What’s an Ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a community of plants, animals, and other living things that live in the same area or environment. In an ecosystem, living things interact with each other and with the environment in which they live.
Think of a puddle you might see behind your schoolyard. You may find all sorts of living things in the water, such as tiny insect larvae and algae. If the pool is large enough, you might find frog eggs or tadpoles. In order to live there, these organisms depend on each other for food energy and nutrients. They also depend on non-living things like water, sunlight, the water temperature, and nutrients in the water. This very complex interaction of living things and their environment sustains life in the ecosystem.
What’s a Habitat?
A habitat is the place within an ecosystem where an organism lives, and where it gets all the things it needs to survive. It contains all the food, water, shelter, and space that the organism requires.
Habitats can be different sizes, depending on the animal or plant. A black beetle’s habitat might be a single log, where it gets everything it needs to live. A humpback whale requires much more space, and its habitat might stretch from Alaska to Hawaii.
Plants and animals are often adapted for specific habitats. For example, certain kinds of plants are suited to growing in forest clearings, which are lighter and drier than other areas of the forest. Mosses may be able to grow on one side of a tree or rock, but not on the other, because the light and temperature are different. And some animals that live in damp leaf litter couldn’t survive on bare soil.
Introducing the Story Characters
Students will read the story of a girl named Jackie who learns about forest ecosystems and habitat from three main characters:
S.T. – the short-tailed shrew
A shrew is a small—but fierce—mammal about the size of a mouse and weighing as much as a nickle. It has a long nose and sharp pointy teeth, and it can attack and kill prey several times its size! Shrews mostly eat insects like beetles, grasshoppers, or wasps, but they can also eat small birds, small snakes, and even other shrews.
Shrews live in lots of different habitats throughout the world, but mostly in and under soil and leaf litter in moist areas. In the eastern United States, one of the most common woodland mammals is the short-tailed shrew, which has a stubby tail.
Young shrews are born in a hollow stump, log, or burrow, and can fend for themselves within a month. Their life span is short—they live at most just three years.
For more information about shrews, see “Shrews” on the BioKids (University of Michigan) website.
Millie – the millipede
A millipede is a long, slow-moving animal that typically has 40 or more pairs of legs. Its hard body is made of lots of rings or segments.
The name “millipede” comes from the Latin words mille (“thousand”) and pes (“foot”). Despite the name, no one has ever found a millipede with 1,000 legs! Most species have between 40 and 400 legs.
Millipedes eat decaying leaves and other dead plant matter. They usually tunnel in soil and are often found under bark, stones, or old boards, or in damp garbage.
For more information about millipedes, see “Millipedes, Centipedes, and Relatives” on the BioKids (University of Michigan) website.
Sitta – the nuthatch
A nuthatch is a large-headed, short-tailed, short-legged, tree-climbing bird. Some nuthatch species sport a black “cap” on their heads. Nuthatches eat insects hidden in the bark of tree trunks and limbs. They also like large seeds and nuts.
Nuthatches are very active and quite agile: you can often see them climbing both up and down tree trunks, head first! In the winter, nuthatches flock with other forest birds like chickadees and titmice. Their wings extend nearly to the tips of their tails.
For more information about nuthatches, see “White-breasted Nuthatches” on the All About Birds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology) website.
- What is an ecosystem?
- Which of the plants and animals mentioned in the story have you ever seen?
- Choose a shrew, millipede, or nuthatch and describe how it gets food energy from the ecosystem.