Energy Pipeline (Adapted from Project WILD) Pre-visit lesson for Compost Critters

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1 Grade: 6-12 Learning Objective: Students will learn that energy is lost when moving up the food chain, that decomposers help cycle organic matter back into the food chain, and that nutrients are passed from one level to the next. Summary: Students simulate organic production and energy loss for major trophic levels in an ecosystem. The class acts as a growth assembly line that becomes increasingly complex with each round of play Teaching Time: one hour, or two 45-minute sessions Vocabulary: ecosystem, trophic level, producer, herbivore, carnivore, decomposer, and energy. Materials: large bucket of beans or pea-sized gravel large empty bucket labeled Used-Up Calories box of reusable sandwich bags copies of metabolism cards for each student (see attached sheet) 52 bowls (one per card) six small paper cups 3 x 5 cards transparency of total growth chart transparency pens whistle colored gravel. Background Information: In every ecosystem, the components are linked by energy flow and material cycling in which successive levels of consumers depend on organisms at lower levels. Each of these trophic levels is defined according to its role (producers, primary consumers, secondary consumers, and decomposers). The level that ultimately supports all others consists of plants, the primary producers, able to produce their own food from sunlight. All other organisms are unable to make their own food and depend on plants either directly or indirectly. The primary consumers of plants are herbivores, and the secondary consumers that eat herbivores are carnivores. Energy flows through a system according to the laws of thermodynamics and determines each relationship between trophic levels. Energy is lost at each level and each successive trophic level contains less energy, less organic material, and fewer numbers of organisms. About 90 percent of the available energy at each level is lost through heat, movement, and metabolism. This leaves only 10 percent available for transfer to the next level. As a result, food chains tend to be short. Although material substances such as water, nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus cycle through an ecosystem, energy takes a one-way course and is dissipated at every trophic level. Energy from the sun and organic matter enter the animal world through herbivores. Either directly, or indirectly, plant life supports all forms of animal life, including humans. The implications for the human food supply are many. Because humans are omnivores, capable of eating both plants and animals, when we consume most of our food from a secondary or tertiary level, the transfer of energy is less efficient than when consumed at the primary level. This is why there are so few top predators in an ecosystem: because of the loss of energy between levels. A large quantity of plant material is required to support herbivores and the herbivores can support only a smaller number of carnivores. Page 1 of 8

2 Procedure: SETUP 1) Divide the students into pairs. These pairs should then be grouped into four trophic level categories: a) Six of the pairs will be plants (producers) and sit on one side of the room. b) Three other pairs will be herbivores (primary consumers) and sit in the middle of the room. c) One pair will be a carnivore (secondary consumer) and sit on the other side of the herbivores. d) One pair is the sun, and stands with the bucket of beans (or gravel) near the plants. ROOM Sun pair Plant pair Herbivore pair Carnivore bucket of beans Plant pair Herbivore pair pair Plant pair Herbivore pair Plant pair bucket Plant pair for used Plant pair calories/beans 2) Distribute the appropriate set of five metabolism cards, five bowls and one 3X5 card for each plant, herbivore, and carnivore pair. 3) The sun pair receives only two bowls. ROUND ONE 1) Everyone except the sun will place one of their metabolism cards in each of their five bowls. This way, each bowl has a card in it. EXAMPLE ( = bowl with card) ( = 3 x Card) Plant Pair #1 Plant Pair #2 Plant Pair #3 Plant Pair #4 Plant Pair #5 2) The sun pair will put 10 beans/pieces of gravel into a plastic bag and pass it to each plant pair. Each bean represents one calorie of energy contained in one photon of sunlight. Sun = one bean/calorie Plant Pair Page 2 of 8

3 3) The plant pairs then redistribute the beans into their bowls according to the numbers on the card in each of their bowls. EXAMPLE: PLANT PAIR #1 Bowl 1 Bowl 2 Bowl 3 Bowl 4 Bowl 5 2 Calories 3 Calories 1 Calorie 3 Calories 1 Calorie 4) When one of the plant pairs is done placing all ten of their beans, they will ask the sun to supply them with ten more to be distributed in the same way. This will continue until the plant pair has 10 beans (or calories) in their bowl with the growth card inside. 5) Now, the plant has grown large enough to be eaten by an herbivore (primary consumer). One member of the plant pair will take the ten beans/calories from the growth bowl, place them in a plastic bag, hand them to an herbivore pair and put a tally mark on their 3X5 card. The other member will dump the beans from the four other bowls into a bucket labeled Used-Up Calories. Plant pair Herbivore Pair = one bean/calorie 6) The sun continues to supply each plant pair with ten beans (calories) as needed and the plant pair continues sorting the beans given to them, producing bags of beans for the herbivores to take. 7) The herbivore pair will now take the bags of beans and sort them into their bowls according to the card placed in each of their bowls. 8) Each herbivore pair continues to receive bags from the plant pairs until they have accumulated ten beans in their growth bowl. They now bag up those ten beans, pass the beans to the carnivore pair, add a tally mark to their 3X5 card, and discard their other beans in the Used-Up Calories bucket just as the plant pair did. 9) They then resume receiving beans from the plant pairs as before. 10) The carnivore pair will take the bag given to them by the herbivore pair and sort the ten beans into their bowls according to the directions on the metabolism cards in the bowls. 11) As soon as the final bean from the carnivore s first bag is distributed, blow a whistle to signal the end of round one. All pairs should IMMEDIATELY halt their activities and look at their tally card to see how many bags they have passed on. 12) Record each pair s results on the Total Growth Chart (see attached overhead). Page 3 of 8

4 DISCUSS 1) How many total bags were recorded by all pairs for each level? 2) How are the calories distributed among the levels? 3) What caused the difference? 4) What are some of the ways energy is used up at each level? 5) Where did the plants get their energy? (sun) 6) Why were there no limits to the number of times they could ask the sun for more energy? (there is no limit to the amount of energy that comes from the sun) 7) How are plants limited in the real world? (shade, nutrients, water, competition, climate, temperature, etc.) 8) Are there any other ways that organisms use energy? 9) What would happen to the numbers of bags needed for the entire system if the carnivore had been allowed to collect enough calories to grow to full size (have ten beans in their growth bowl)? (Ten times the number of bags are needed.) 10) Why are food chains so short? (Ten times the number of plants are needed to support each level added above the carnivore. The number of plants limits the amount of carnivores in a food chain. The lower the number of plants, the lower the number of carnivores). Have students consider the implication of this structure on human food supplies and population growth. 11) Could a lower trophic level pass on ALL of its calories to a higher level? 12) What would be the consequences to that organism if it did pass all of them on? (no reproduction or respiration or photosynthesis would take place) 13) Is there a way an organism can transfer more calories and still survive? (They could reduce another metabolic activity such as producing seeds or movement.) 14) What consequences would there be to such changes? (Less seeds mean less new plants.) OPTIONAL ROUND TWO 1) Resume play where you left off, but now include a decomposer pair representing bacteria. The bacteria pair will receive bags of ten beans from both the plant pairs and the herbivore pairs every other turn. That is, the plant pairs will alternate ten beans to the herbivores and the decomposer pair, and the herbivore pairs will alternate giving their bag of ten beans to the decomposer pair and the carnivore pair. This represents dead plants and animals not eaten by a higher trophic level, those that die naturally. ROOM Decomposer Pair Sun Pair Plant Pair Herbivore Pair Carnivore Pair Plant Pair Herbivore Pair Plant Pair Herbivore Pair Plant Pair Plant Pair Plant Pair Page 4 of 8

5 2) The decomposer pair will place their beans in two bowls. Five beans will go into a bowl labeled metabolic processes, and one bowl labeled growth. DECOMPOSER PAIR 3) Stop play this time only after the carnivore has ten calories in the growth bowl. 4) The bacteria pair counts the number of beans in their growth bowl and multiplies by two (to represent cell division). DISCUSS 1) Tally numbers on the overhead for round two. Discuss the difference in results. 2) At the end of the round all calories in the growth bowls of all plants, herbivores and carnivores will go to the decomposers, representing the fact that all plants and animals will eventually get decomposed, and the calories in the rest of their bowls go into the Used-Up Calories bucket. OPTIONAL ROUND 3 1) Start play over again, but give different beans/gravel to one member of the sun pair to represent nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and water. This member of the sun pair will now act as SOIL to distribute the nutrient beans by giving two nutrient beans to each plant pair. These nutrient beans go into the growth bowl for the plants. 2) Each pair of plants and herbivores MUST include at least one nutrient bean in each bag they produce to pass on. Nutrient beans the decomposer pair accumulates should be returned back to the soil. 3) Stop play for the final time after the carnivore pair has ten more beans in their growth bowl. Tally results on the overhead and discuss the fact that while energy is lost from one level to the next (used-up calories) the nutrients just continue to go back to the soil and are not lost. Page 5 of 8

6 Plant Metabolism Cards Unused Sunlight Reproduction Growth Not all sunlight can be Plant uses energy to Plant uses converted into organic matter. produce seeds. energy to grow Place 2 Calories in this Bowl Place 3 Calories in this bowl Place 1 Calorie in this bowl Photosynthesis Plant absorbs energy from the sun, and produces organic matter. Place 3 Calories in this bowl Respiration Plants burn energy in the process of photosynthesis. Place 1 Calorie in this bowl Herbivore Metabolism Cards Digestion Movement Reproduction Herbivore uses energy to break Herbivore uses energy to Herbivore uses energy to down consumed food. search for water. create nest and raise young. Place 2 Calories in this bowl. Place 3 Calories in this bowl Place 3 Calorie in this bowl Growth Herbivore uses energy to grow. Place 1 Calorie in this bowl Respiration Herbivore uses energy to watch for predators. Place 1 Calorie in this bowl Page 6 of 8

7 Carnivore Metabolism Card Digestion Movement Respiration Carnivore uses energy to break Carnivore uses energy to search Carnivore uses energy down consumed food. for prey and hunt food. to build a shelter. Place 2 Calories in this bowl Place 3 Calories in this bowl Place 1 Calorie in this Bowl Reproduction Carnivore uses energy for extensive courtship display and extra hunting to raise young. Place 3 calories in this bowl Growth Carnivore uses energy to grow. Place 1 Calorie in this bowl Page 7 of 8

8 Total Growth Chart Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Carnivore Growth Calories Growth Calories Growth Calories Nutrients Herbivore Plant Decomposer Page 8 of 8

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