Grasslands are areas where the vegetation is dominated by grasses (Poaceae); however, sedge (Cyperaceae) and rush (Juncaceae) families can also be found along with variable proportions of legumes, like clover, and other herbs. Grasslands occur naturally on all continents except Antarctica. Grasslands are found in most ecoregions of the Earth. For example, there are five terrestrial ecoregion classifications (subdivisions) of the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome (ecosystem), which is one of eight terrestrial ecozones.
As flowering plants and trees, grasses grow in great concentrations in climates where annual rainfall ranges between 500 and 900 mm (20 and 35 in). The root systems of perennial grasses and forbs form complex mats that hold the soil in place.
The appearance of mountains in the western United States during the Miocene and Pliocene epochs, a period of some 25 million years, created a continental climate favorable to the evolution of grasslands. Existing forest biomes declined, and grasslands became much more widespread. Following the Pleistocene ice ages, grasslands expanded in the hotter, drier climates, and began to become the dominant land feature worldwide.
Grassland vegetation is often a plagioclimax; it remains dominant in a particular area usually due to grazing, cutting, or natural or man-made fires, all discouraging colonization by and survival of tree and shrub seedlings. Some of the world's largest expanses of grassland are found in the African savanna, and these are maintained by wild herbivores as well as by nomadic pastoralists and their cattle, sheep or goats. Recently, grasslands have been shown to have an impact on climate change by slower decomposition rates of litter compared to forest environments.
The professional study of grasslands falls under the category of rangeland management, which focuses on ecosystem services associated with the grass-dominated arid and semi-arid rangelands of the world. Rangelands account for an estimated 70% of the earth's landmass; thus, many cultures including those of the United States are indebted to the economics that the world's grasslands have to offer, from producing grazing animals, tourism, ecosystems services such as clean water and air, and energy extraction.
Mid-latitude grasslands, including the prairie and Pacific grasslands of North America, the Pampas of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, calcareous downland, and the steppes of Europe. They are classified with temperate savannas and shrublands as the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome. Temperate grasslands are the home to many large herbivores, such as bison, gazelles, zebras, rhinoceroses, and wild horses. Carnivores like lions, wolves and cheetahs and leopards are also found in temperate grasslands. Other animals of this region include: deer, prairie dogs, mice, jack rabbits, skunks, coyotes, snakes, fox, owls, badgers, blackbirds (both Old and New World varieties), grasshoppers, meadowlarks, sparrows, quails, hawks and hyenas.
Similar to montane grasslands, polar Arctic tundra can have grasses, but high soil moisture means that few tundras are grass-dominated today. However, during the Pleistocene glacial periods (commonly referred to as ice ages), a freezing grassland known as steppe-tundra or mammoth steppe occupied large areas of the Northern Hemisphere. These areas were very cold and arid and featured sub-surface permafrost (hence tundra) but were nevertheless productive grassland ecosystems supporting a wide variety of fauna. As the temperature warmed and the climate became wetter at the beginning of the Holocene much of the mammoth steppe transitioned forest, while the drier parts in central Eurasia remained grassland, becoming the modern Eurasian steppe.
Mites, insect larvae, nematodes and earthworms inhabit deep soil, which can reach 6 metres (20 ft) underground in undisturbed grasslands on the richest soils of the world. These invertebrates, along with symbiotic fungi, extend the root systems, break apart hard soil, enrich it with urea and other natural fertilizers, trap minerals and water and promote growth. Some types of fungi make the plants more resistant to insect and microbial attacks.
Grassland in all its form supports a vast variety of mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects. Typical large mammals include the blue wildebeest, American bison, giant anteater and Przewalski's horse.
While grasslands in general support diverse wildlife, given the lack of hiding places for predators, the African savanna regions support a much greater diversity in wildlife than do temperate grasslands.