|Zones of Life |
This activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards: Content Standard C: Life Science—Organisms and environments; populations and ecosystems; diversity and adaptations of organisms.
Elevation plays the key role in determining the type of vegetation that predominates at different locations in the Rocky Mountains. Unlike areas with flatter terrain, where a particular biome—or life zone—may spread across a wide expanse, life zones in the Rockies change dramatically as the altitude increases. In this activity, students use research and artistic skills to create a poster illustrating typical life zones of the Rocky Mountains and present their findings to the class.
- large posterboard or bulletin board on which the mountain illustration (above) can be drawn on a larger scale
- art supplies
- access to research materials—encyclopedias; field guides to plants, especially trees; websites with information about plants, such as: plants.usda.gov
- Time required: at least one class period for research and one for poster creation
1. Redraw the mountain illustration on your posterboard or bulletin board, including the lines indicating altitudes. To keep the drawing to scale, create your own scale depending on the space you have available. For example, one-half inch on the small drawing could be one foot or one meter on your display.
2. Label the life zones on your mountain drawing as you discuss with students the different types of vegetation that might be found at different altitudes.
3. Divide the class into four groups and assign each group to research typical plants found in the following zones: Foothills; Montane Forest; Subalpine Forest; Alpine Tundra. See the chart in the article for specific examples. (Note: Be sure to point out to students that scientists can differ in their views on how to label life zones. There are few precise boundaries in nature!)
4. As students conduct their research, they should collect illustrations of the plants—not only close-ups to distinguish the different conifers, but also full-view shots so they can draw these on their section of the mountain. Each group should choose at least one artist to create the drawings. Others in the group can prepare talking points about the typical species, highlighting information on their requirements for growth.
5. Once all the groups have made their presentations, hold a class discussion on how altitude plays a role in some of the factors that affect plant growth in the Rocky Mountains. Such factors might include temperature, soil types, wind, and availability of moisture. Have students suggest other factors not related to altitude that might also affect plant growth. (The direction a particular slope is facing and the history of fire in the area are two possible suggestions.)
- What's in a word? Students might note the use of the term alpine to describe some of the life zones in the Rocky Mountains. The term refers to Europe's Alps, of course. Some students might be interested in researching this famous European mountain range, and then comparing and contrasting it with the Rocky Mountains.
- Students might also be interested in comparing and contrasting the plant life in their region with the types of plants found in the Rocky Mountains. Can they suggest reasons for similarities or differences?
- The types of plants in a particular life zone affect the types of animals found there as well. Have student groups investigate some typical animal species found in their life zones. Discuss why some animals might be found in one zone but not another. (Hint: Consider their habitat requirements.) Challenge students to identify some animals that migrate vertically—from one life zone to another—as the seasons change.