Greater Prairie Chicken on a native Minnesota prairie. © ColdSnap Photography
A prairie is more than grass; it also contains a wide variety of animals, both large and small. Prairie wildlife has evolved together with grasses and wildflowers into an array of species adapted to the prairie landscape. Although prairies may seem empty at first, they have a special way of coming alive. You often just need to pause, look, and listen closely to discover a prairie's diverse and fascinating wildlife.
Left to right: Western Meadowlark, Burrowing Owl, Marbled Godwit, Ring Necked Pheasant, Greater Prairie Chicken
Minnesota prairies are home to native birds ranging from iconic western meadowlarks to secretive sparrows and burrowing owls. Minnesota hosts 32 species of shorebirds, which largely depend on shallow prairie wetlands during migration. A few, like marbled godwits and upland sandpipers, also breed on larger prairies. Upland prairies also provide important nest sites for waterfowl.
Sharing the prairie is the ring-necked pheasant, an introduced bird, popular among hunters and wildlife watchers. Although most grassland birds lack flashy color, many offer their own flair. Some of the most spectacular displays are spring gatherings of greater prairie-chicken (learn more)and sharp-tailed grouse on their leks where the males display for the attention of females. Prairie mornings are often alive with sound such as the meadowlark's plaintive song, the upland sandpiper's whistle, or greater prairie-chicken's booming. These beautiful calls and fascinating behaviors, combined with open vistas, mean that prairie is a prime habitat for wildlife viewing. Nature-based activities like bird watching and pheasant hunting not only bring people enjoyment, but they also add millions of dollars to the state's economy.
Such bird diversity depends on a healthy connected prairie landscape. Yet, bird diversity has declined due to dramatic loss and degradation of prairie habitat. Based on the most recent State of the Birds report, grassland birds have declined by over 50% in the last 50 years. There is hope! Studies also show that birds and other wildlife benefit when we collaborate to conserve prairie and restore grasslands on public and private lands.
Left to right: Bison, Prarie Vole, American Badger, Richardson's Ground Squirrel
Healthy prairies host diverse native wildlife, including mammals ranging from bison to tiny rodents like the western harvest mouse, plains pocket mouse, northern grasshopper mouse, and prairie vole. Bison are often called keystone species, or ecosystem engineers, because historically they modified large expanses of habitat for plants and wildlife through grazing, wallowing and trampling. A team from the Minnesota Zoo and DNR are working to reintroduce populations of bison. You can see bison on the prairie at two Minnesota State Parks: Blue Mounds State Park and Minneopa State Park.
Many smaller mammals are seldom seen, except for the occasional quick flash of fur through the grass. In addition to their small size, many are nocturnal or spend much of their daytime hours underground. Too often, their vital roles in the prairie ecosystem go unappreciated. For example, the digging behavior of American badgers, pocket gophers, and Richardson's ground squirrels creates patches of bare soil and nesting sites for insects such as some wild bees and tiger beetles. Other mammals, birds, and reptiles may use their burrows for shelter and to hunt prey.
Soil disturbance, mini-grazing, and seed-eating by rodents all create unique micro-habitats which help to support prairie diversity. Lastly, mammals are an important part of the prairie food web as herbivores, predators, and prey.
Today, conservation grazing by bison, cattle, and other livestock mimic some of the benefits of native grazers necessary for conserving prairies. However, because so little of Minnesota's native prairies remain, management tools such as conservation grazing must be carefully applied to include the needs of rare and sensitive species. If poorly applied, grazing can have unintended negative consequences for prairie plants and wildlife.
Left to right: Blanding's Turtle, Bullsnake, Prairie Skink, Plains Hognose Snake
Reptiles (lizards, snakes, turtles) are easily overlooked in the prairie due to their secretive nature and stealthy movements. Yet, these animals provide an important link in the food chain, as both predators and prey.
Reptiles are ectotherms (cold-blooded), relying largely on the warmth of the sun to regulate their body temperature. Sparsely vegetated prairie with scattered openings provides these animals exposure to sun (basking) that they require. This type of prairie is also sought out by female turtles, such as the Blanding's turtle. They select areas with well-drained soil to lay their eggs, which depend on the sun for incubation.
Prairie reptiles are built to tolerate the extreme heat and dry prairie conditions. Their scaled armor reduces moisture loss, and their ability to excavate burrows allows them to escape the hot sun. Two of the three Minnesota lizard species, the prairie skink and six-lined racerunner, require prairie habitats to survive because they are adapted for hot and dry environments.
Although snakes lack limbs and claws for digging, two of Minnesota's prairie species can dig in loose soil. The gopher snake's (bullsnake's) pointed snout enables it to easily travel through loose soil or move soil from side to side. The upturned snout of the plains hog-nosed snake provides a shovel-like feature allowing it to quickly descend into loose sand.
Left to right: Tiger Salamander, Northern Leopard Frog, Gray Treefrog, Boreal Chorus Frog
Most amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders) of Minnesota's prairies require both upland and open wetland or prairie stream habitats. Amphibians are an important part of the food web as predator and prey. As they develop and disperse from wetlands, young amphibians provide a significant food source for mammals, birds, and reptiles. Amphibians tend to be dormant during Minnesota prairie winters. To survive until spring thaw, various species deploy one of three strategies:
- Toads and salamanders, like the tiger salamander, travel underground below the frost line.
- Northern leopard frogs move to deep well-oxygenated wetlands.
- Cope's gray treefrogs and boreal chorus frogs nestle into the grass or under a log and allow their bodies to partially freeze but their organs are protected with glycerol, a natural antifreeze.
Amphibians are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Hotter, drier conditions will reduce the availability of wetlands that can support developing amphibian larvae such as tadpoles. This will be critical for species such as the northern leopard frog that overwinters in deep wetlands and breeds in shallow wetlands. If the distance to shallow wetlands becomes too great, the population will decline or eventually die out. Wetland drainage also impacts breeding site availability. Conserving wetlands and prairie habitats is the best thing we can do to keep these special creatures thriving across Minnesota.
Left to right: Topeka Shiner, Plains Topminnow, Orange-spotted Sunfish, Southern Redbelly Dace, Central Stoneroller
Prairie streams exist in a constant state of disruption, a precarious balance between flooding and drying out. Fish in these streams have evolved to quickly recover from these events. Similarly, fish in shallow prairie lakes persist as conditions allow, dying from summer- or winter-kill events brought about by climate and precipitation.
Minnesota's prairie streams are home to an abundance of native fish species, including the federally endangered Topeka shiner and state threatened plains topminnow. Both species have experienced drastic declines across their range. Topeka shiners, for example, are thought to inhabit less than 10% of their historic range. Both species prefer slow moving habitats (e.g., oxbows), with plains topminnows often preferring groundwater-fed pools with abundant aquatic vegetation. Topeka shiners exhibit a unique breeding ecology. They do not build their own nests, but instead rely upon the nests of orange-spotted sunfish and green sunfish.
Orange-spotted sunfish are brilliantly colored with iridescent shades of red, orange, blue, and yellow. Their striking appearance seems better suited for a saltwater reef than a small prairie stream.
Other common species found in prairie streams and shallow lakes of Minnesota include creek chub, southern redbelly dace, central stoneroller, Iowa darter, johnny darter, brook stickleback, common shiner, bigmouth shiner, sand shiner, black bullhead, western blacknose dace, white sucker, fathead minnow, and bluntnose minnow.
Stocking and fish management provide much of the sport fishing seen in the prairie region of the state today. Activities such as lake draining, tiling, and ditching have all affected the fish communities of this landscape. Aquatic invasive species have become a significant problem in some lakes too. These impacts affect the amount and quality of aquatic habitat and drive declines or growth in the fish communities on the prairie.
Left to right: Bumble bee, Monarch Butterfly, Dakota Skipper, Fly, Native Mussel
There are about 2.13 million described species on Earth and approximately 70% of them are invertebrates! Invertebrates include insects, spiders, nematodes, snails, mussels, and more that are important to prairie health and have important roles as nutrient cyclers, decomposers, water filters, predators, prey, and pollinators.
Insects play a key role in pollination, seed dispersal, and decomposition on prairies. Highlighted below are a few pollinator groups that, with a sharp eye and some patience, you may see on Minnesota's prairies.
Pollinators are animals that move pollen from flower to flower. Many flowering plants require help from animal pollinators in order to set seed. Pollinators help maintain plant diversity and functional prairie ecosystems by providing pollination benefits. Minnesota's prairies are home to hundreds of insect pollinator species. For many of these species, we are still learning the basics of their natural history and ecology. Here are the main groups, including:
Bees are the most efficient insect pollinators. Their hair and pollen carrying structures are perfectly designed to transport pollen to feed to their young. They also use these resources to provision nests for their young. Bees found in prairies include bumble bees, such as the rusty patched bumble bee, golden northern bumble bee, and black and gold bumble bee, and other groups of bees like long-horned bees, mining bees, and sweat bees. Some types of bees, called cuckoo bees, do not collect pollen but instead parasitize the nests of other bees.
Butterflies and Moths
Adult butterflies and moths feed on plant nectar and may inadvertently transfer pollen from flower to flower while feeding. Butterfly and moth caterpillars (larvae) often require specific prairie plants as food. Consequently, greater plant diversity in native prairies or prairie reconstructions promotes greater butterfly and moth diversity. Caterpillars are also a very important food source for a variety of other wildlife in prairies.
Easily identified species found in prairies include painted ladies, eastern-tailed blues, monarchs, and hummingbird moths. Rare species include, but are not limited to, regal fritillaries, phlox moths, lead plant flower moths, Leonard's skippers, and Dakota skippers. Each are very different in their current and historic status and some species have experienced steep population declines with the loss of prairie in Minnesota. One example is the Dakota skipper, which now only occurs in a gravel prairie complex in northwest Minnesota. A team from the Minnesota Zoo and DNR is working to reintroduce populations of Dakota skippers back onto the prairie.
Many types of flies, including hover flies, Tachinid flies, and bee flies, visit flowers to feed on nectar and pollen, and in some cases play a significant role in pollination. You may also observe horse flies, blow flies, mosquitos, midges, and gnats feeding on flower nectar.
Some beetles eat pollen and can move pollen from flower to flower while foraging. The goldenrod soldier beetle is often abundant and can be found feeding on goldenrod and other flowers in the late summer and fall. Blister beetles and tumbling flower beetles are also common flower visitors.
Mussels, sometimes referred to as "clams", might not be the first animals that come to mind when you think of prairie, but they are common and beneficial invertebrates of prairie rivers, streams, and lakes.
The explorer George Featherstonhaugh recounted his experiences with prairie mussels during a canoe voyage up the Minnesota River in 1835. "A great profusion of unios [mussels] were lying in the sandy bottom, buried to their umbones…some specimens of which outstripped in elegance any I had yet seen", and "…the water beautifully transparent…"
Over 30 native mussel species once lived in Minnesota's prairie region, but populations of many have declined or disappeared due to habitat loss.
Mussels are important to the prairie ecosystem
- Filtering water – up to 8 gallons, per mussel, per day – removing fine particles like algae, bacteria, and fungi. Large mussel populations can filter the entire volume of a river, increasing water clarity.
- Aquatic food web – mussels filter food from the water and deposit organic matter consumed by insect larvae that in turn are eaten by fish or other animals. Mussels are eaten by fish, raccoons, muskrats, and river otters.
- Habitat – Mussel shells are used by small fish, crayfish, and other invertebrates to live in or hide, for laying eggs, and to graze on attached algae. Because mussels firmly anchor themselves to the lake or stream bed, they stabilize the lake or river bottom, reduce erosion from wave action or during floods.
Report Rare Species Sightings
You don't have to own or manage prairie to be helpful! Reporting rare species helps the DNR and other science organizations understand where plants and wildlife are, how they are using habitat, and what they need in order to persist. Learn more about Minnesota's rare species on the DNR's Rare Species Guide.