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Iowa’s Native Ecosystems

While schools are closed, we're creating a series of "Talk of Iowa" episodes that will be fun and educational for learners of all ages. This is our last biology class, but join us every Tuesday throughout the summer for learning and fun with Talk of Iowa Summer Camp 

Before the land was transformed by settlement Iowa was covered with tall grass prairie. Over much of the state there was an ocean of tall grasses and flowers as far as the eye could see. There were wooded areas along many of the state’s rivers and streams, but 85% of the land was covered in prairie.

On this Talk of Iowa we learn about the native eco-systems of Iowa including tallgrass prairie, oak savannah, woodlands and wetlands. Host Charity Nebbe talks with Dan Cohen of the Buchanan County Conservation Board and Heidi Anderson of the Polk County Conservation Board.

We also learn about the dramatic change that settlement brought to Iowa’s landscape. Of the 30 million acres of prairie that once covered Iowa less than one-tenth of one percent remains. There are still places to see and experience Iowa’s native landscapes and Cohen and Anderson give listeners guidance on how to explore and learn about the rich diversity that these eco-systems hold. 


  • Tallgrass prairie; grassland dominated by a variety of tall grasses that can reach more than 6 feet in height.
  • Taproot; a primary root that grows vertically downward and gives off small lateral roots.  
  • Forbs; a flowering plant other than grass.
  • Remnant (prairie); noun, a remaining fragment of Iowa’s original landscape.
  • Savannah; a grassland region with scattered trees.
  • Prairie Pothole; an expansive area of the northern Great Plains that contains thousands of shallow wetlands known as potholes. These potholes are the result of glacier activity in the Wisconsin glaciation, which ended 10,000 years ago.
  • Fen; low land that is covered wholly or partly with water unless artificially drained and that usually has plenty alkaline soil and characteristic flora (such as sedges and reeds).
  • Deciduous; falling off or shed seasonally or at a certain stage of development in the life cycle.
  • Loess Hills; a formation of wind-deposited loess soil in the westernmost parts of Iowa and Missouri, and the easternmost parts of Nebraska and Kansas, along the Missouri River.  

Discussion Questions:

  • Why is fire an important part of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem?
  • What kind of eco-system do you think was common in your neighborhood before development?
  • How do you think a reconstructed prairie is different from remnant prairie?
  • Go outside and look to the horizon. Imagine what it would be like to see nothing but prairie as far as the eye can see. What do you think it was like for native people or settlers to travel through that landscape?
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Matthew is a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa