Animal Signs in the Wildlands

Description: Students place 10-meter transect lines at different places in the Wildlands and then observe and identify the different animal signs they find along the transect lines. Animal signs could be ant hills, bones, leaf holes, worm tailings, dead animals, spider webs, scat, etc.

Grade Levels: K-12 (Note: This experiment can be simplified or made more challenging depending on the developmental levels of your students. See Teacher Information.)

Approximate Time Involved: One 30-minute classroom planning session; (first day indoor classroom introduction to brainstorm an activity for finding sign (evidence) that certain animals are living in or have visited an area/areas. The second day students will conduct their experiment during a 40 minute class period to find animal sign. On the third day, students will organize their data, graph their results, and submit their data.

National Science Standards Addressed:

Content Standard A: As a result of activities in grades K-12, all students should develop

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Understanding about scientific inquiry

Content Standard C: As a result of activities, all students should develop understanding of:

  • (K-4) Organisms and environments
  • (5-8) Structure and function in living things
  • (5-8) Populations and ecosystems
  • (9-12) Interdependence of organisms

Program Standard D: The K-12 science program must give students access to appropriate and sufficient resources, including quality teachers, time, materials, and equipment, adequate and safe space, and the community.

  • Good science programs require access to the world beyond the classroom.

Teacher Information:

The Wildlands, schoolyards, open spaces in the  desert, fields, parks and other grassy areas provide students with a great opportunity to examine the animal life present in a certain area. Students will search for animal sign to determine the diversity of living organisms in a particular habitat. NOTE: This activity easily lends itself to problem based learning (PBL); in particular the development of scientific inquiry and experimentation. Encourage your students to search the Internet and other sources for more information about ways in which scientists look for and determine animal sign.

All signs of animal life will be recorded, classified and graphed. Encourage students to use all senses for finding evidence of animal sign.

  • Depending upon the grade level, you could tie in several key historical factors that would have affected the development of the community.
  • Students could write a paragraph on the history of the area or use any language arts assignment that may apply to this activity.
  • If animal track evidence is found, students could make plaster molds of the tracks.

Challenging Your Students to Be Problem Solvers:

To make this investigation more challenging to your students, you might just want to pose a question or problem such as: What ten meter transect line in the Wildlands produces the most evidence that animals are or have been present? In what particular area of the Wildlands do you find evidence that the most animals are or have been present, and what are the conditions that may cause this area to have the most animal sign? Determine if development of surrounding areas poses a serious problem to the ecological balance of the studied area(s) based on the research information you have collected.

This should become a team exercise where your student groups might each conduct Internet research on the animal sign investigation, design or choose the investigation and habitat, develop and write a question or hypothesis, list the materials they will use, the number of each item, and a procedure. NOTE: An excellent way to assess this activity is to have the teams repeat each other's experiment to see if they achieve the same results. This will also replicate the real world challenges facing a research scientist.

Needed Materials: Pencils paper and clipboards are the only materials needed in the field. They will need to use identification keys in order to help them identify animal sign.

Safety Rule: When outdoors always remind your students that they are the visitor to a natural community therefore use caution and leave the community undisturbed. Of course, common safety rules apply.


Student Information: The following information will provide you with the steps for conducting your animal sign investigation. It is important to hold all of the variables constant except for those that are being manipulated. Constant (or controlled variables) would be such things as: the size of the area, the time of day the experiment is conducted, the type of habitat, weather conditions, etc. Manipulated (or independent) variables would be those things that we change to see if the response will be different. In this case it might be the size of the area, the time of day the experiment is conducted, the type of habitat, weather conditions, the location, etc. NOTE: To guarantee accurate results, you can only have one manipulated (independent) variable during an investigation.) The responding (or dependent) variable for this experiment might be the number of animal signs you observe in each of your habitats. If you are only conducting this investigation in your Wildlands, then you will want to compare your data with other online classes to see if there are similarities or differences in your habitats and your results.

Steps to Conducting the Animal Sign Investigation

1. Determine an appropriate test site according to availability and class size. You may want to start with a ten meter transect line and lengthen it if your students are finding little or no animal sign. (A transect line is created by stretching a piece of string or rope a certain length and then collecting data along both sides of the string within an arm's length.)
2. If possible, choose a location large enough so that the students can conduct their survey without interfering with other groups.
3. The individuals will walk the length of the entire transect line recording any animal sign that is observed.
4. Group as partners, taking turns recording and observing (using the pencil, paper, and clipboard.) You choose to or not to take any sign from the sites for further study.
5. Create a data table to display your findings. Compare and analyze your results.
6. Return all equipment to the classroom
7. Using your results conclude as a group and then as a class, what the impact development might have on the different test sites.

Below is a list of questions that can be used to stimulate student discussions. If your students are at a developmental level where you are able to challenge their higher level thinking skills, then only present them with the first set of questions from each group below. Use the second list of questions as a way to stimulate thinking when you students seem unable to expand their knowledge on their own.

Examining Results

Discussion Questions that Require More Critical Thinking Skills:

  • What were your results and conclusions for this experiment?
  • What could you infer based on your conclusions?
  • How would you design and/or conduct this experiment differently the next time?

Discussion Questions that Require Less Critical Thinking Skills

  • Did your results match those of the other collaborative teams?
  • If your results were different, what do you think might have been the reason?
  • Did all of the collaborative groups end up with the same results? Why do you think this was the case?
  • Were the results somewhat similar to each other? Why do you think this was the case?
  • If you were able to compare your data to that taken at a different location in the Wildlands, were the results somewhat similar? Why do you think this was the case?
  • Did the outside temperature have any impact on the survey?
  • If you were able to conduct this investigation in other habitats, what comparisons and differences were you able to note?

Examining Local Results

Discussion Questions That Will Require Critical Thinking Skills to Compare Individual Data to the Data Collected by Others

  • How did your results compare with the results of others?
  • What conclusions can you make when you compare your results with the results of others?
  • What inferences can you draw from your additional conclusions?
  • How would you design and/or conduct this experiment differently based on the information you now have?

Critter Links

Entomological Society of America This site has a special "kids" page for insects.

Monarch Watch Participate in a migratory census of butterflies.

Iowa State Department of Entomology This is a good source for information on insects, including some insect recipes.

Children's Butterfly Site This butterfly site is maintained by the United States Geological Survey.

Young Entomologists' Society, Inc. If you really like to explore the insect, spider, and minibeast world, check out this site and become an amateur entomologist.

This activity was adapted from a lesson plan designed for the

by Sharon Travous, Bill Miller, Jeff Brokering, Tracy Rommerskirchen, Ann Reiff.  An on-line version can be found @

This activity was adapted from a lesson created by

and Thomas Fahey Third Grade Teacher Ellis School Belleville IL An on-line version can be found @