Ecosystem Match-up

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SWBAT identify factors influencing distribution of animals in an ecosystem, what factors defines a specific ecosystem, and differentiate between ecosystems and habitats.

Big Idea

Animal diversity within an ecosystem is affected by many factors.


5 minutes

I start the lesson by activating prior knowledge and taking a quick informal assessment of what students already know about ecosystems. I have each student take out a blank piece of paper. I write the word "ecosystem" on the board and give them 3 minutes to write down everything they know about the term.

I explain they can write things they are absolutely sure of, things they think they know, etc. I tell them that no answer is wrong at this time, and reinforce that they are to write everything they can think of.

Once three minutes are up, I ask students to put their list aside, but not to lose it or throw it away, as we will come back to it later. I purposely do not discuss it right now, as I don't want them to share inaccurate information or to take other students' comments or understandings as their own.


30 minutes

I break the students into groups of 2-3. Each group will randomly select and research the characteristics of one of the following ecosystems listed below. I make sure that we have only one group per ecosystem. (I want each group to have a different focus, as this will matter later in the lesson.)

  • coniferous forest
  • deciduous forest
  • grassland
  • rain forest
  • savanna
  • desert
  • ocean
  • freshwater
  • tundra
  • swamp
  • mountain lands

To complete their research, students fold a piece of note paper into thirds. They use the six folded sections created (three on the front and three on the back) to write the following headings:

  • location
  • climate
  • plant life
  • ground covering (soil, sand, ice, etc.) 
  • common landforms
  • animal life/adaptations

This paper is an individual note-taking sheet. Students each select a different website to conduct their research, filing in every section on their paper.


10 minutes

Once each student has collected enough information to adequately describe their ecosystem and demonstrates understanding of the material, they will share their findings with their partner/s, identifying information that is common to all, and therefore reliable, and conducting further research to verify any conflicting or contradicting information they found. This is crucial, as some students will not research adequately enough or take time to understand the text, and will therefore find inaccurate information, write it incorrectly, or not fully understand what they wrote.

Next, each group will get a large sheet of butcher or poster paper, and will collaborate to create a poster that depicts their ecosystem. It should illustrate all of the information they found in their research, EXCEPT the animal life that is found there. We will deal with that part later!


10 minutes

Once each group has finished their work, I regroup the students, jigsaw style, so that the new groups contain at least one person from each ecosystem. This will make sure that each group has an expert in every ecosystem and will also require participation by everyone in order for the groups to be successful. This decreases the amount of groups from 14-15, to only about 7-8.

The groups begin by conducting a short gallery walk to view each other's posters, taking notes on the important characteristics of each ecosystem. This is done more informally, allowing for students to record notes and discuss each poster in a somewhat unstructured format. I monitor the room, making sure students' conversations are focused on the posters, but not making the conversation so structured that it does not allow for natural reactions, connections, or feedback to develop. if I notice that some students are not taking notes or don't seem to be engaging in conversation with their group, I prompt them by asking them what they observe about the ecosystem, what questions they have, how this is similar or different from the ecosystem they studied, what types of animals they guess would live there, etc. (having them write these down as well as share verbally) and ask them to respond to the comments or questions of their partners.

Next, I distribute a set of animal cards to each group, randomly, so that there are a variety of ecosystems represented in any pile I hand out. Every new group ends up with about 8-10 cards. Students take a few minutes to read and review each card with their partners, classifying them by the ecosystem in which they live.*This part should take a while, as students should be reading closely to pick up clues in the text of each card that will help them correctly identify each animal's ecosystem. Many want to simply go with their gut response, and I don't let them. If I see that happening, I ask for evidence to prove the inferences they are making, by underlining or highlighting clues in the passage.

Once they believe they have the cards classified correctly, they move around the room again and use tape to stick each card to the poster that represents the correct ecosystem. *This is the point in the lesson in which the jigsaw grouping becomes very important. Experts in each ecosystem should be able to assist in justifying which animals belong in their ecosystems, based on the knowledge they have attained. They should not work alone in this endeavor, but should definitely speak up when they make a connection between what they read about an animal and how it would be appropriate fit into their ecosystem. Groups may also want to partner together to utilize the knowledge of ecosystem experts who are not in their group. This is always okay with me, but is definitely a judgement call based on each particular class.


*Information for animal cards was adapted from


5 minutes

First, I have students revisit the paper they used at the beginning of the lesson to write down everything they thought they knew about ecosystems. I ask them to be the teacher and write responses to their original comments, correcting any misunderstandings they had at the beginning of the lesson, and adding to any already correct ideas. I also provide another 2 minute session to add any more information they have learned as a result of this lesson. I use this paper to assess how their thinking has changed and developed throughout the learning experience.

Next, in order to more deeply asses student understanding, I have each student select one "Content" question and one "Critical Thinking" question to respond to in paragraph form. They must include a topic sentence, 3-4 detail sentences, and a conclusion.

Content Questions:

  • What is the difference between a habitat and an ecosystem?
  • List three types of ecosystems and describe them in detail.
  • Habitats are part of an ecosystem; but ecosystems are not part of a habitat. Explain why this is a true statement.

Critical Thinking Questions:

  • What are some similarities between animals that live in the same ecosystem? Why do you think this is?
  • Are there some animals that could live in more than one ecosystem? Why or why not?
  • Which ecosystems had the greatest diversity of animals? Which had the fewest? Why do you think this is?