Wildlife Wednesday: Can The World Survive Without Grass?

We all take time to appreciate the beautiful flowers that our partners may present to us on valentine’s day or the plants we may purchase to give our home some life but would you decorate your home with grass? The answer is probably not. Grass is the most common type of plant in world and is one of the largest and most economically and ecologically important families of plants, and we don’t even really acknowledge its existence apart from when it needs cutting. But if you think about it this plant is truly incredible as grass plants develop fruit called grain which feed much of the world and yet have green leaves and stems not digestible for humans that are the main food source for animals and it can also be used for building materials, medicines, and biomass fuels. Also, a lot of plants are native to a certain part of the world and can only be found and grow their naturally but with over 9,000 species of grasses being found on every continent and in a variety of habitats, both as the dominant plant type or as a minor component of the plant community all around the world and its existence seems almost effortless.

Grasses have evolved in environments where drought, grazing by large herbivores, and fires were common. Unlike many plants, the growing points of grasses are located near the base of the plant or below the ground, rather than at the tips of the plant. This characteristic allows grass plants to be grazed or burned without damage to the growing points. Additionally, grasses have large root systems that can store substantial food reserves that allow grasses to regrow quickly if above ground parts are removed. These features also make grasses drought resistant and ideal for lawns that are repeatedly mowed. The large and fibrous root system of grasses has additional value for preventing soil erosion.

Grasses make up many of the most important crop species grown for human consumption. Three cereal crops—corn, wheat, and rice—are the most important source of calories in all diets throughout the world. Sugarcane is a grass that supplies most of the world’s sugar. Grasses, including several species of reed and bamboo, are used in many countries as construction material and as thatch for roofs, and the fibre from many grasses is used in making paper. Finally, native and planted grasslands are used worldwide in hay production and as grazing lands for animal production.

Meat is largely a product of grass crops and grassland: 45% of world meat production comes from animals grazing grass crops, grassland or fed cereal grain. The remaining 55%, pork and poultry meat, is produced from animals eating rations based on cereal grains. Maize is the most important feed grain making up about 60% of the total trade in feed stuffs in the U.S.A. Apart from meat, milk and eggs are important foods produced indirectly from animals fed largely on grass or cereal grain.

It’s not just working animals that are so highly reliant on grass as wild grazing animals are supported by grassland ecosystems. Grasses occur in almost every habitat around the world from the equator to the polar regions, sea level to mountain heights and aquatic to desert environments. Open situations are preferred so grasses are not common in rainforest or dense thickets. In Australia, large areas of the arid zone are dominated by hummock-forming grasses and here, as in other countries, grasses frequently occur in the desert as ephemerals. Alpine grasslands are a prominent feature of many mountain areas such as the Kosciuszko region of south-eastern Australia. These habitats are home to many familiar and fascinating species that live in herds, including zebras and antelopes, and the predators that prey on them, like lions and cheetahs and without these grazing grasslands they would seize to survive.

However, while grasses support the existence of many species, including our own, several adaptations have had to occur to enable them to support species globally. Certain other structural and functional features developed by grasses have contributed to their ecological success. A system of branching (tillering) at or near ground level results in dense tufts, often large tussocks, and/or a network of shoots connected by stems that are just above or below the ground. Buds (apical meristems) are protected from fire and from the teeth and hooves of animals not only by their position, but also by the cylindrical leaf bases which enclose and protect meristematic tissue. Intercalary meristems occur at the base of each grass leaf and stem internode. These meristems are stimulated by removal or displacement of upper leaf or stem parts. Grass leaves elongate after cutting, and shoots flattened by wind, rain or animals, are able to grow upright again. In addition, basal buds are stimulated to produce new tillers by moderate cutting, grazing or fire.

These adaptations to fire, grazing or weather damage enable grasses to thrive under conditions that effectively discourage most other plants. Though only about 20% of species in a grassland may belong to the Poaceae (grass family) they may make up approximately 90% of the total biomass, thus dominating the community. Grasses provide forage for herbivores that have developed in conjunction with them. The grazing animals, in their turn, contribute nutrients in the form of dung and urine and increase the rate of nutrient turnover in the ecosystem.

It’s irrefutable to say that grass is not important, as this evidence definitely suggests otherwise but this quote from John James Ingalls sums up how important grass is to ecosystems and to everything that encompasses us:

“Next in importance to the divine profusion of water, light, and air, those three great physical facts which render existence possible, may be reckoned the universal beneficence of grass. Grass is the forgiveness of nature-her constant benediction…Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the earth. Grass softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character, and destiny of nations.”

I feel that these words from Ingalls highlights how important grass it, some have even speculated that without grass man would just be a beast of burden and wars would be constant tribal feuding to avoid starvation. Grass helps to keep us all alive! The major group of forages are grasses (75%) causing 10 out of 15 crops that help to keep mankind from starvation are grasses.

So, can the world survive without grass? I think that, yes, the world can survive without grass but the real question is, would it thrive and my answer would be probably not as the world is so reliant on this one plant species that many of the things we know about today may not exist without grasses existence. So, next time you’re sat outside in your garden, take some time to appreciate the grass that surrounds you, as without it, you would be leading a very different life.

Love,

Savannah

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