Designing a Habitat

Aquatic WILD manual, page 20
Copyright 1992 Western Regional Environmental Education Council

Age: Grades 4-12

Subjects: Science, Language Arts

Skills: analysis, application, classification, communication, comparing similarities and differences, description, discussion, drawing, generalization,inference, interpretation, invention, listening, listing, measuring, media construction, problem solving, public speaking, reading, reporting, research, small group work, synthesis, using time and space, visualization, writing

Duration: two or more 45-minute periods

Group Size: groups of two to four students each; can be nodified to accommodate different numbers

Setting: indoors

Conceptual Framework Reference: I.A., I.A.1., I.A.2., I.A.3., I.A.4.,I.B., I.B.1., I.B.2., I.B.3., I.B.4., I.C., I.C.1., I.C.2., I.C.3., I.C.4.,I.D., III.A., III.A.1., III.A.2., III.A.3., III.B., III.B.1., III.B.2.,III.B.3.

Key Vocabulary: habitat, zoo, aquarium

Appendices: Field Ethics, Local Resources, Aquaria


Students will be able to identify the components of habitat that are essential for most aquatic animals to survive.


Students design a habitat suitable for aquatic wildlife to survive in azoo or an aquarium.


Zoos and aquaria are for the most part artifical habitats. The basiclife-giving conditions of food, shelter, air, water and space in a suitablearrangement for animals to survive seem obvious enough when considering zoos. However, in aquaria, water is a uniquely sensitive part of the habitat and it must serve to do far more than quench thirst. The surrounding envelope of water must meet specific requirements for different aquatic life forms. Slight changes in salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen and the presence of a wide range of pollutants can spell disaster for certain aquatic organisms.

To successfully house aquatic wildlife in zoos and aquaria, careful attentionmust be paid to the range of conditions that each life form can tolerate. There are also certain physical requirements in terms of the shape and dynamics of the display that must be compatible with each creature. For example, somefish require moving water or currents. Others prefer almost static conditions. Some prefer deep water and others shallow rocky bottoms. Penguins prefer refrigerated settings. The variations are remarkable when one considersdesigning habitats for microorganisms in pond water and mammoth habitats for killer whales and walruses.

Concern for the physical requirements of animals must go beyond meetin minimum survival needs. Attention should be given to the animals' comfort, creating conditions as similar to those in their natural habitats as possible.

In the growing practices of aquaculture (deliberate cultivation of freshwaterorganisms) and mariculture (deliberate cultivation of oceanic organisms) much research is conducted regarding habitat requirements. Often natural streams, rivers, lakes and even the ocean are used in these enterprises. Attention towater quality and disease control is just as important in these settings as it is in the confined habitats of zoos and aquaria.

Ethical concerns about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of housing aquatic wildlife in zoos and aquaria must also be considered. However, this activity is designed simply to address the complex physical needs of aquatic wildlife in order to be able to survive at all under conditions of captivity.

The major purpose of this activity is for students to recognize and appreciate the complex life requirements of aquatic wildlife by focusing on the artificial habitat conditions of zoos and aquaria.


3 x 5 cards; art supplies; writing materials; papier mache'; modelingclay; gallon jars; string; cardboard; cardboard boxes (to use as frames for models)


  1. Prepare cards (3 x 5) with the name of one of the following animals written on each card: trout, shark, goldfish, sturgeon, sea otter, large-mouth bass, water strider, beaver, diving beetle, killer whale, penguin, sea turtle, alligator, siamese fighting fish, frog, oyster (expand the choicesas seems appropriate).
  2. Divide the class into groups of two to four. Have each group draw one card from a container.
  3. Ask each group to be responsible for designing an artificial habitat in which their animal could successfully live. Inform them that each team willbe expected to conduct library research or consult reference materials or resource people to determine the life requirements of each creature. In addition, they must investigate and establish the characteristics of the natural habitat of the animals.
  4. When the research is complete, each team of students is to design and build a model or small replica of a zoo exhibit or aquarium habitat which would be suitable for the animal's survival and comfort in captivity. Establish a scale for the exhibits (for example, one inch = five feet for the large animals; actual size for the insects).
  5. Once the models are complete, ask each team to report to the rest ofthe class. Each report should include a description of the basic biological needs of each animal as well as a description of the characteristics of its natural habitat. The students should point out how their models are designed to meet the needs of the animal.
  6. Optional: Once all reports are finished, have the students arrange their models in a plan for a zoo or an aquarium.
  7. Ask the students to summarize the components of habitat that seemed to be necessary for the survival of the aquatic animals they studied. (Food, water, shelter and space in a suitable arrangement would be the minimum necessary components.)


  1. Visit an aquarium and arrange for a staff person to explain how the aquarium staff addresses the same basic requirements for animals that the students did – that is, the components of habitat.
  2. Create a balanced aquarium for the classroom.
  3. Discuss the reasons for and against keeping aquatic wildlife incaptivity in zoos and aquaria.


  1. List the components of suitable habitat that are necessary for most aquatic animals to survive.
  2. Pick an aquatic mammal, fish, amphibian or other aquatic animal. Describe the biological characteristics of the animal and the kind of habitat requirements it has in order to survive. Compare similarities and differences between this aquatic animal and another aquatic animal. What things, if any, do they both need in order to survive? What things, if any, must be different in their habitats in order for each kind of animal to survive?

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