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Title: Design an Ecosystem
Karin Westerling

Teacher information, student handout, and project example.
Activity Type :
A cooperative group simulation activity.
May be suitable for evaluating mastery of ecological concepts at the end of an unit.
Lesson may include public speaking and graphic arts components.

Target Audience :
This lesson was developed for the ecology unit of biology and sheltered-English biology courses.
It may also be suitable for life science, integrated science, environmental science courses.

Background Information:

Teacher notes:
1. Students create a simple, imaginary ecosystem. They describe the interrelations between the species inhabiting the ecosystem and their physical environment. They then imagine an alteration in their environment and project the impact that such a change would have on the organisms living in their ecosystem. (The teacher may wish to limit the type of change in order to emphasize a specific concept.) Finally, they suggest methods to mitigate the impact of the change.

2. Local Environmental Impact Statements (EIS), known as Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) in California, increase student interest, especially if a current building project is controversial. But complete EIRs are usually ponderous tomes which may not be suitable for classroom reading.

Student requirements:
The lesson does not assume a specific vocabulary base, but concepts suggested by the following terms should be understood: food chain/food web; producer; primary, secondary and tertiary consumer; decomposer; pyramids of energy, mass and number; community; population; niche; threatened species; endangered species; extinction.
Preparation time and materials:
Minimal prep time is required to gather the materials. Materials are listed in the student instructions.

Class time needed :
This lab is deceptively complex. Students usually require at least two hours to prepare their ecosystems. Additional time is then needed for the oral presentations.

Lesson :
The student handout is below. An example project follows the student instructions.

Author :
This is an original activity, but I imagine that similar activities exist. As with all lesson plans, it is a living document which is undergoing constant modification. Ideas for improvement are appreciated. Please write to:
Karin Westerling
Moreno Valley High School
23300 Cottonwood Avenue
Moreno Valley, CA 92506

Introduction :
There is a very old biology joke which goes like this:

Biology Lab Exam
1. Create life.

In today's activity, it's not a joke. You are to create several species in a unique ecosystem. You will describe your species' niche as well as their reproductive habits. You will then prepare an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) describing the expected effects of an environmental disturbance (e.g. flood, paving over the ecosystem to make a Wal-Mart parking lot, Snark hunting, introduction of a foreign species, etc.).

1. Keep it simple. Since the end of the term is near, you won't have a billion years to do this activity.
2. Look ahead. Consider the conditions associated with species endangerment while you plan your ecosystem. That way your EIR will be more interesting.
Materials: Poster paper, color markers, notebook paper, pen/pencil, ideas

Method :
1. Form a group of 2-4 students.
2. Your mission is to design and artistically depict an ecosystem.
3. Here are some hints:
A. Location: Your ecosystem may be anywhere, including other planets!
B. Biological community: Imaginary organisms are very welcome.
Include at least one species of each of these:
i. Producers
ii. Primary consumers
iii. Secondary and higher level consumers
iv. Decomposers
For each species be sure to include its:
i. range
ii. population size
iii. reproductive behavior (mating rituals, fertilization method,
number of offspring, care of offspring, etc.)
iv. a. nutritional requirements, if an animal, or soil and water
requirements, if a plant
b. position in food web
v. sensitivity to environmental insults
vi. any known usefulness/attractiveness to humans
C. Physical components: Your species must be appropriate for their
physical environment. Be sure to consider:
i. Climate: temperature, seasons, humidity and precipitation
ii. Surface conditions: soil minerals, soil texture, water, grade

4. Now that you have created a beautiful ecosystem, add a disturbance. Your disturbance may be spontaneous or man-made; intentional or unintentional, or a combination of these. You are not limited to the following:
A. Climate change: warming, cooling, change in water availability.
B. Direct human interference: hunting/harvesting, land clearing,
pesticides/herbicides, introduction of a foreign species, etc.

5. Identify the effect of the disturbance on the species in your ecosystem. Use the list below to help you make the following declarations:
A. Extinct: Species which are completely decimated.
B. Endangered: Species which are in imminent danger of extinction.
C. Threatened: Species which are at significant risk of becoming
endangered but are not in immediate danger of becoming extinct.
D. No expected change: Species with moderate to large populations,
whose numbers are expected to remain stable.
E. Increased: Species whose populations increase. May be potential
6. Prepare your EIR describing what happens to each species.
The EIR should also state why you are making your predictions.
Include ideas for mitigation (lessening) of the environmental impact.
Be prepared to share your results with the rest of the class.

Report : Poster, one to two page EIR, classroom presentation.

Conditions Associated with Species Endangerment
1. Limited Range : Species is found in only a small, specific area.
2. Small Population or Rarity : Species is rare within its range. High level consumers are usually rare. Other species may also have small populations.
3. High Specificity : Species has very specific requirements for:
food (e.g. Pandas only eat bamboo; animals which eat only one type of
food, or a few specific foods, are prone to extinction if the food
supply disappears.);
reproduction (e.g. Spotted Owls only nest in old coniferous tree
hollows, rabbit fleas use female rabbit reproductive hormones
and don't make their own);
habitat (e.g. there are fungi which are found only in gopher tortoise
4. High Sensitivity : Species is extremely vulnerable to environmental disturbances. Examples include:

Birds are very sensitive to DDT and related pesticides which cause thinning of their eggshells. Compare birds with cockroaches, which are not very sensitive.

Some plants have very specific requirements for light; too much or too little sunshine will kill them.
5. Low Fecundity: Species produces few offspring. Note: species which care for their young either before birth (long pregnancy) and/or afterwards have fewer offspring than those who do not.
6. High Human Value: Species has characteristics that make it valuable to humans. Many animals have been hunted to endangerment, or even extinction, for their beautiful plumage or fur. Wild plants and fungi may also be over-harvested if they are particularly tasty or contain useful medicine.


PRODUCER: Norse Sea Lily
i. range: many reservoirs such as Lake Perris
ii. pop size: large
iii. reproduction: flowering plant pollinated by mead bees; flowers
in early summer
iv. nutrition:
a. autotroph
b. eaten by Go Fish (roots), Vikings (leaves), Mead Bees
(nectar), Lily Weevil (immature fruit)
v. sensitivity: the more minerals in the water the better, needs
full sunlight
vi. humans use: artificial poi & glue (roots), fibers for fabric
(stems), snack food (seeds), decoration (flowers), roofing
material (leaves)
vii. climate: cool winters with foggy mornings, warm and sunny
viii. surface: lives in water

1 CONSUMER: Mead Bee
i. range: many reservoirs such as Lake Perris
ii. pop size: small
iii. reproduction: a single queen lays many eggs which are tended
by her daughters
iv. nutrition:
a. eats nectar and pollen of the Norse Sea Lily
b. eaten by some birds
v. sensitivity: low sensitivity, but only one food source
vi. humans use: often considered a pest
vii. climate: active during warm months, hibernates in winter
viii. surface: flying insect: hives on land, food flower floats on surface of water

i. range: many reservoirs such as Lake Perris
ii. pop size: moderate
iii. reproduction: following a mating ritual in clear water the
females lay eggs & the males fertilize the eggs externally,
males guard nest until eggs hatch, babies receive no care nor
iv. nutrition:
a. Norse Sea Lily & other plant roots
b. are eaten by MoVal Vikings who like them better than Lilies
but not as much as mead.
v. sensitivity: eggs are sensitive to chemical pollutants, adults
are pretty tough
vi. humans use: sport and food fish
vii. climate: any temp above freezing & below 50 C
viii. surface: lives in water

i. range: southern California
ii. pop size: many 1000s
iii. reproduction: life-long pair bonds, internal fertilization, low
birth rate, extensive care of young
iv. nutrition:
a. Go Fish, mead, lilies, eagles, cougars & broccoli
b. top level predator
v. sensitivity: low chemical sensitivity, sudden temperature
change can harm them
vi. humans use: extremely attractive exotic pets
vii. climate: warm and sunny weather with plenty of water
viii. surface: amphibious

Yeast Beast
i. range: very limited, only in Mead Bee hives
ii. pop size: moderate in hives, zero elsewhere
iii. reproduction: high fecundity: usually asexual budding
iv. nutrition:
a. eats nectar and pollen brought to hive by bee excretes mead
b. Vikings drink mead. Vikings really like that mead
v. sensitivity: low sensitivity to chemicals
vi. humans use: no known use
vii. climate: warm & moist
viii. surface: live in hive which protects them from climate

i. range: many reservoirs such as Lake Perris
ii. pop size: large
iii. reproduction: hermaphroditic, lay many eggs, external
fertilization, no care of young
iv. nutrition:
a. eats dead organic matter
b. eats anything & everything, once it's died
v. sensitivity: low sensitivity to chemicals, light, temp or
salinity change
vi. humans use: no known use, humans think they are ugly
vii. climate: any temperature above freezing
viii. surface: lives in water

* Some students may need an example, advanced classes may not.
** As you may well guess, my school's mascot is a Viking, our rival schools are the Cougars and Eagles.


A gravid (pregnant) Lily Weevil is inadvertently introduced into the valley. The Lily Weevil eats immature Norse Sea Lily fruit. Worse yet are its reproductive habits. It parasitizes hymenopterans by stinging them into paralysis and laying a single egg in the abdomen of each insect. The Weevil larva then feeds upon its host from the inside out! Needless to say, this is an experience which a Mead Bee does not survive.

Extinct : At this time it is not possible to tell whether any of these organisms would actually go extinct. However endangerment, by definition, means that a species might go extinct in the near future.

Mead Bee: Bees are being massacred by the Lily Weevil, a newly introduced species.

Yeast Beast: Yeast Beasts are totally dependent on Mead Bees. If the Mead Bee dies out, so will the Yeast Beast.

Norse Sea Lily: Not only do Weevils eat their fruit before their seeds have formed, they also parasitize the Lily's only pollinator. The Lily may not be able to reproduce in the presence of the Weevil. Finally, human predation may also contribute to their demise.

MoVal Viking: The Vikings could loose three important food sources: Lilies, Go Fish, and mead. Fortunately, Vikings have other food sources available to them.

Go Fish: Go Fish would loose a major food source. Also Vikings may predate more heavily upon the fish since the Vikings no longer have Lilies and mead.

No Change :
Ship Worm: One way or the other, there will be plenty of dead for the Ship Worm to eat.

Lily Weevil: Since the valley is full of food (Lilies) and reproductive opportunities (Bees), Weevils may increase in population. Contributing to their increase is the lack of natural predators such as Leaping Lizards which eat them.


Prevent entry of the Lily Weevil:
Prevent, or at least delay entry, of this dreaded pest. Recommended practices include:
Do not import, or import only after quarantine, agricultural products, such as aquarium and pond plants, which may be infested with the Lily Weevil. While this idea is sound, it may be difficult to carry out. Backyard pond enthusiasts may not understand the need for not smuggling various exotic plants which they would like to grow at home.

Population control for the Lily Weevil:
If entry cannot be prevented, methods of limiting Weevil population must be explored. For example:

Pesticides: Some pesticides kill Lily Weevil effectively; but others are no longer effective since the Lily Weevil has evolved resistance to them. Also, the same pesticides that kill Weevils, kills Mead Bees. This solution has only limited viability.

Introduction of Weevil predator: A population of Leaping Lizards could be introduced to the valley. Lizards would keep the Weevil population low. They would not completely eradicate the Weevil. Prior to their introduction, extensive research is recommended as it is not known what other organisms would be effected by the Lizards. For example: would Leaping Lizards eat Mead Bees; out compete the local Friendly Frog for insect food; or in some other way become a pest?

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