School of Life Sciences | Ask A Biologist

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Animals of the Grassland

show/hide words to know

  • Burrow: a hole an animal makes in the ground and uses as its home... more
  • Herbivore: an animal that eats only plants.
  • Incubate: to sit on an egg to keep it warm until the offspring inside is big enough to hatch.
  • Predator: an animal that eats other animals to survive. For example, a lion is a predator... more

The Herd Life

Grazing elkIt's easy to see for a long distance on a grassland - as long as you're taller than the grass. Unfortunately, this means that for big animals, hiding from predators that would like to eat them isn’t easy. Large grassland herbivores have two main tactics to keep safe: they join herds and they are very, very fast.

Herds are groups of animals that can range in size from a handful of individuals to thousands. Being in a herd provides an animal some safety. With many eyes to keep watch, a predator is less likely to successfully sneak up on that animal, and the herd may help defend the animal if it's attacked.
 

VicunasBecause herds make it harder for a predator to get a meal, they're always on the lookout for lone animals. Getting separated from the herd can mean death.

Built for Speed

 
When a herd spots danger, whether it's a fire or a predator, it has to outrun it. Many herd animals are able to run within a few hours of birth and have special adaptations for speed.

To be fast, an animal can either take big steps or it can move its legs very fast. Herd animals do both. Many are adapted to stand on the tips of their toes to lengthen their stride.

Bison with wolvesThese animals also have stick-like legs and small feet with few toes, which lightens the limbs so they can move them faster. Of course, this isn't the only way to clear a lot of ground. Kangaroos, for instance, just jump.

Hunting for Herds

 
Some predators have formed groups of their own. A pack of wolves might be able to chase a single animal away from its herd and kill it because they can work together. Since herd animals have become so fast, the predators that eat them need their own special adaptations to catch up. Some have become great sprinters, able to outrun their prey for short periods. Others lie in wait and pounce at just the right moment when the unwary herd passes by.

Burrowing Below Ground

Prairie dogYou may be wondering whether small animals have as much trouble protecting themselves from predators as herd animals. Can't a little animal simply hide in the grass? Well, yes, but predators have keen ears and noses and it's just as hard to see a predator coming as it is for them to see you.

For real safety, many small grassland animals move underground into their burrows. Burrows provide a safe place to raise young and hide from predators, fire and bad weather. They also provide a place to store food for the future. Some burrowing animals even dig to find their food, which is often insects, worms or plant roots.

All sorts of grassland animals dig burrows, including insects, small mammals, reptiles like tortoises, and even a few birds. Even more animals use existing burrows that they might modify a bit. But even in burrows, some predators, like snakes, can find small animals.

Prairie chickens

Taking to the Air

Birds on the grasslands have the same problem as any other animal: how can they stay alive in a land with few trees when other animals want to have them for dinner?

Birds have a great advantage, though. They can fly. This can keep them safe from predators, unless they run into a raptor or owl.

The most dangerous time for a grassland bird is the time it spends on the ground. However, there aren’t very many trees in grasslands, so most grassland birds must come to the ground to sleep, to eat, and to mate and raise the next generation.

Bobolink migrationBecause grasslands have no trees, it's not easy for parents to find a safe place to keep their babies. Grassland birds are experts at hiding their nests in the grass, where they lay eggs that must be incubated safely for at least a week or two before hatching.
 
Once eggs are laid, both the parents and offspring are at great risk from predators because most chicks stay in their nests and depend on their parents for food until they're ready to fly. Some very developed young can run alongside their mothers as soon as they hatch. 
 

Images via Wikimedia. Secretary bird image via Keven Law.
Secretary bird

Many predatory birds live in grasslands, like this secretary bird from Africa.

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Secretary bird

Many predatory birds live in grasslands, like this secretary bird from Africa.

Share to Google Classroom

Be part of Ask A Biologist

by volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteer page to get the process started.