Why Are Some Animal Groups So Successful? (Squirrel Speciation)

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SWBAT observe animals from a successful, widespread group (squirrels) and make statements about species differences, similarities, and possible reasons for success.

Big Idea

Some animal groups' inherited characteristics enable them to adapt and spread into many different environments.


15 minutes

Prior to getting into the lesson itself, I let students know we are going to be squirrel detectives.  What makes this animal group (Family Sciuridae) so successful?  What are some similarities and differences they see between different species?  This is a natural entry point for some basic math integration.  I ask students to estimate how many squirrel species there are in the world.  I gave this student group a framework, based on animal groups we have already discussed.  Prior to asking for their estimate, we discuss if it's going to be a large, medium, or small number of animals and I ask them to explain their thinking.  This student hits upon an interesting idea, and there is quite a bit of truth to what he says - smaller species are often more abundant than their larger counterparts.  


Making Specific Observations and Formulating Questions

45 minutes

You may be asking yourself, "Why squirrels?  They're so ordinary."  That's exactly why I use them to teach this lesson.  Regardless of where  a child lives in the United States, they have seen a squirrel.  I try to find a balance between exposing children to that which is new, and wonderful, and that which is familiar, and equally wonderful if only we take the time to explore it.  Adults regard them as pests, and indeed, some of them are, especially the gray squirrel, but squirrels are a cute example from the wildly successful rodent group that provide a perfect opportunity for students to reflect upon why some animal groups are so abundant.  A large part of this has to do with squirrels' ability to adapt to a wide range of changing circumstances.  

This Squirrel Species Introduction is designed to both support visual learners and fuel the interests of my gifted students, some of whom really do like to know details such as specific species names and locations.  

It's a text-light visual aid - I don't think that PowerPoints should be the core of many lessons, but please take a glance at it I think you will find that it could be used as a good way to initiate discussion.  

In this video, you will first see a student using wait time to grapple with verbally expressing his understanding of the connection between an animal size and animal success.  Secondly, you will see an English language learner who also benefited from wait time, and not being called on first, to compose his thoughts.  I believe in the power of wait time.  Please look at my reflection for some more ideas about its importance. You will notice that this child uses the word species as he explains his claim.  I have used this word in conversation and lessons and we have defined it, with examples, many times.  They are not required to use it but I am always pleased when they can apply tier 3 vocabulary in context.  

Additionally, this short presentation gives students visual examples of several different concepts.  First of all, unrelated species (except in that they are all part of the squirrel family, Sciuridae) halfway around the world from each other can look very similar and live in similar climates.  Secondly, there is great diversity in appearance and habitat of animals in this group.  Third, what can be deduced about their behavior, adaptations, and physical characteristics that contribute to their success?

Before students engage in the discussion shown above, in which they are asked to make claims about why squirrels are so successful, have them read some of these articles in small groups.  I find it works best to have different groups read the different articles, as that provides access to different levels of text.  Here is an accessible basic article about squirrels from National Geographic.  This article about squirrles from Wikipedia is much more comprehensive. Here is an article from LiveScience.  The students can take a few notes along the side of the article or in their journals.  The discussion is the final stage.