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Habitat Hunt

By Valerie Mertz

Teacher Sheet:


(Note: this activity was originally carried out in school year 1994-95. It can be modified as needed.)

During the previous summer, Valerie Mertz collaborated with other teachers about activities that might help students learn the components of ecosystems with a discovery or inquiry activity. Habitat Hunt was the result. (Many thanks to Maggie Desch, VT for her valuable input!). During an early morning summit meeting Valerie excitedly shared this activity with us. Would you like to join us in trying this new mystery activity? For High School science only.

Here's how it works. Your students compile a collection of specimens, descriptions, and data that describe their local environment. These are the clues to your location. Then you exchange your clue box with another school. Now it's their turn to analyze what you sent and solve the mystery: where in the world are you? At the same time, you will receive and analyze a clue box from another mystery school.

Goals: One purpose is to give students a meaningful reason for learning the particulars of their local ecosystem. Students produce better work when they are accountable to a real audience.

Also, by engaging in a mystery, students will have to use all kinds of critical thinking and cooperative skills to research, select, and prioritize clues.

  1. Either a whole class or a group of students can build a box.

  2. Mail your boxes on Nov. 10, 1994 to the chosen addresses.

Student Sheet


During World War II, an Air Force officer was stationed off the coast of Alaska on the Aleutian Islands. It was critical that the location remain secret. Therefore all outgoing mail was carefully censored. Any careless reference to the islands or location was blacked out. Even family members could not be told of the location.

The officer understood that his family was anxious about his safety. They would be less concerned if they knew his location. So he devised a scheme to alert them of his whereabouts.

As a child, he and his family spent afternoons walking through the cool forests of New England watching birds. He became quite knowledgeable and even learned their migratory patterns. Suddenly this family pastime became a tool for secret messages. In each letter home, he casually mentioned the name of a bird he had seen flying overhead.

His family realized these were migratory birds. By plotting the intersections of their flight patterns, they calculated his location!

In Habitat Hunt, you have a similar mission. With a group of students, you will build a box containing clues to your location. Then you will mail your box to a school located in a very different environment. They will use your clues to figure out where in the world you are. In turn, another school will send you a box and you must determine their location.

Student Sheet


I. Group name. Use your school motto, a whimsical name or a name that is itself a clue. Label the inside and outside of the box with your group name. Boxes should be completed, addressed and mailed on Nov. 1, 1994. Your teacher has the secret address.

II. Clues. Place each clue with its accompanying clue card in a self-closing baggie. Each clue card should be numbered and have an enhancement comment. For example, if your clue was an unidentified branch and leaves, you might add "the wood is used in building furniture, baskets and pallets. Pallets are sent from our state around the country." You might want to include the name of the student that contributed the clue.

You can prioritize your clues by labeling them "Open me first, second, etc." Be creative!

Divide up the responsibilities. For example, one person could research birds, another land forms, and so on.

Include clues from any (but not necessarily all) of the topics. As much as possible use specimens, samples, or pictures. Graphs or charts of climatic data, and portions of topographical maps also make good clues. Some clues should identify your biome, others your nation, state and exact location.

Make the receiving team figure out some of your clues. For example, press a branch with attached leaves. Let them have the fun of identifying it.

III. Answer Sheet: Fill out the answer sheet. Place it in a sealed envelope.

Label it:

ANSWERS FOR _______________ (group name)

Mail it inside the clue box. Include greeting messages from your team.

Student Sheet


  1. Climate Control
    • Annual/seasonal average temperatures
    • Annual/seasonal average precipitation
    • Average length of growing season
    • Avg. length of daylight hours during a given time

  2. Regional Geology
    • Major land forms
    • Bedrock
    • Major watershed
    • soils
    • Glaciation

  3. Natural Resources
    • Current land usage patterns (% of land uses in agriculture, urban, industrial, national forests/parks, etc.)
    • Major economic uses (rough dollar value)

  4. Ecology
    • biome/climax community components
    • samples of vegetation (dried, sketched, photographed)
    • sketches or photographs of region
    • major tree types/sizes/ages
    • plant survey - transect/quadrant data of vegetation (plant types and percentages, diversity indexes)
    • photos or sketches of specific birds and when found

  5. Environmental Issues
    • regulations regarding land usage
    • legislation regarding land usage
    • state and local issues (blacking out key names to protect anonymity so the mystery of your location is retained)

Note: This list should be looked at as a springboard that will launch you into a lot of unique ideas that are not specifically listed.

Student Sheet


Group Name: ______________________

Biome: ________________________

State: ________________________

Town: ________________________

Closest Large City: __________________ Distance to city: ________

Mailing address:




If you included any specimens that had to be identified as part of the clue, list them here. (i.e. a pressed leaf that had to be identified as a white oak)

Student Sheet


Names of team members:

Complete this sheet as you analyze clues in the box that was sent to you:

Box Name: _____________________

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