Into the Wild: Under the Prairie

By MDC | July 1, 2021
From Xplor: July/August 2021


Thirteen-lined ground squirrels dig a maze of burrows and escape holes. In October, the drowsy squirrels crawl into their tunnels, fall deeply asleep, and don’t wake up until April!

Working at night, American burying beetles use their flat heads to bulldoze soil out from under dead animals like songbirds and mice. The beetles, which are one of Missouri’s most endangered insects, feed the buried animals to their babies.

American badgers use long, sharp claws to dig up their dinner of voles, mice, and ground squirrels. At full speed, the furry dirt-drills can disappear underground in less than a minute, which is faster than a person can dig with a shovel.


Prairie mole crickets spend most of their lives underground, except during spring. That’s when females fly around to look for mates. Males can’t fly. Their wings are made to sing. They rub them together to make chirping sounds that drive lady crickets crazy. To make their love chirps louder, males dig trumpet-shaped tunnels.

When threatened, a bullsnake makes a loud, rattling hiss. The sound mimics a rattlesnake’s tail, which scares predators away from the large but harmless snake.

If you explore a prairie after sunset and hear someone snoring, it probably isn’t a person. Northern crawfish frogs hide underground during the day. They come out at night to eat insects. Males call to mates with a loud, snore-like gwwaaa.

Did You Know?

Many prairie plants grow deep roots. Big bluestem roots may reach 8 feet, and compass plant roots may reach 15 feet.

Ornate box turtles lay two to eight eggs in loose prairie soil. The temperature of the nest decides whether the baby turtles will be boys or girls. Males hatch from eggs kept at lower temperatures. Females hatch from eggs kept at higher temperatures.

What Happened Here?

This is the entrance to a crayfish’s house. Grassland crayfish tunnel — up to 15 feet deep — into soggy ground to stay cool and wet. As they dig, they carry blobs of mud to the surface and stack them to form tiny chimneys.


Are you down for exploring the underground? Let’s push aside the grass and see what we find living on the ground floor — and in the basement — of a prairie.

Also In This Issue

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This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Alexis (AJ) Joyce
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White