Grasping Grasslands

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Decomposition: when dead plants, animals, or other living matter rot and break down into nutrients that can be used by other plants and living things.

Microhabitat: a small area within a habitat, like a clump of grass in a desert or a rock on a sand dune.

Topsoil: the top layer of dirt in which plants grow and on which you walk.

Giving Grasslands a Close-up

Drive past a grassland, and from your car window it may seem a boring, unbroken sea of grass. However, if you walk into it and sit down in five different spots, you'll find that not one of them looks the same. These small areas that are different from the rest of the grassland are called microhabitats.

Clumped grassland

Most grasslands are not covered in just one kind of grass. Click for more detail.

Microhabitats can change what kind of animals and plants live in a grassland. For instance, a lizard that likes to sun itself may do better in a grassland with patches of bare ground or rocks than a grassland completely carpeted in grass.

Small areas of bushes or trees give birds places to nest. Low-lying areas may turn to wet-lands for part of the year and provide breeding grounds for frogs and toads.

If the grassland has hills, plants that don’t need much water may grow on the slopes while water-loving plants grow at the bottom where they can collect run-off (water that comes from the slopes).

The next time you see a grassy area, look and see if you can find any microhabitats and guess what kind of animals would use them.


Grassland burrows

Grasslands tend to be full of burrows, which provide homes to many different small animal species. Click for more detail.

Grasslands aren’t just defined by all the grass, plants and animals you see on the surface above the ground. If you cut into the side of a grassland hill, you'd find a lot more than dirt.

Underground, a grassland is riddled with burrows, tangled with roots, and crowded with worms and insects that rarely come up to see the sun. There are even things you can't see with your naked eye: bacteria that help break dead things down into nutrients other plants can absorb from the soil, and special fungus that lives in the roots of plants.

Without these underground features, a grassland would be very different. The tangled root system helps prevent the rich soil from washing away when it rains. Without those tiny insects, worms and microorganisms, the soil wouldn't be rich, because all that dead grass couldn't break down into nutrients that can be reused by live plants. If that was the case, very little would be able to grow there.

A Dirty Business

Soil profile

This soil profile from a steppe in Ukraine shows just how deep the rich, dark topsoil of a grassland can go. Click for more detail.

Grasslands usually have very rich, dark dirt (also known as topsoil) and a lot of it. If you've ever pulled up a clump of grass, you've seen that they have lots of roots; sometimes there's almost as much of the plant underground as above it. These roots go many feet into the dirt.

When a clump of grass dies aboveground, its roots belowground die too. When the roots die, they begin to break down into nutrients that other plants can use, a process called decomposition. All those roots breaking down helps make rich soil, which is dirt that is high in nutrients and can support a lot of plants.

Grasslands are known for this rich topsoil. In grasslands with tall grass, these roots and the rich soil may reach as deep as six feet. If a grassland has mostly short grass, the roots won't reach as far into the soil and the layer of rich topsoil may not be as deep.

Images via Wikimedia commons. Buffalo gap grasslands image via Chris Light.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Anatomy of the Grassland
  • Author(s): Stephanie Bittner
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Site name: ASU - Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: March 1, 2014
  • Date accessed: April 12, 2024
  • Link:

APA Style

Stephanie Bittner. (2014, March 01). Anatomy of the Grassland. ASU - Ask A Biologist. Retrieved April 12, 2024 from

American Psychological Association. For more info, see

Chicago Manual of Style

Stephanie Bittner. "Anatomy of the Grassland". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 01 March, 2014.

MLA 2017 Style

Stephanie Bittner. "Anatomy of the Grassland". ASU - Ask A Biologist. 01 Mar 2014. ASU - Ask A Biologist, Web. 12 Apr 2024.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see
Buffalo gap national grassland

Even when grasslands look dry and brown like this one in South Dakota, US, a lot is going on below the grass.

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