A Prairie in the Swamp

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Published on: Jun. 2, 2004

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010


Unique plants live on sand prairies, including prickly pear cactus, butterfly pea, puccoon, clasping milkweed and creeping St. John's wort. While these plants are noteworthy, the grasses and sedges are the real stars of the sand prairies. One distinctive grass is the dominant splitbeard bluestem. The split-beard is a warm-season grass well suited for sandy conditions. Its silvery seed heads dominate the sand prairie landscape.

Perennial plants of sand prairies tend to have narrow leaves and tiny hairs to limit water loss. These plants also have deep roots to access water, and they grow in tufts to reduce exposure to winds that may dry them out. Annual plants borne from seeds have slender leaves, as well, and have few branches on their stem to prevent water loss. They also have fibrous roots that maximize water collection when water is available.

This natural community also is hard on animals, but some animals manage to cope. Two frogs that have adapted well to sand prairies are the Illinois chorus frog and eastern spadefoot. Both spend months burrowing and feeding underground. They only come out to breed. Their eggs hatch faster, and their tadpoles metamorphose faster than those of other frogs. These adaptations help them take advantage of the short life of sand prairie pools. They are rarely seen and are more easily detected by their calls in breeding season.

Another animal more easily heard than seen is the northern mole cricket. Mole crickets live on wet swales, pond banks, grasslands or forested areas dotting the sandy ridges. A close relative, the prairie mole cricket, used to live on sand prairies. Like northern mole crickets, they burrowed about, eating roots of prairie plants. This prairie cricket sings from a hole in the ground. The hole functions as an amplifier, making the call louder. Due to habitat destruction, the prairie mole cricket is believed to be extirpated from southeast Missouri. It has not been recorded here since 1971.

Huge herds of bison once roamed all over the southeast region. Although they roamed the swamps eating giant cane, the sand prairies were probably a regular haunt. Elk were common on these prairies and doubtless fed many settlers and explorers. Thomas Beckwith, in his book on the settlement and settlers of Mississippi County, opined that both of these creatures were gone from Mississippi County by 1860.

A wide variety of upland game animals such as

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