July 27, 2010

Here’s a fun summer ecology project to do with kids.

Ecology is the study of living things (plants and animals) and their relationships with their environment. The word "ecology" comes from the Greek and means a house or home, so you can think of ecology as the science that deals with the home conditions of living things.

This is a project in which you can observe how an animal’s physical structure contains a wealth of information about where it lives.

Materials you will need:

o   A small amphibian such as a water-living salamander.

o   A small lizard such as an anole (often sold as a chameleon in pet stores)

o   Research materials about each kind of animal (book or Internet)

o    Notebook for recording your observations


The Project:

A salamander and an anole look very much alike at first glance, but one spends its life on land and the other spends much of its life in water. Are there differences in their body structures that allow these animals to adapt to their different environments? How do these differences relate to the life of the animals?


1. Observe the way each animal breathes. Look at the feather gills just behind the head of the salamander (gills are not present at all ages in all kinds of salamanders). Do these move in a regular way? How do they assist the animal in breathing?

Now, look at the head and neck region of the anole. Can you see any regular breathing movements? How much the anole breathe?

Why do you think these two animals breathe differently?


2. Now, gently touch the salamander with the end of a pencil so that it swims across its container of water. In the same gentle way, stimulate the anole to move across its container.  What differences or similarities can you see in the way the animals move? How is each animal’s method of moving fitted to its particular environment? How do the differences in their body structures help them move?

3. Gently touch the skin of the salamander. Describe how it feels in your notebook. Touch the skin of the anole and describe how it feels. Do they feel the same? Which of the two animals is more likely to be able to live in only one kind of environment? Don’t try this because it might result in an animal’s death, but what do you think would happen if you put the land-dwelling lizard in a water environment and the water-dwelling salamander in a land environment?

4. Look at any other differences in body structure (such as in the tails). Do these structures fit the animals to their environments in any way? List the differences and the similarities in body structure of the two animals and compare them.

5. Place a small earthworm or mealworm in front of the head of each of the animals. Record the way each gets the food into its mouth. Now place the food about 1 foot away from each animal and see what happens. What are the differences in the feeding behavior? Are these differences related to the differences in the kinds of food available in a water and a land environment?

 6. Read about the differences in the way eggs are fertilized and deposited by amphibians and by reptiles. Which kind usually deposits more eggs? How does the outer covering of the eggs of each kind differ? Is the size of an individual egg different in each species? Do the newly hatched young have the same body structure as the adult in each species?


More things to try:

Temperature variations:

Which of the two animals do you think is best suited to survival at low temperatures? Try keeping each of the animals at a low temperature (but not below 40° F) for several hours. Gently touch each animal as you did in number 2 (above) and observe its response. Compare these responses with those of the animals when they were not cooled. Which is able to respond more nearly the same at low temperatures as at normal temperatures? Which animal’s normal environment shows less of a temperature variation in nature?


Read about the evolutionary history of reptiles and amphibians. How is environment related to evolution? What do you think may happen to evolutionary history if some of the earth’s environments or climates changes great (as it did during the Ice Age)?

The photographs in this article are from the Encyclopedia of Life, which also has a great deal of information about these species and maps of where they are found (although kids will need help with the language). If you haven’t yet explored the images this incredible online resource - their mission is to have an electronic page for each species of organism on earth - you are really in for a treat!

This project is adapted from one of my early books, Science Projects in Ecology (Holiday House, 1972). It was written when I was still teaching Science, and this was one of the projects that I often did with my classes.

Click here to download a printer-friendly copy of this ecology project.



Posted by: Seymour Simon

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