Temperate grasslands are located north of the Tropic of Cancer (23.5 degrees North) and south of the Tropic of Capricorn (23.5 degrees South). The major temperate grasslands include the veldts of Africa, the pampas of South America, the steppes of Eurasia, and the plains of North America.
Grasses are the dominant vegetation. Trees and large shrubs are largely absent. Seasonal drought, occasional fires and grazing by large mammals all prevent woody shrubs and trees from becoming established. A few trees such as cottonwoods, oaks and willows grow in river valleys, and a few hundred species of flowers grow among the grasses. The various species of grasses include purple needlegrass, blue grama, buffalo grass, and galleta. Flowers include asters, blazing stars, coneflowers, goldenrods, sunflowers, clovers, psoraleas, and wild indigos.
Temperate grasslands have a low diversity of wildlife, but a high abundance of wildlife. In North America the dominant grazing animals are bison and pronghorn. Rodents include pocket gophers and prairie dogs. Carnivores include wolves, coyotes, swift foxes, badgers and black-footed ferrets. Birds include grouses, meadowlarks, quails, sparrows, hawks and owls.
Temperate grasslands have hot summers and cold winters. Summer temperatures can be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while winter temperatures can be as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. They typically have between 10 and 35 inches of precipitation a year, much of it occurring in the late spring and early summer. Snow often serves as a reservoir of moisture for the beginning of the growing season. Seasonal drought and occasional fires help maintain these grasslands.
Temperate grasslands have soils that are nutrient-rich from the growth and decay of deep, many-branched grass roots. The rotted roots hold the soil together and provide a food source for living plants. The world's most fertile soils underlie the eastern prairies of the U.S., the pampas of South America, and the steppes of Ukraine and Russia.
Overgrazing by livestock and plowing are the two greatest threats to temperate grasslands. Since the development of the steel plow much of these grasslands have been converted to agricultural lands because of their rich soil. About 47 percent of temperate grasslands have been converted to agriculture or urban development. Lack of fire and fragmentation are also threats, as is past and present wildlife eradication (including the bison slaughter of the 1800s and ongoing prairie dog poisoning in North America’s plains).