Old-growth grasslands are grass-dominated open biomes which are ancient (some are tens of millions of years old), have high endemism and diversity (they are more diverse than rainforests at some scales), and are slow to reassemble once they have been degraded (more than a millennium according to studies). This ecosystem is one of the most endangered in the world, and misguided efforts to fight climate change by mass tree plantings can only hasten their demise.
One of the major impediments to the widespread acceptance of the concept of ancient grasslands among the general public is the outdated notion that there is only one natural climax community. This wrong idea that ecological succession is a ladder-like process and that closed canopy forests (e.g. rainforests) are the ultimate goal in nature is deeply entrenched in the public consciousness. It promotes the wrong notion that all grasslands are simply forests that are waiting to happen, and are thus exempt from our protection and conservation.
It must be replaced by the more accurate paradigm of Alternative Biome States (ABS).
|African Tropical Grassland (Savanna), by Gossipguy)|
New research has shown that open old growth grasslands are a natural alternative to dark shaded forests, and that they can maintain themselves without any human intervention over thousands and even tens of millions of years. Neither grasslands nor forests are the "ultimate" expression and final state of natural succession. Instead, an area whose climactic and soil characteristics can theoretically support both grasses and trees alternates between the two stable biome states depending on other, more local factors.
Grasses have harnessed two local factors to help push back forests. Some species have evolved with natural fire, while other grass species have partnered with large herbivores (e.g. elephants, bovids like antelopes, buffaloes, bisons, etc). Both of these "allies" can kill or weaken trees, as well as tree seedlings and saplings. This keeps the grassy biomes sunlit and open, which is the optimum environment for many sun-loving members of the Poaceae.
On the other hand, the dark humid interior of forests is not a welcome environment for most grasses. C4 grasses in particular grow best under the wide open and sunlit skies, and the high humidity and lack of wind also helps keep grass-induced fires from penetrating the inhospitable interior of the forest.
These counteracting forces on both sides stabilize the alternative biomes and allow each one to flourish.
|South American Tropical Grassland (Cerrado), by Eliane de Castro)|
|African Tropical Grassland (Savanna), by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen|
|North American Temperate Grassland (Konza Prairie in Kansas), by Jill Knutson Hauko|