Lesson Plan

Craters Ecosystem

Fox pups near lava rock

These fox pups are being raised by their mother from a den in the lava rock.

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Grade Level:
Fifth Grade
Biology: Animals, Biology: Plants, Ecology, Environment
1-2 hours
Group Size:
Up to 36
National/State Standards:


Students learn about living and nonliving parts of ecosystems through one worksheet and two activities. (CLASSROOM ACTIVITY)


  • Students will be able to define the living and non-living parts of an ecosystem.
  • Students will be able to give examples of producers, consumers, and decomposers.
  • Students will be able trace the path of energy through an ecosystem.



An ecosystem is the total of living parts (plants and animals) and nonliving parts (sunlight, air, water, soil) that support life in a unit of nature. We can refer to the Earth as one ecosystem or divide it into smaller units with similar characteristics (e.g., temperate forest, coral reef, and desert ecosystems). An aquarium or a cave could even be described in ecosystem terms.

Ecosystems are powered by the sun. Energy, in the form of sunlight, makes life as we know it possible. Air (specifically the oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen it contains), water, and the nutrients and minerals in soil make up the rest of the nonliving parts of an ecosystem. (Rock and dead organic matter will become soil in time.)

The living parts of an ecosystem can be divided into three categories:

  1. Producers: Plants have chlorophyll and can produce their own energy in the form of carbohydrates (simple sugars) through photosynthesis.
  2. Consumers: Animals must consume something else, either plants or other animals, to get their energy.
  3. Decomposers: Many insects, microscopic animals, fungi, and bacteria get their energy by decomposing (or reducing) dead organic matter to its basic units, enriching the soil with nutrients.

Energy flows from the sun in the form of sunlight. While sunlight feels good on our skin, it doesn't feed our bellies. Plants, however, can take that sunlight and turn it into food! When we eat, we are in a way eating part sunshine. When we and other animals produce waste and eventually die, other, mostly microscopic, organisms may use the energy in our waste and dead bodies. This matter is reduced by decomposers and returned to the soil, where it may be used again by plants.

Energy is lost as it flows through an ecosystem. For example, not all the sun-light energy a plant receives is converted to chemical energy (i.e., carbohydrates). Some of it is wasted. Likewise, when mammals digest food they convert some of it to heat, which is irretrievably lost to the universe.

Matter, on the other hand, is conserved and recycled. The atoms that make up the molecules of living things have always been on Earth and will always remain here-as long as we don't blast them into space! The atoms and molecules in your body may have been in a Tyrannosaurus rex 65 million years ago (and might be in a cockroach scientist 65 million years from now)!

ecosystem parts

See "Additional Resources" below for more information on the ecology of Craters of the Moon.

From the Teacher's Guide to Craters of the Moon.



Additional Resources

Ecology of Craters of the Moon