Yellowstone National Park Food Chains

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SWBAT build and describe a food chain model.

Big Idea

In this lesson, students research the specific roles of producers, consumers, and decomposers within the Yellowstone ecosystem. Then, students use this information to create and describe food chain models.

Lesson Overview

Inquiry Based Instructional Model

To intertwine scientific knowledge and practices and to empower students to learn through exploration, it is essential for scientific inquiry to be embedded in science education. While there are many types of inquiry-based models, one model that I've grown to appreciate and use is called the FERA Learning Cycle, developed by the National Science Resources Center (NSRC):

1. Focus

2. Explore

3. Reflect

4. Apply

A framework for implementation can be found here

I absolutely love how the Center for Inquiry Science at the Institute for Systems Biology explains that this is "not a locked-step method" but "rather a cyclical process," meaning that some lessons may start off at the focus phase while others may begin at the explore phase. 

Finally, an amazing article found at, How Inquiry-Based Learning Works with STEMvery clearly outlines how inquiry based learning "paves the way for effective learning in science" and supports College and Career Readiness, particularly in the area of STEM career choices. 

Unit Explanation

In this unit, students will first develop an understanding of the biotic and abiotic factors within ecosystems, the characteristics and classification of living organisms, and how plants and animals obtain and use energy to fulfill their needs. 

Then, students will delve deeper into the NGSS standards by examining the interdependent relationships within an ecosystem by studying movement of matter between producers, consumers, and decomposers by creating models of food chains and food webs.  

At the end of this unit, students will study ways that individual communities can use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment.  

Summary of Lesson

Today, I will open the lesson by showing students how to create Yellowstone National Park organisms cards (facts on one side, pictures on the other). Students will then explore the specific roles of each of these organisms within the Yellowstone ecosystem. Then, students reflect and apply this information by creating food chain models using their organism cards. 

Next Generation Science Standards  

This lesson will support the following NGSS Standard(s):

5-PS3-1.    Use models to describe that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun.  

5-LS1-1.    Support an argument that plants get the materials they need for growth chiefly from air and water.  

5-LS2-1.    Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.  

Scientific & Engineering Practices

For this lesson, students are engaged in the following Science & Engineering Practice:

Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence

Students construct evidence-based arguments about the placement of organisms in Yellowstone National Park food chains. 

Crosscutting Concepts

To relate ideas across disciplinary content, during this lesson I focus on the following Crosscutting Concept

Crosscutting Concept 2: Cause and Effect

Students examine how changes in a food chain may impact other organisms. 

Disciplinary Core Ideas

In addition, this lesson also aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas

PS3.D:  Energy in Chemical Processes and Everyday Life

The energy released [from] food was once energy from the sun that was captured by plants in the chemical process that forms plant matter (from air and water). (5-PS3-1)

LS1.C:  Organization for Matter and Energy Flow in Organisms

Food provides animals with the materials they need for body repair and growth and the energy they need to maintain body warmth and for motion. (secondary to 5-PS3-1)

Plants acquire their material for growth chiefly from air and water. (5-LS1-1)

LS2.A:  Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems

The food of almost any kind of animal can be §traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plants parts and animals) and therefore operate as “decomposers.” Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can damage the balance of an ecosystem. (5-LS2-1)

LS2.B:  Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems

Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die. Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment. (5-LS2-1)

Choosing Science Teams

With science, it is often difficult to find a balance between providing students with as many hands-on experiences as possible, having plenty of science materials, and offering students a collaborative setting to solve problems. Any time groups have four or more students, the opportunities for individual students to speak and take part in the exploration process decreases. With groups of two, I often struggle to find enough science materials to go around. So this year, I chose to place students in teams of three! Picking science teams is always easy as I already have students placed in desk groups based upon behavior, abilities, and communication skills. Each desk group has about six kids, so I simply divide this larger group in half. 

Gathering Supplies & Assigning Roles

To encourage a smooth running classroom, I ask students to decide who is a 1, 2, or 3 in their groups of three students (without talking). In no time, each student has a number in the air. I'll then ask the "threes" to get certain supplies, "ones" to grab their computers, and "twos" to hand out papers (or whatever is needed for the lesson). This management strategy has proven to be effective when cleaning up and returning supplies as well!  


20 minutes

Teacher Note: In this Ecosystems Unit, during lesson 4: Abiotic & Biotic Factors in the Yellowstone Ecosystem and lesson 5: Producers, Consumers, & Decomposers, students learned about the organisms living in the nearby Yellowstone National Park Ecosystem. 

Over the past several lessons, students have learned in-depth about the roles of decomposers, producers, and consumers as well as the flow of energy and matter through ecosystems.

Today, I want to build connections across these lessons by returning to the Yellowstone National Park Ecosystem to create and discuss real-world food chain models. 

Lesson Introduction & Goal 

I introduce today's learning goal: I can build and describe a food chain modelNow that you've learned how the sun's energy and matter flows through an ecosystem, it's time to think about this actually happens in real-world models (or food chains)!

Referring to the Yellowstone Poster from lessons 4 and 5 of this Ecosystem Unit, I explain: Today, we are going to return to our study of the Yellowstone National Park Ecosystem. First, we will discuss the roles of each organism pictured on the Yellowstone poster. Then, at the end of today's lesson, you will work together with your science team to create real-world food chain models in Yellowstone! 

What is a food chain again? Turn and talk! Students refer to the Food Chain Vocabulary Poster and explain to a nearby partner, "A food chain represents a single pathway by which energy and matter flow through an ecosystem." Then students elaborate by sharing real world examples. 

Creating Yellowstone Organism Cards

At this time, I pass out the following to each team of three students: a copy of Yellowstone Organism Cards (printed on yellow card stock ahead of time) and a color copy of Pictures of Yellowstone Organisms

Teams work together to cut out and match the pictures with the corresponding cards. Then, they glue the pictures on the backs of correct cards: Matching Pictures and Cards.

Later on, students will use these cards to create food chain models. 


40 minutes


Once students are ready to move on, I present the following video on Yellowstone National Park, which perfectly addresses how a single change within an ecosystem can impact other organisms in the environment. This video specifically addresses the "ripple effect" caused by the reintroduction of the gray wolf.

I love how many of the organisms on our Yellowstone Poster are also mentioned in the video (gray wolf, coyote, pronghorn, elk, aspens, willows, willow fly-catcher, beaver, grizzly bear, and eagle). Consequently, students become excited and interested in the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem poster all over again! 

Teacher Cards

Prior to today's lesson, I printed and cut out the following Yellowstone Ecosystem Teacher Poster Cards on light yellow card stock to match the student Yellowstone organism cards. Over the next 30 minutes, I will present information on each of the organisms on the Yellowstone Poster and by introducing the information on the these teacher cards and attaching the cards to the Yellowstone Poster, one by one: Teacher Cards on the Poster.

Teacher Note: This poster may seem a bit overwhelming at first, however, since students have already learned about the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem, students already have a lot of background knowledge on Yellowstone. In addition, after learning about each organism, I ask students to turn and talk about what they've learned. This encourages active listening and is also balances "teacher talk" with "student talk."

Student Cards

I ask student teams to get ready to highlight key information on the back of each of their team's cards as we discuss the role of each organism in Yellowstone National Park: Highlighted Notes on Student Cards. Students spread the cards out across their team members' desks to make finding cards easier. 

Teacher Note: When students are asked to highlight the most important information, it requires them to evaluate information and to ask themselves: Which information is more important? Which information is least important? This process encourages students to compare and analyze facts and ultimately supports a higher level of engagement and higher level thinking during this activity. 

We begin by discussing the sun, then, we will move on to learning about the producers, herbivores, omnivores, carnivores, and decomposers. I choose this order as it matches up with the order of organisms in many food chains.

Color-Cateogrizing Cards: 

As we discuss the producers, such as the Gray Willow, students circle the name of the producer with a green marker. As we discuss the consumers, such as the Red-Tailed Hawk, students circle the name of the consumer with red. Finally, as we discuss the decomposers, such as Mushrooms, students circle the name of the decomposer with orange. Students circle the sun with a black marker as it is nonliving: Sun

By color-categorizing cards, Categorizing Cards By Color, students are able to better categorize information in their minds! 

The Sun

We begin by discussing the sun. I tape the Sun card on the Yellowstone Poster next to the sun drawing. Referring to the information on the card, I explain: The sun provides light and heat energy for the organisms in Yellowstone National Park and for all other organisms on Earth. What type of energy do the plants in Yellowstone use to produce their own food? (Light energy) Remember, the sun's energy always flows in one way through food chains and all organisms on this poster need the sun's energy to survive. Here's a fun fact: only 1% of the sun's energy that reaches the Earth is actually used by the plants to produce food using photosynthesis. Turn and talk: Why is the sun an important part of Yellowstone food chains? 


After discussing the sun, we move on to the producers: Let's talk about producers next. Remember, producers are the only organisms that are able to use the sun's energy to produce their own food. Who can find a producer in Yellowstone? Many hands shot up in the air. One student suggests the wheatgrass. Other students agree that this is a producer. I tape the wheatgrass on the poster and explain as students listen and highlight key information: Wheatgrass is a very important food source for elk, pronghorn, and bison. In fact, it is one of the most important forage grass species in the park. This means that these grazing animals really depend on this grass for food. Turn and talk: Explain why wheatgrass is so important in Yellowstone food chains.

We continue in the same fashion by discussing other producers in Yellowstone, including the lodgepole pine, pond lily, gray willow, quaking aspen, and green algae. Each time, I ask students: Can anyone else find a producer in Yellowstone on our poster? 


Now let's look at some of the animals that eat the producers! What is a plant-eating animal called? (Herbivores!) Who can find an herbivore in Yellowstone? One student suggests the elk. Adding the elk card to the poster, I explain as students listen and highlight key information: Elk are herbivores because they eat plants, such as wheatgrass, lodge pole pines, and quaking aspens. Uniquely, elk are the most abundant mammals in the park. What do you think abundant means? (existing in large quantities) During the summer, there are about 30,000 elk in the park whereas there are only about 15,000 elk in the park during the winter. Turn and talk: Why are there less elk in the park during the winter? (Due to high snow levels, elk have a difficult time digging down to find food. They migrate out of the park to find adequate sources of food.) Since the reintroduction of wolves, the elk population has halved. One student raises her hand and shares how this has impacted her dad's success at elk hunting in the area. Turn and talk: Explain how the decrease in the elk population might impact other organisms in Yellowstone. 

Again, we continue on in the same manner, discussing all the other herbivores on the poster, per student suggestion: bison, bighorn sheep, beaver, pronghorn, and the adult mayfly.

During this time, we also discuss how all herbivores are primary consumers because they eat plants. 


It makes most sense to discuss omnivores next as these animals are able to obtain energy by eating plants or animals. Turn and talk: Which animals in the Yellowstone Ecosystem are omnivores? Students take a few minutes to identify the omnivores using their own knowledge and the information on their Yellowstone Organism Cards. As students are ready, I ask: Who can find an omnivore in Yellowstone? One student suggests the deer mouse. I explain a few facts about the deer mouse as students highlight key points on their own deer mouse card: What you need to know about the deer mouse is that it is an omnivore because it eats plants, such as the gray willow and it eats animals, such as beetles, earthworms, and snails. The deer mouse is an important food source to the red-tailed hawk and the coyote. Turn and talk: What would happen if the deer mouse became extinct?

Teacher Note: I purposefully try to pose "turn and talk" questions that require students to apply newly information and to truly think about these science concepts. 

Other omnivores that we discuss in the same fashion as the deer mouse above include: the willow flycatcher, cutthroat trout, otter, boreal chorus frog, and grizzly bear. 

We also discuss how omnivores can be primary or secondary or tertiary consumers because they eat both plants and other animals. 


Beginning with the red-tailed hawk, the students and I discuss each of the carnivores in Yellowstone. Per student suggestion, I tape the red-tailed hawk up first: If you saw a red-tailed hawk in Yellowstone, you might see it soaring above fields and turning in circles. It has keen (or sharp) eyes which help make them efficient (and successful) hunters. The red-tailed hawk is a carnivore because it eats mice, squirrels, rabbits, and reptiles, but it is also considered a scavenger as it will eat dead animals. Turn and talk: What is surprising about the red-tailed hawk? 

Similarly, we discuss other carnivores on the poster: the osprey, coyote, bald eagle, and gray wolf.

We discuss how carnivores are not primary consumer because they do not eat plants. Instead, they are either secondary consumers, tertiary consumers, or the top predator in the food chain (such as the gray wolf). To keep it simple, I choose to not get into quaternary consumers!


Finally, we have two cards remaining: mushrooms and bacteria. Turn and talk: Why are mushrooms and bacteria called decomposers? (Both organisms decompose, or break down, dead animal and plant matter, returning many nutrients back to the Earth.) Just as we have done with all the other organisms, we discuss each of these decomposers in-depth as students highlight key information on their cards.

Reflect & Apply

20 minutes

Sharing Findings

Now that students have built meaning and understanding by observing, questioning, and exploring, it is important to provide students with the opportunity to share their findings. For this reason, I challenge students to construct food chain models using their Yellowstone Organisms Cards!

Teacher Note: I purposefully do not provide any specific criteria for the food chain models. I want students to develop their own ways of organizing and making sense of the food chain. 

Monitoring Student Understanding

Once students begin working, I conference with as many students as possible. My goal is to support students by asking guiding questions (listed below). I also want to encourage students to engage in Science & Engineering Practice 7: Engaging in Argument from Evidence.

  1. Do you agree that _?
  2. What do you think about _?
  3. What is most important?
  4. What would happen if_?
  5. What does this remind you of?
  6. Are you surprised by anything?
  7. What conclusion can you draw about ____?
  8. How do you know this is a food chain? 
  9. How does energy/matter flow through this food chain? 


Student Conferences

During this conference, Conferencing with Students, the students explain the roles of each organism in the food chain. At times, they get concepts mixed up, but with thought and discussion, they are able to explain their food chain using accurate information. This goes to show the importance of using models to help develop a conceptual understanding of abstract science terms. 

Student Food Chain Examples

One at a time, student teams create the following food chains. As students complete one food chain, I ask that they invite another group (or me) to check out their food chain (and to see if they agree) before moving on to creating another.