© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Missouri Botanical Garden research foresees shorter prairies due to climate change

Prairies in Missouri and southern Illinois could look shorter by the end of the century, according to a study from the Missouri Botanical Garden and Kansas State University. 

Researchers reported in the journal Global Change Ecology that tall varieties of the big bluestem grass that covers much of Midwestern prairies could be taken over by shorter forms of the plant over the next several decades. That's because climate change could reduce rainfall in many parts of the region, leading to drier conditions.

Big bluestem grasses that grow up to 8 feet tall in Missouri are less tolerant of dry conditions than the 2-foot tall big bluestem grasses that live in Colorado and western Kansas.

After studying big bluestem grasses of various heights in a greenhouse, scientists concluded that the short forms of the plant could spread eastward. The shift could significantly affect wildlife, said Loretta Johnson, a plant ecologist at Kansas State University. 

"The prairies will be very different if you've got low biomass and low productivity," Johnson said. "Because that plant productivity is what animals are depending on."

Scientists don't know the extent to which the change in height could affect the prairie ecosystem, said Adam Smith, a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden. However, it's likely that it will affect farmers who feed big bluestem grasses to their livestock. 

"[Big bluestem] is also an important forage crop," Smith said. "It's part of the basis of the region's $10 billion livestock industry. If your animals are dependent on eating a lot of it, then they would have to eat something else." 

Researchers are studying the big bluestem's genes to further understand the effects of climate change on Midwestern prairies. Only 4 percent of the United States' historic grasslands currently remain. 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Copyright 2020 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit .

Eli Chen is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. She comes to St. Louis after covering the eroding Delaware coast, bat-friendly wind turbine technology, mouse love songs and various science stories for Delaware Public Media/WDDE-FM. Before that, she corralled robots and citizen scientists for the World Science Festival in New York City and spent a brief stint booking guests for Science Friday’s live events in 2013. Eli grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, where a mixture of teen angst, a love for Ray Bradbury novels and the growing awareness about climate change propelled her to become the science storyteller she is today. When not working, Eli enjoys a solid bike ride, collects classic disco, watches standup comedy and is often found cuddling other people’s dogs. She has a bachelor’s in environmental sustainability and creative writing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and has a master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on science reporting, from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.