaves the grassland and doesn't come back, then that energy is ultimately removed from the system. However, if any of the dead animals are left to decompose, they get help from decomposers like fungi (mushrooms) and bacteria. These decomposers help break dead animal matter into nutrients to go back into the soil. The grasses and plants will use these nutrients to grow, and, well...you see how the cycle continues.
These aren't the only species of animals found in a grassland, but this example gives you an idea of what the food chain might look like. Prairie dogs, badgers, coyotes, bison, moles, mice, owls, foxes, spiders, rabbits, squirrels, and birds are other species that commonly live in grasslands. The food web in each individual ecosystem will be unique to the animals that live there, but the basic idea is the same.
I bet you didn't realize grasslands had so much predatory activity, did you? Like the name implies, grasslands are tracts of land predominantly covered with different grass species. A food chain is the path energy takes from animal to animal through the food web. At the base of the food chain are producers (plants that make their own energy from the sun). Consumers eat plants and each other as we move up the food chain. A simple pathway might be: plants --> grasshoppers --> frogs --> snakes --> hawks, but there are a variety of different animals that live in different grassland ecosystems.