Academic journal article Science Scope

Tabizi Pythons and Clendro Hawks: Using Imaginary Animals to Achieve Real Knowledge about Ecosystems

Academic journal article Science Scope

Tabizi Pythons and Clendro Hawks: Using Imaginary Animals to Achieve Real Knowledge about Ecosystems

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Rockow

Art courtesy of the author

For a number of years, I taught a unit on food webs and ecosystems using actual food webs as models. However, I repeatedly encountered the same problems: The real food webs were either too simplistic or too complicated, and students complained that my examples either left out too many organisms or were too unwieldy to fully understand. Students' prior knowledge of ecosystems complicated my assignments, as well. Students would know, for example, that a particular animal preyed upon an animal that I had not included in my example.

A few years ago, I solved these problems by making up my own food web, complete with invented plants and animals. This allowed me to control the complexity of the food web, and because the organisms were not real, students had no prior knowledge to complicate their learning. This approach had another advantage: Because I designed the organisms myself, I could create animals to illustrate specific concepts. For example, when I wanted to teach about animals' niches in ecosystems and how animals adapt to their environments, I invented a number of birds that each filled a specific niche of my choosing.

In the unit described here, made-up organisms are used to teach a variety of topics related to ecosystems-food chains and energy flow, food webs, limiting factors, carrying capacity, and the effects of natural and humanmade events on ecosystems.

Teacher preparation

To prepare this unit, I first had to design a template for my food web (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The food-web chain. Note: The arrows start from the organism being eaten and the arrowheads point toward the animal that eats it.

Then I made up the names and descriptions of each organism, based on a few real plants and animals. In some cases, students made up the names based on the descriptions. For example, Quadralupa was chosen as the name for the flowering plant because it had four petals on each flower. Some names, like Bronilla bear, were based on actual animals (koala bears in that case). However, many of the names, like Minedras, were completely imaginative. Students enjoyed the naming and descriptions of animals because there were no wrong answers. My made-up ecosystem has three types of plants, four herbivores, and a few carnivores (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The food web. Note: The arrows start from the organism being eaten and the arrowheads point toward the animal that eats it. Items in blue were added as part of the final activity dealing with animals' niches and adaptations.

Next, I printed cards for each of the organisms, describing its niche in the ecosystem (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Organism cards.

Quadralupa

Flowering plants that produce bright, red flowers with four petals.

Neumelinda

Large, leafy tree that produces Neumelinda fruits.

Pedreaucus

A long, green species of grass.

Minedra

Small rodents that burrow.

They eat roots of grass and fruits.

Their predators are the Tabizi python, the Clendro hawk, and the Rahpsheraga.

Tukatume

Small, wild birds that perch on trees to eat.

They drink the nectar from the blossoms of Neumelinda trees.

Their main predator is the Tabizi python.

Rahpsheraga

Part of the big cat family.

They eat rodents, like Minedra, and bigger game, like Pluplenra and Vulumadai.

These are apex predators and have no real predators.

Pluplenra

A species of antelope that lives in the open.

They eat grasses and other flowering plants.

Their predator is the Rahpsheraga.

Bronilla Bear

Small yellow and brown mammals that are not really bears.

They eat the delicious stems of the Quadralupa plant.

Their predator is the Rahpsheraga. …

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