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6-8 > Ecology
Grade level: 6-8 Subject: Ecology Duration: Two class periods
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America’s Prairie

Students will understand the following:
1. In order for any animal to survive within an ecosystem, it must be physically and behaviorally adapted to the conditions of its environment.
2. Animals that live on the American prairie have physical and behavioral characteristics that make them well adapted to the prairie environment.

For this lesson, you will need:
Map of the United States
Computer with Internet access
Books and articles concerning the American prairie and the plants and animals that live there
Art materials

1. Explain to the class that in order for any animal to survive within an ecosystem, it must be physically and behaviorally adapted to the conditions of its environment. (Make sure students understand that physical adaptation refers to physical characteristics such as fur, eyes, color, etc., whereas behavioral adaptation refers to characteristics such as hunting strategies, breeding patterns, and social habits that help an animal cope with the conditions it faces.)
2. On a map of the United States, locate the Great Plains, or prairie, for your students. Tell them they will be “designing” an animal that would be perfectly adapted for life on the prairie.
3. Before considering the physical and behavioral characteristics of their animals, students should use the research materials you have provided, as well as others in the library or online, to find out as much as they can about the American prairie and the plants and animals that live there.
4. Have students meet in groups to brainstorm a list of the basic environmental conditions of the prairie ecosystem. (Lists should include strong winds, hot and dry summers, cold winters, and few trees, among other conditions.) Groups should also discuss specific examples of prairie animals and how they are adapted to survive in the prairie ecosystem.
5. Have each student write a description of an imaginary animal with both physical and behavioral characteristics that would allow it to survive and thrive on the American prairie. Students’ descriptions should include explanations of how each characteristic makes the animal well adapted to its prairie environment.
6. Have students illustrate their animals and display them in the classroom, along with their written descriptions.
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Adaptations for Older Students:
Instead of “designing” their own animals, older students might choose a specific prairie animal, conduct research on that animal, and write a report on it. The report should describe the animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics in detail and explain how each characteristic helps the animal survive and thrive on the American prairie.
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Discussion Questions

1. Prairie plant species are incredibly diverse. Speculate about why such a complex, diverse system evolved. What natural advantages might it offer?
2. The American bison was hunted almost to extinction. Analyze the effect of the bison’s absence on the prairie ecosystem.
3. Describe one of the many relationships that exist between a particular animal or insect and a species of plant living on the prairie.
4. Compare and contrast the ways in which Native Americans and early European settlers lived on the prairies. What advantages and disadvantages does each way offer?
5. Describe the effects of fire suppression on the American prairie.
6. Discuss what you think can be done in your own community to preserve and restore a local ecosystem. For example, could you organize a group of people to clear away trash from a nearby riverbed? What would be difficult about any of the ideas you come up with?
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You can evaluate your students on their assignments using the following three-point rubric:
  • Three points:comprehensive list of basic environmental conditions of the prairie ecosystem; complete descriptions of animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics; clear, well-reasoned explanations of how the animal is adapted for life on the prairie
  • Two points:adequate list of basic environmental conditions of the prairie ecosystem; partial descriptions of animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics; fairly clear explanations of how the animal is adapted for life on the prairie
  • One point:inadequate list of basic environmental conditions of the prairie ecosystem; partial descriptions of animal’s physical or behavioral characteristics; some explanation of how the animal is adapted for life on the prairie
You can ask your students to contribute to the assessment rubric by determining which basic environmental conditions must be included in lists and how many characteristics should be mentioned in the descriptions.
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Wildfires: To Burn or Not to Burn?
Wildfires are now allowed to burn in places such as Yellowstone National Park, but this was not always the case. Until 1995, it was the policy of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to suppress all wildfires. Most ecologists now understand the importance of wildfires to the ecosystem, though some are still fearful of the dangers involved. Ask students to research the controversy that exists with regard to this current policy. Students may wish to consult the Bureau of Land Management’s Web site visit the “Fire and Other Hot Topics” page. Another helpful site is the “Kids” section atWildfireMagazine When your students’ research is complete, ask them to choose a side and debate whether the dangers of wildfires outweigh their benefits.

Help a Prairie
Many conservation agencies (such as the Konza Preserve in Kansas) are currently working to restore the American prairie, which has suffered through the years from human encroachment and the suppression of wildfires, among other factors. Invite your students to consider ways in which they might help to popularize the effort to preserve and restore America’s prairie. Divide your students into groups and ask each group to devise and implement a plan for promoting “prairie awareness.” These plans might include skits, posters, advertisements, public service announcements, Letter-writing campaigns, a Web site featuring a “prairie plant/animal of the month,” and anything else your students come up with.

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Suggested Readings

Richard Manning. Viking, 1995.
An award-winning nature writer takes a close look at the largest biome in America—its history, biology, politics, and promise for the future.

Valley of Grass: Tall Grass Prairie and Parkland of the Red River Valley
Kim Alan Chapman, Adelheide Fischer, and Mary Kinsella Ziegenhagen. North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1999.
This is a literate and thoroughly readable description of the history and current state of tallgrass prairie in Minnesota and North Dakota. In addition to descriptions of the prairie as it once was, the book includes ideas and resources for prairie preservation.

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American Prairie
A Smithsonian "National Zoo" site.

Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

North Dakota's Badlands
A naturalist's notebook at Theodore Roosevelt National Part

Badlands National Park
"Teacher's Corner" features prairie resources and wildlife activities, geology and paleontology activities, history of the area, and "Talk to a Ranger" online discussions.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frontier Girl
A delightful site focusing on Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books. Includes many ways that students can access and respond to information about the books, Laura's life, pioneer songs, documents and background material.

My Little House on the Prairie Home Page
An extensive web site with information about Laura Ingalls Wilder's pioneer life on the American prairie. Includes classroom activities for students and teachers, a researcher's corner, writing contests, listserv and chat forums, and additional web links.

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Click on any of the vocabulary words below to hear them pronounced and used in a sentence.

speaker    biodiversity
Definition:Biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.
Context:Grazing bison and prairie fires help to maximize the biodiversity of prairie plants and animals.

speaker    camouflage
Definition:Concealment by means of disguise.
Context:A grasshopper’s color serves as camouflage and allows the insect to go undetected by predators.

speaker    incursion
Definition:A hostile entrance into a territory.
Context:Prairie fires help stop the incursion of brush and trees onto the prairie.

speaker    nocturnal
Definition:Active at night.
Context:Because many of the animals of the prairie are nocturnal they can be observed only at night.

speaker    perennial
Definition:Present at all seasons of the year.
Context:Instead of planting crops such as corn and wheat every year, scientists are attempting to develop perennial food crops that need to be planted only once.

speaker    savanna
Definition:A tropical or subtropical grassland containing scattered trees and drought-resistant undergrowth.
Context:Because of their very dry conditions, the Russian grasslands are more like a savanna than a prairie.

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This lesson plan may be used to address the academic standards listed below. These standards are drawn from Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education: 2nd Edition and have been provided courtesy of theMid-continent Research for Education and Learningin Aurora, Colorado.
Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:life science
Knows about the diversity and unity that characterize life.
(6-8):Knows ways in which living things can be classified.

(9-12):Knows how variation of organisms within a species increases the chance of survival of the species.

(9-12):Knows that all individuals of a species that occur together at a given place and time make up a population and that all populations living together and the physical factors with which they interact compose an ecosystem.

(9-12):Knows relationships that exist among organisms in food chains and food webs.

Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:life science
Understands the cycling of matter and flow of energy through the living environment.
(6-8):Knows how energy is transferred through food webs in an ecosystem.

(6-8):Knows how matter is recycled within ecosystems.

(9-12):Knows that as matter and energy flow through different levels of organization in living systems and between living systems and the physical environment, chemical elements (e.g., carbon, nitrogen) are recombined in different ways.

Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:life science
Understands how species depend on one another and on the environment for survival.
(6-8):Knows ways in which species interact and depend on one another in an ecosystem.

(9-12):Knows how the interrelationships and interdependencies among organisms generate stable ecosystems that fluctuate around a state of rough equilibrium for hundreds or thousands of years.

(9-12):Knows ways in which humans can modify ecosystems and cause irreversible effects.

Grade level:6-8, 9-12
Subject area:U.S. history
Understands the United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861 and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans.
(6-8):Understands the short-term political and long-term cultural impacts of the Louisiana Purchase.

(6-8):Understands how early state and federal policy influenced various Native American tribes.

(6-8):Understands the significance of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

(9-12):Understands the impact of the Louisiana Purchase.

(9-12):Understands shifts in federal and state policy toward Native Americans in the first half of the 19th century.

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Audrey Carangelo, freelance curriculum developer.
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