Purpose: Students will conduct an online survey of vascular plants found in South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom and in a local ecosystem (homework) and create an ecological niche poster presentation based on a vascular plant of their choice.
Procedural overview: After reading the Science News article “New Guinea has more known plant species than any island in the world,” students will receive a briefing on ecological niches. To reinforce what they read and learned, students will answer questions as a class pertaining to an ecological niche and the article. Students will then conduct an online survey of vascular plants found in South Africa’s Cape Floral Kingdom, a region rich in biodiversity. Students can work individually or in pairs using a variety of online sources. As a homework activity, students can conduct a similar survey in a local ecosystem. From the plants they identify (either in the Cape Floral Kingdom or the local ecosystem), students will choose one to highlight in an ecological niche poster. The students can create the poster presentation on a computer or by hand. If time permits, students can present their posters to the class. If not, students can submit their posters for display on a classroom wall for other students to view.
Want to make it a virtual lesson? Post the link to the Science News article “New Guinea has more known plant species than any island in the world” to your virtual classroom. Ask students to read the article and answer the questions as a class. Pair up students for the introductory activity. Students can post their survey findings to an online discussion board. Students also can conduct a field survey in a local ecosystem and post their survey findings to an online discussion board. For the final poster presentation activity, students work individually to create their posters by hand or with a computer program such as PowerPoint. Students can take a photo of their handmade posters and upload the photo to an online discussion board. Similarly, students using a computer can upload their posters to an online discussion board.
Approximate class time: 2 class periods
Software such as PowerPoint, Word, Google Docs, Google Slides, Prezi, Canva
Computer with internet access
Printer paper or poster boards
Online access to research information (vascular tissues, ecological niche and vascular plant of interest) or a biology textbook
Plant identification apps such as PlantNet, LeafSnap, PlantSnap or Google Lens
Directions for teachers:
An ecological niche is defined as the position or function of a species within its environment. The concept encompasses how the species interacts with and lives in its environment and includes the biotic and abiotic factors that allow a species to live where it lives. Biotic factors are living components — such as plants and animals — in an ecosystem. Abiotic factors are nonliving factors — such as temperature, moisture and light — that affect an ecosystem.
Species within an ecosystem interact with their own kind and other species in a variety of ways, including through competition, predation and symbiosis. Competition involves the interaction of organisms vying for a resource with a limited supply. Predation involves one organism feeding on another organism. Symbiosis is a relationship between different species where at least one benefits. Symbiotic interactions include mutualism, commensalism and parasitism. Mutualism is a relationship where both organisms involved benefit from the relationship. In commensalism, one organism benefits while the other is not affected negatively or positively. In parasitism, one organism benefits while the other is affected negatively.
A species is endemic when it exclusively lives in one specific location. An endemic species can be found within a large or a small area. Because their geographic range is so limited, endemic species face a greater risk of becoming endangered or extinct. A species is indigenous when its presence in a particular location is due to natural processes and not human intervention. Indigenous species may be found in more than one location and are sometimes widely dispersed.
During the first class period, students will read the article, be introduced to the concept of ecological niche and discuss questions about the article and an ecological niche. Paired students will conduct an online plant survey of the Cape Floral Kingdom. A local plant survey will be done individually as a homework activity.
During the second class period, students will work on their posters and present their work to the class. If time is limited, students can submit their posters for display in the classroom.
After students read the Science News article “New Guinea has more known plant species than any island in the world,” introduce them to the concept of an ecological niche.
To give students a better understanding of ecological niche, use a xerophytic plant as an example. Xerophytic plants survive in a niche environment that has little water, or only seasonal water. This is an example of an abiotic factor.
Ask the class to answer questions about xerophytic plants and the environments where they grow. Encourage students to use a textbook or online resource to search for information.
Ecological niche questions
1. In which niche environments are xerophytic plants found?
Student answers will vary but should include one or more of these: deserts, salt marshes, coastal regions, the Arctic and the Antarctic.
2. What are examples of xerophytic plants?
Student answers will vary. Ephemeral or short-lived xerophytes include thistles (Carthamus oxycantha), nightshade or Thai eggplant (Solanum xanthocarpum), tackweed (Tribulus terrestris) and stone plant, ice plant or pigweed (Trianthema monogyna). Among the succulents are Opuntia (prickly pear), Aloe, Agave, Kalanchoe and Sedum. Many pine trees (Pinus), Erica (heaths) and Calluna (heathers) have some xerophytic characteristics.
3. How do xerophytic plants survive in their niche environments?
They survive by adapting to increase water intake, limit water loss and store water.
4. How are xerophytic plants adapted to survive in their niche environment?
Student answers will vary. Adaptions include thick fleshy leaves to store water and long roots to increase water intake. Waxy coatings on leaves and closure of stomata (pores on plants that control gas exchange) limit water loss.
After introducing ecological niche and answering the questions above, discuss the following questions pertaining to the article with the class. Allow students to look up information where necessary.
1. About how many vascular plant species have been found in New Guinea? Of these, how many are only found in New Guinea?
There are more than 13,600 vascular plants species; more than two-thirds of them are endemic.
2. The greatest number of plant species found in New Guinea belonged to what plant type? What plant type featured the fewest number of species?
Tree species are the most abundant, and species of tree ferns are the least.
3. What are epiphytes?
Epiphytes are nonparasitic plants that grow on other plants.
4. The article mentioned that vascular plants have specialized tissue to transport nutrients. Research two types of vascular tissues found in plants and what each transport.
Xylem transports water and dissolved minerals from the roots to stems and leaves, and phloem transports sugars/food from photosynthesizing cells to other parts of the plant.
5. Using an online source, name at least one plant species in New Guinea and describe its adaptation to its niche environment.
Student answers will vary depending on the chosen plant species. For example, orchids can be found in New Guinea from the lowland rainforests to the upper hill forests. One orchid adaptation is having roots with a large surface area to absorb nutrients and water rapidly.
Partner discussion/ecological niche activity for South Africa
Students work in pairs to survey examples of plants found in the Cape Floral Kingdom. Using the resources provided below, students will select at least three types of plant for each life-form category present in this region.
Cape Floral Kingdom resources:
Student answers will vary but may include some found in the table provided in the Cape Floral Kingdom answer key. Have the students use the table in their guide to organize their surveys.
Plant exploration close to home
Students can perform a field survey in their local neighborhood. Using plant identification apps, students will survey vascular plants found in a local ecosystem. Possibilities include a conservatory, backyard, local park, nearby forest or any location with some plant variety. This activity can be a homework option where students will work individually. Students can use a plant from this survey or the Cape Floral Kingdom survey to create their poster presentation.
Plant identification apps:
Student answers will vary. Have them use a table like the one found on the Creating a Vascular Plant’s Ecological Niche student worksheet to organize their surveys. Note that the plant categories for a table based on local plants may be different. The students may need help determining regionally appropriate categories.
After completing their local surveys, students will work on their own to create a poster focused on one local vascular plant or one from South Africa. Students’ posters will vary, but students should include the following information in their poster presentation: the plant’s common and Latin name, its life-form type, a description of its habitat (include abiotic and biotic factors), feeding method, activity patterns and environmental adaptations. Include a picture of the plant and be sure to credit the source. Student posters should be creative where possible with minimal use of words.