If you're a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, you may have always dreamed of a little house on the prairie. Those famous stories were inspired by her childhood in a pioneer family on the Kansas prairie.

But what exactly is a prairie? You may have read Little House on the Prairie. You may know something about prairie dogs. But do you know anything about this thing we call a prairie?

The prairie is more than just a type of land or an area of a country. It's a diverse ecosystem defined by native grasses and flowering plants, in which particular animals, soils, geology, and even fire play important roles.

Many people think of prairies as grasslands, since it is the presence of native grasses that often defines an area as a prairie. In most prairie areas, there is not enough rain throughout the year to support many trees.

As a result, most prairie lands have few trees that tend to be widely scattered. In addition, fire plays an ecological role in keeping prairie land the way it is. Occasional wildfires keep trees and shrubs from turning prairie lands into woodlands.

Each area of the world has a special name for its grasslands. In North America, we call them prairies, after the French word for a meadow grazed by cattle. In Russia, grasslands are called steppes. In South Africa, they're called the veld, and in South America, you may hear them referred to as pampas.

The native grasses that make up prairies come in hundreds of varieties. Prairie land can be home to as many as 100 plant species in as little as a five-acre area. Popular prairie flowers include blazing stars, coneflowers, sunflowers, asters, and goldenrods.

The natural beauty of prairies can be breathtaking. Prairies are also home to a wide variety of animals, including prairie dogs, prairie chickens, buffalo, bison, elk, deer, rabbits, hawks, and foxes.

Around the world, prairies cover almost a quarter of Earth's land surface. Unfortunately, prairie habitats are now endangered in many areas of the world, including the plains of North America.

Although prairies once covered over 40% of the United States, only about 1% of the North American prairie still exists. The native tallgrass prairie, once prevalent in Texas, is now the most endangered ecosystem in North America. The remaining prairie land to be found in the United States lies in the central United States in the area often referred to as the Great Plains.

Many factors have contributed to the loss of prairie habitats. For example, prairie lands are often used for farming. As native grasses are cleared, much of the soil is lost to erosion, since the native grasses are no longer there to help hold it in place. Fortunately, there are many efforts underway across the United States to restore prairie lands that have been lost.

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