Who Lives Here?
One of the greatest threats to plants and animals today is habitat depletion. Discuss some of the human activities that are changing the desert (need for more homes, increased roads, increased demand for recreation, desire to make the desert like another habitat by introducing exotic species). Have students research descriptions, accounts, and photographs of their local area as it was seen by early pioneers and explorers. Compare and contrast the area today with how it was in the past. What native plants and animals have become threatened, endangered, or extinct? What exotic plants and animals now live in this area? Locate natural springs and other natural water sources. Are these water sources still accessible to wildlife? What actions can students take to protect plants and animals near their homes?
Join the Club
Divide students into four groups. Assign each group to one of the following "clubs," each representing a particular plant adaptation for coping with the heat.
Suntan Lotion Lovers: Many plants limit the amount of moisture they can lose through evaporation by covering their leaves or pads with a waxy coating. This works much the same as suntan lotion or sunscreen in protecting us from "drying out" in the sun.
White Shirt Specials: Since light colors work to reflect the sun's rays, some plants "wear" light colors to keep cool and, in doing so, retain more moisture. Many desert plants have white leaves or hairy surfaces that work just as a white shirt to reflect the sun's rays.
Make Your Own Shade Club: If a plant is kept cool, it will lose less water through evaporation. Many plants are able to keep themselves somewhat cooler than the surrounding air temperature by "making their own shade." Spines on cacti and leaves on trees create shade for those plants.
Canteen Kids: Some plants are able to store large amounts of water in their thick leaves or stems. Members of this group are called succulents. Cacti are a good example of succulents. After water is taken up by the roots, it is then chemically changed by the cactus into a mucilaginous substance that does not evaporate as quickly as the watery sap found in large-leafed plants. This moisture is stored in the stem.
Ask each group to conduct research to identify desert plants that belong to their "club." On a bulletin board, have students display pictures of the plants in their club, together with descriptions about their special adaptations.
Introduce students to the term riparian zone. This is an area that includes not only the water, but also the vegetation associated with the water. Many animals living in this area could not survive without the special conditions that the riparian zone provides. Riparian areas often provide different and more abundant vegetation than surrounding areas, a higher percentage of shade trees for nesting or shelter, higher humidity, and more diverse plant and animal life. Riparian areas are easily affected by natural and human-made changes. Have students work in small groups to design a creature adapted to living in a riparian area. While they are designing the creature, have them consider the following questions:
- How are its feet adapted to the environment?
- What kind of body covering does it have that makes it well suited for living in an aquatic area (scales, feathers, shell)?
- Where are its eyes? How can it see above and below?
- How does it move (swim, fly, carried on current)?
- What does it eat? How is its mouth adapted to this kind of food?
- What kind of limbs does it have (arms, legs, flippers, gills, wings, tail)?
- What special adaptations does it have for surviving in a desert region (surviving flash floods, drought)?
Have students share their creatures with the class, discussing ways each animal has adapted to an aquatic habitat.
Extension: Talk about threats to riparian habitats. How would this creature adapt to these and other human-made changes? Would this creature disappear or would it adapt? What could be done to help protect this animal and still satisfy our water needs?
Planning a Conservation Community
Ideally, communities would not intrude on the desert's beauty to accommodate expanding growth and development. In some cases, however, communities "boxed in" by water or other features may have limited choices. In these cases, planning is critical to minimize impacts to the natural environment. Have students work in teams to create a map of a "desert community" that demonstrates the importance of protecting the desert's fragile resources. Ask students to brainstorm a list of the facilities, resources, and services that their community would have. Consider the following questions:
- How do people get the food they need?
- Where do they live?
- How do they get around?
- Where do they go to work, to learn, to play?
- What public services are provided (police, fire, hospitals)?
- What provisions have been made to conserve water and energy resources; to protect air, water, and soil quality; and to preserve and protect natural areas?
After students have completed their maps, have them present them to the class and explain the special conservation features they have included.
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