Grassland and Prairie Streams

View of Upper Grand River showing autumn trees along both banks.

The rivers and streams of northern and part of western Missouri flow through plains once covered by tallgrass prairie. These streams typically have broad, flat valleys, low gradients, silty, sandy, or gravelly bottoms, and turbid water.

Missouri biologists specializing in aquatic animals (aquatic fauna) have divided the state into four Aquatic Faunal Regions to describe where fish, crayfish, and other aquatic animals live. The Prairie Faunal Region is one of these four divisions.

The land surrounding a stream has a major influence on its character and form. The grassland and prairie region, located mostly in the northern half of Missouri, is very different from the rocky, rugged Ozarks in the southern part of the state. So the streams that occur in the prairie region are quite different from those in the Ozarks.

Grassland and Prairie Streams

The Prairie Aquatic Faunal Region includes most of the state north of the Missouri River, plus a wedge-shaped area south of the river along the Kansas state line. This region is mostly flat or rolling plains. The area north of the Missouri River was flattened and smoothed by glaciers long ago; the prairies south of the river in western Missouri were not glaciated.

Shales and thin sandstones are the principal bedrocks, but these can be covered by as much as 150 feet by loess soils (loess is a fine-grained material blown by winds during glacier times and which collected, like dunes, in certain areas; it is the fine, compacted, yellowish soil visible in roadcuts in northern Missouri).

Missouri’s prairie regions, today, are dominated by cropland, but before settlers arrived and broke the sod with their plows, these lands were covered by treeless tallgrass prairie, with woods in the more hilly areas. Those native prairies, savannas, and woodlands are nearly all gone.

The Prairie Aquatic Faunal Region is drained by a number of rivers. These typically occupy broad, flat valleys that slope gradually into the surrounding uplands. Originally, most of these low-gradient streams meandered in S-shaped courses and often formed oxbow lakes and sloughs as they shifted their beds. Most of these streams, however, have been channelized and are now straight with a nearly uniform depth.

Thus, in northern Missouri, the plant communities on land have been drastically changed (from native prairies to cropland), and the streams themselves have been altered, too (historically meandering streams engineered to be straight with a relatively stable central channel). These are examples of altered habitats.

The stream bottoms in the Prairie Region are typically made of fine substrates (silt, sand, or gravel), and the water is generally turbid (muddy looking) most of the time, due to erosion of clay from the fine-textured soils typical of northern Missouri.

Unlike Ozark streams, there are few springs to feed our prairie rivers, although a few highly mineralized springs are present. Stream flow is less constant in the Prairie Region than elsewhere in Missouri.

The character of streams in the Prairie Aquatic Faunal Region changes slightly from west to east and from north to south. Streams in northwest Missouri conform most closely to the description just given, while streams to the south and east gradually transition into characteristics of Ozark streams—and as the stream character changes, the plants and animals they support change, too.

An especially notable transition zone is where the Ozark Region borders and blends into the Prairie Region, along a line drawn roughly from Morgan through Jasper counties. This gradual transformation of stream characteristics supports a remarkable assemblage of fishes, crayfishes, and other aquatic organisms, many of which are found no where else in the state.

Prairie Region Rivers

The following major rivers and their systems of tributary streams are prime examples of the Prairie Aquatic Faunal Region.

Prairie Region North of the Missouri River 

  • Rivers flowing east into the Mississippi River: the Des Moines, Fox, Wyaconda, Fabius, North, South, Salt, and Cuivre rivers;
  • Rivers flowing south into the Missouri River: Chariton, Grand, Platte, Nodaway, Tarkio, Nishnabotna rivers. From Boone County and eastward, only short, direct tributaries of the Missouri River drain this region.

Prairie Region South of the Missouri River

  • Most is drained through the Osage River;
  • A small section in the southern part of this wedge is drained by the North Fork of the Spring River;
  • Much of the northern part of this section drains into the Missouri River via several tributaries, the largest being the Blackwater and the Lamine rivers.

Reservoirs and Ponds

Reservoir construction has been less extensive in the Prairie Region than in the Ozarks. The largest reservoir in the region is Truman, on the upper Osage River. Other major reservoirs in the Prairie Region are Mark Twain, Long Branch, Thomas Hill, and Smithville. The fish communities living in these impoundments are similar to those in the Ozarks, though with a greater proportion of large nongame fish, including common carp and catfishes.

The construction of thousands of farm ponds and other small impoundments, and the advocacy for largemouth bass and bluegill as pond fish, have favored the establishment of these fishes in prairie streams of northwest Missouri — though both were apparently absent from that area before the early 1940s.

Typical Plants and Animals

Because stream flow and other water conditions can vary over the course of a year, the animals that live in these streams must be able to tolerate fluctuations of current, depth, dissolved oxygen levels, temperatures, and so on.

While many of the organisms living in prairie streams are widespread “generalists” that can survive in a variety of conditions, others are specialists that can live only in certain prairie or transitional habitats.

The Prairie Aquatic Faunal Region includes most of the state north of the Missouri River, plus a wedge-shaped area south of the river along the Kansas state line.

Media
Photo of American water willow closeup on flowers
Species Types
Scientific Name
Justicia americana
Description
American water willow is common on gravel bars and other stream banks throughout much of Missouri. The dense colonies of emergent stems have leaves like a willow’s, but the two-lipped flowers resemble little orchids.
Media
Golden shiner male, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Notemigonus crysoleucas
Description
The golden shiner is a deep-bodied minnow with a greenish-olive back and a faint dusky stripe along the midline. It has a fleshy keel along the midline of the belly. It is widespread in Missouri.
Media
Red shiner side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Cyprinella lutrensis
Description
The most abundant and widely distributed minnow in the prairie region of north and west Missouri, the red shiner inhabits a variety of habitats, from riffles to quiet pools.
Media
Fathead minnow side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Pimephales promelas
Description
The fathead minnow has a blunt, rounded snout, rounded fins, a dusky stripe along the side, and a spot at the base of the tail fin. It is most abundant in pools of small prairie creeks because it tolerates rather high temperatures, extreme turbidity, and low oxygen.
Media
Creek chub male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Semotilus atromaculatus
Description
The creek chub is a slender, fine-scaled minnow with a black blotch at front of the dorsal fin and a black spot at the base of the tail fin. It is found nearly statewide and is most abundant in small headwater creeks.
Media
Johnny darter, female, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Etheostoma nigrum
Description
The Johnny darter occurs primarily in pools and slow-moving riffles in sandy streams. It's common in prairie streams of northeastern and central Missouri.
Media
Logperch side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Percina caprodes
Description
The logperch occurs in small- to medium-sized rivers and along gravel shorelines in reservoirs. Our largest darter has a distinctly conical snout that overhangs the mouth, and 15 to 20 vertical dark bars on a light background.
Media
Blackstripe topminnow, male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Fundulus notatus
Description
The blackstripe topminnow has a slender, elongated shape and is a sleek, swift fish. Topminnows have a habit of skimming along just beneath the surface of the water.
Media
Slender madtom side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Noturus exilis
Description
The slender madtom is the most common madtom in the western and northern Missouri Ozarks, in small and medium-sized streams that have gravel bottoms, clear water, and permanent flow. It is scarce in the southern Ozarks.
Media
Topeka shiner female, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Notropis topeka
Description
Found in only a few Missouri streams, the Topeka shiner is an endangered native minnow that has declined dramatically because of environmental pollution, siltation, and loss or alteration of habitat.
Media
Gizzard shad side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Dorosoma cepedianum
Description
The gizzard shad is one of the most common and abundant fish in Missouri. In Missouri, this schooling fish occurs in every major stream system and is most abundant in reservoirs and large rivers.
Media
Common carp side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Cyprinus carpio
Description
The common carp is a "whopper" member of the minnow family. Originally from Asia, it was actively stocked in America in the 1800s and was firmly established in Missouri by 1895.
Media
Black bullhead side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Ameiurus melas
Description
The black bullhead is widespread in Missouri. It is the most common bullhead catfish in north and west portions of the state. It has dusky or black chin barbels, and the edge of its tail fin is notched, not straight.
Media
Green sunfish male, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lepomis cyanellus
Description
The green sunfish is thick-bodied with a large mouth. The upper jaw extends to about the middle of the eye. It may occur in just about any pond, lake, or stream that is capable of supporting fish life.
Media
Flathead catfish side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Pylodictis olivaris
Description
The flathead catfish has a broad, flattened head with small eyes on top. The lower jaw projects beyond the upper jaw. It occurs in most of the large streams of Missouri, preferring places with a slow current.
Media
Bluegill male in spawning colors, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Lepomis macrochirus
Description
The bluegill is one of the most abundant and popular panfishes in North America. This deep-bodied, slab-sided sunfish sports a black “ear flap” extending from the edge of its gill cover.
Media
Largemouth bass side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Micropterous salmoides
Description
The largemouth bass is a popular game fish that occurs statewide. It thrives in warm, moderately clear waters with little or no current: lakes, permanent pools of streams, and quiet backwaters of large rivers.
Media
White crappie male, side view photo with black background
Species Types
Scientific Name
Pomoxis annularis
Description
The white crappie, a popular panfish, has silver sides with 5 to 10 often faint vertical bars. The upper jaw reaches past the middle of the eye. It is more abundant and widespread than the black crappie.
Media
Photo of a spothanded crayfish viewed from above on white background.
Species Types
Scientific Name
About 36 species in Missouri
Description
Crayfish are freshwater aquatic invertebrates that look a lot like small lobsters, to which they are related. There are about 36 species of crayfish in Missouri.
Media
pond mussel
Species Types
Scientific Name
Bivalve molluscs in order Unionoida
Description
Secretive and seldom seen, freshwater mussels are extraordinarily diverse in Missouri. We have nearly 70 species within our borders. Many are declining, and several are endangered.
Title
Related Content