Planet Earth 2 – Grasslands
Guest Blog by Aoibhe McCarron
This week’s episode focused on grasslands. Grass covers around a quarter of all land on earth and can grow half a metre a day in the right conditions, creating a unique habitat which hosts a vast range of creatures. Rain in the grasslands is sporadic, meaning grasses are extremely hardy; they thrive in floods and can grow very quickly to get out of the water and have more access to sunlight, an adaptation to life in an environment which can be dry or drenched. Many grassland animals follow a nomadic lifestyle, following the scent of the rains to avoid starvation.
The Eurasian steppe is the largest grassland on earth taking up about a third of land on our planet. These grasslands can go for many months without rain, and when rain finally arrives it brings new growth and with it new life. Saiga antelope give birth to their babies on these grasslands; a mother antelope leaves her twin babies hidden in the grass while she grazes, where they are safe within the cover of the grass. These babies must learn to walk quickly as the herd is constantly moving on to find fresh grass. They have long lanky legs which are an adaptation to life on the move, and a uniquely shaped nose specialised to detect new growth from up to 100km away, an adaptation to their diet and nomadic lifestyle. This is not dissimilar to how people have grown and adapted quickly to thrive even in quarantine.
In Europe, the little harvest mouse makes her nest on grass fronds. The tall meadowland grasses are like a mini jungle habitat for her. She is specially adapted to life here and can climb grass fronds with ease, she has a prehensile tail which can grip like a hand and act as an extra limb in emergencies. She climbs to the very tops of the grass to find food in flowers, but there is danger here. An owl approaches and she escapes by falling to the ground. The mouse seems lost here but she can read the stem pattern above to find her way home, an adaptation to life in the grass which can all look the same. This is reflected in us humans essentially hiding in quarantine, like the mouse amongst the fronds, to keep ourselves safe from the virus and navigating our lives from home using technology.
In the African Savannah, Carmine bee-eaters are aerial hunters excellent at catching insects in flight. Their problem is that they have no means of flushing insects out of the grass. To combat this they ride on backs of larger animals like ostriches and elephants which are bulky enough to kick up insects from the grass as they walk. This way they can catch the insects flushed out by the larger animal. This is a learned adaptation to their habitat, similar to how humans have adapted to our current situation, people who are vulnerable or in need receiving help from family and friends to get essentials like food.
In the dry season, predators that hold year round territories must be specially adapted to find prey as it is scarce, since many nomadic animals will have left to follow the rains. The Serval cat has long legs providing it with a high vantage point to spot prey , and hunts with radar ears so that it can pinpoint prey hiding in the grass. However, her rodent prey is just as well adapted, it knows that she can detect sustained movement and moves in short bursts to escape.
Perhaps like our cousins in nature, we could learn to move and adapt to changes, like those nomadic animals. Or to help each other out and tolerate one another’s needs, like the ostrich and the little carmine bee-eaters, rather than acting selfishly during this crisis.