Monarch on clover

An ecosystem consists of all the living and nonliving things in an area, connected as a dynamic and complex whole. Think about the types of plants that grow in calcium-rich soils on a shady slope or insects that we find living on the bottom of a slow moving stream. An ecosystem can be as vast as an ocean or as small as an isolated vernal pool. Studying an ecosystem means looking at how energy flows and matter recycles in the system.

For living things to survive, the environment in which they live, their habitat, needs to provide food, water, protection from enemies and weather, and places to raise young. Each species has its own particular needs and can live in some places but not in others.

We'll compare a variety of different ecosystems, consider the interactions we observe, and examine the animals and plants inhabiting each as we explore the out of doors. Throughout the year, students will examine the characteristics of organisms and consider the interconnections among living and non-living systems in the Earth's environments.


Vermont The Living World standard 7.13
New Hampshire's Life Science Standards LS1, LS 2, LS3

Description of the Units in this Concept

Student certificates

Materials to Gather Ahead

Ecosystems - Children's bibliography

Ecosystems - Adults' bibliography

Ecosystems - Nature Journal half-page cover   full page 8 1/2x11 cover (doc)   full page cover (pdf)


Descriptions of Topics

Signs of Leaf Eaters

Lots of plants and animals live and grow right out the door, and it’s fun to discover this nature nearby. When we step outside, we can feel the sun adding energy to the ecosystem, observe a variety of plant-eating insects or the evidence they leave behind, and perhaps watch some animal eat one of those insects – a real life look at food chains. We'll learn what an ecosystem is, how the parts relate, and best of all, we'll take a minute to quietly sit and become part of this busy buzzy world.






      Life in the Dirt

      Life abounds right under our feet, from plant roots to earthworms to moles and salamanders. All these dirt-dwelling organisms play important roles in the flow of energy and matter through an ecosystem. We'll examine different soil types, create a recipe for dirt, and dig in to discover the amazing variety and complexity of life in the dirt.

      Leaf Litter

      Under the deep forest canopy, the forest floor hosts a wide variety of plants and animals that together form a complex food web and an efficient recycling system. Think about how deep the pile of leaves in a forest would be if it weren't for the important work of the decomposers. These busy organisms recycle nutrients, putting these back into the system for other living things to use to grow and thrive. We'll lie down and smell the leaf litter, look for decaying leaves, fungi, and insects, and imagine what it would be like to spend our lives on the forest floor.

      Snags and Rotting Logs

      The death of a tree opens up a whole new set of interactions in a forest. The standing snag serves as a home for a variety of fungi, lichen, insects, and other animals - birds nest in the branches, raccoons den in the rotting trunk. Once the snag topples over, the process of decomposition speeds up. A rotting log serves as a habitat for a parade of plants and animals, which change according to the log's stage of decomposition.


      Squirrel Tales

      Amazing acrobats of the tree tops and phone wires, squirrels entertain us with their often nutty behavior. We'll discover three squirrel species, each with its own special tail and niche, habitat and habits.


          Staying Warm

          Some animals spend the cold winter months tucked safely under an insulating blanket of snow. How can snowflakes keep critters warm? What do these animals do in years with little or no snow? We'll look at a variety of different mammals that stay active all winter and their characteristics. And we'll find out where animals in our area may be taking shelter from the cold.

          White-tailed Deer

          White-tailed deer have different requirements for food, water, and shelter through the year. When we study one animal's needs in the changing seasons, we can see the link between habitat and survival. The health of a deer and of a deer population reflects the health of the ecosystem in which they live. Finding sign of deer - tracks, browse, rubbings - may be the only way we know that this elusive creature lives in our neighborhood.

          Stream Life

          Water in a stream falls and turns over and bubbles and flows smoothly, creating different conditions and homes for a variety of organisms. Stream life must be adapted to live in an everchanging environment. Our stream study will include plenty of time to compare different sections of a stream to examine the different plants and animals that call this watery world their home.

          Forest Birds

          More than just a collection of trees, a forest ecosystem is a complex interaction of sunlight and shadow, rain and wind, growth, death and decomposition. We'll look at how forests grow and change over time in an ongoing process that recycles important nutrients back into the system. What animals live in a forest? What do they eat and who eats them? We'll look at lots of different plants and see what signs we can find of animal life while we explore the cool, damp, sun-dappled nature of a forest.

          Pond Life

          Ponds and lakes contain a variety of different habitats: the surface film, the shoreline, the lake bottom and the open water. Different plants and animals can be found in these different sections of lakes and ponds, and each area is influenced by a number of factors. How far does light penetrate into the water? What is the water temperature in these different areas? All of these physical factors effect what organisms live in these still waters. Get wet and take a look.


          Stonewalls and Cellarholes

          New England's stonewalls lace through forest and field, telling a story about the land and its uses. We look here at stonewalls and cellarholes with a mind for the history of a place and the way an area changes over time. The field or pasture once bordered by the stonewall slowly grows into forest, and the stonewall itself begins to melt into the landscape. Cellar holes mark where people once lived but have now moved on. The stones in these structures shift and erode; the cracks and gaps between them collect dirt; lichen, mosses and other plants grow; and a variety of small animals make their homes among the rocks in these old walls.

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