Vertebrate Dioramas

Vertebrate Dioramas

De Anna Lynn Roberson and Stephanie Gragg

Target age or ability group: High School Biology/9th-10th graders. This lesson is targeted for average ability students.
Class time required: Two to three 40-minute class periods and two to three additional periods of student time spent in the library doing additional research.
Materials and equipment: Selected science textbook and current science magazines and newspapers, plain unlined paper, pens, colored pencils, paint, magic markers, paint brushes, colored chalk, construction paper, glue sticks, Polaroid camera (optional), student worksheets, various animal toy models or paper animal cut-outs, magazine pictures of various vertebrates, and display boards (one per dyad).
Summary of activity: This activity was designed as a form of alternate assessment for a unit on vertebrate evolution. Alternate assessment is important to science educators either as a reteaching method or as a method introducing and involving the students. Built into this activity is a portfolio component which is important for it actively involves the students and allows them a creative outlet.

Dinosaurs and ancestral vertebrates are "creatures" that both children and adults love and have held a fascination for people for many years. In this lesson students will constructively construct "dioramas" using their knowledge of terrestrial life on Earth and vertebrate anatomy.

Objectives: The students in dyads will be able to:

1. describe the development of their chosen form of vertebrate life from the past to the present in a four to six page typed paper

2. explain the use of a phylogenetic tree

3. use the phylogenetic tree to exemplify an organism's evolutionary change as well as current information on the organism's current adaptation or change of habitat

4. explain the emergence and subsequent extinction of their ancestral form (for example, dinosaurs are the ancestral forms of birds and possibly reptiles)

5. develop dioramas of the ancestral form of their chosen life organism and the fauna that accompanied that organism's niche

Teacher instructions:

This project should be done after lessons on: the theories on the formation of the ozone, the progression of the emergence and proliferation of terrestrial life, the usage and understanding of a phylogenetic tree, the structure and the classification of vertebrates. The students need to be put in pairs for the construction of the diorama and the completion of their paper. This pairing can be either by teacher selection or self-selection by students. If the technique of student selection is utilized, it needs to be used only as a "treat" for the honors students or a class that has successfully mastered teacher designated social or functional skills. These skills include using six voices, praising each other, reaching group consensus, learning how to give and receive constructive criticism, and to complete the project. Have students choose different vertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, fish, and sharks. Act as a facilitator so that the students also choose representative groups within the different classifications of vertebrates, for example, amphibians (frogs, salamanders and toads); reptiles (lizards, dinosaurs and snakes); birds (raptors, nocturnal and diurnal birds of prey, terns, gulls and waterfowl); fish (jawless, jawed and bony); mammals and sharks.

Give concise instructions to the students on the placement of the organisms on the phylogenetic tree based on comparative anatomy, morphological structures, DNA nucleotide sequencing, etc. The subsequent branches of the "tree" need to show the change in characteristics from ancestral form to the present.

Have displayed at six different stations in the room a variety of preserved or live representative organisms from each vertebrate group: Table #1- amphibians, #2- reptiles, #3- birds, #4-fish, #5- mammals and #6- sharks (include samples of bone and cartilage.) Make sure that the students note the major differences between the animals.

To grade the projects please use the accompanying teacher evaluation sheet


Two pictures need to be taken of the dioramas and put in each student's portfolio along with two copies of the written summary with the dyad's names on it. This project can be used instead of a unit test or as an intensive review of key concepts and ideas of the evolution of vertebrates.


Alexander, R. M. 1989. Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants. Columbia University Press. pp. 141-149 and 150-161.

Anders, A. V. June 1995. "Diatryma Among the Dinosaurs." Natural History Magazine. pp. 68.

Attenborough, D. Life on Earth. (video series)

Chiappe, L. M. June 1995. "A Diversity of Early Birds." Natural History Magazine. pp. 52.

Debus, A. Spring 1995. "Plesiosaurs." Dinosaurs The Magazine of the Mesozoic. pp. 38-43.

Johnson, G. B. 1994. Holt Biology - Visualizing Life. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. pp. 208-213.

Kagan, Spencer. Cooperative Learning. Resources for Teachers, Inc.

Ostlund, K. March 1991. Using Cooperative Learning in Science. Addison Wesley Publishing Company.

Partin, R. L. Feb 1987. "Fifteen Guidelines for Developing Attention-Holding Lessons." Middle School Journal.

Weislampel, D. B. June 1995. "Designer Jaws." Natural History Magazine. pp. 64.

Student Activity Sheet
On Vertebrate Dioramas


Evolution is the change of an organism over time. Scientists base their theories of the evolution of organisms on the geologic record, fossil finds, comparative anatomy, comparative cytology, and comparative embryology.

Throughout the Mesozoic Era, for more than one hundred and fifty million years, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Then they disappeared! The reasons for their demise has been and continues to be debated by scientists. Some hypotheses include the presence of killer asteroids or meteorites that caused a sudden climatic change, competition from mammals, and acid rain caused by volcanic activity or these asteroid explosions. Increased volcanic activity caused increased depletion of the ozone. Other scientists attest to their disappearance as the result of several factors. The dinosaurs are popularly perceived as huge, slow, dumb beasts that were doomed to extinction once the "superior" mammals came on the scene. They left behind a powerful legacy- a line of descendants leading to the modern birds and possibly reptiles. (This point is still a raging debate.)


Selected reference texts (example, Holt's Visualizing Life) various science magazines and newspapers with consistent science coverage, plain unlined paper, pens, colored pencils, paint, magic markers, paint brushes, colored chalk, construction paper, glue sticks, Polaroid camera (optional), student activity sheets, student evaluation sheets, animal toy models or paper animal cut-outs, magazine pictures of various vertebrates, and a display board


Your task, with the aid of a partner, is to:

1. choose a representative organism from the vertebrate group that was given to you by your teacher;

2. use the reference books, magazines and newspapers to research the representative vertebrate group and choose one representative organism from that group (example: jawless fish-lamprey);

3. examine the organism and try to determine its ancestral form (example: Hemicyclaspus*-lamprey (*found in the early Devonian period);

4. create a diorama.

    (a) divide the length of the board into three parts. Part I (the extreme left) is the ancestral form of your organism in a three-dimensional form, Part II (the middle) is the phylogenetic tree from ancestral form to the current form. Make sure that the tree is dark and the names are typed in bold print. The organisms on your "tree" are based on morphological features, comparative anatomy, comparative cytology, and comparative embryology.

    (b) part III (to the extreme right) is the current information on your organism in a concise manner. Include a picture or example of the current phenotype of the organism, carefully labeling the key anatomical parts, with the distinct morphological features. A brief description of the organism's "niche" needs to be included.

5. produce a four to six page typed paper which includes any distinct morphological and anatomical features or changes, current habitat, nutritional needs, niche in the ecosystem, courtship rituals, breeding patterns, and care of young. End your paper with a complete bibliography.

6. on the designated day or class period, you and your partner are responsible for presenting your diorama/display board. The time allotment is a minimum of ten minutes with a maximum of fifteen minutes. Each person in the dyad must present orally. Note cards may be used for reference purposes during the presentation. Avoid just reading the information.


Here is a possible breakdown of the assignment into categories for evaluation. This gives you an idea of what we were thinking in the design of this activity. We have provided a point breakdown as a guide only.

Summary (50 pts)


Did the writers follow a logical order in the presentation of information? (4)

Were the ideas related clearly? (5)

Did they write in complete sentences? (3)

Did they spell check their work? (3)

Was the summary typed? (3)


Did they name and/or describe ancestor organism? (6)

-including physical features, nutritional adaptations

Did they describe the habitat of the ancestor organism? (4)

Did they describe the geologic changes that occurred between the time of the ancestral species and the current group of organisms? (5)

Did they name and describe the features of the current group of organisms? (6)

Did they include a reasonably developed phylogenetic tree? (5)

Did they include the reasoning behind the branching chosen for their phylogenetic tree? (6)

Display Board/Diorama (40 pts)


Diagrams or models of both ancestor species and representative of current organisms? (5)

Phylogenetic tree? (2)

Examples of current group of organisms? (2)

three-dimensional depiction of ancestor organism in its habitat?

- clarity of diorama (5)

- creativity (5)

Visual Appeal:

Is it colorful? (3)

Is the written part typed? (2)

Is the important information highlighted (with bold-facing, underlining, or highlighting)? (2)

Is the information on the display board easy to follow?

(Too busy? Too sparse?) (2)


Did each member of group speak? (4)

Did they summarize the key information?

- Ancestor's habitat and characteristics (2)

- Current organism's habitat and characteristics( 2)

- Geologic changes and effects on organism (2)

- Phylogenetic tree(2)

Student Evaluations (10 pts)

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