Field Trips

Life in the Extreme

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade

Craters of the Moon is one of the harshest environments on earth! Summer air temperatures can exceed 100°F. Solar heating of the black rocks can produce surface temperatures in excess of 150°F. In addition, little moisture falls during the growth period and it is quickly absorbed by the porous rock. Winter can be -30°F and bring several feet of snow. Despite these extreme conditions, the park is home to a wide diversity of plant and animal species:

  • >752 types of plants
  • 61 mammal species
  • >220 bird species
  • 10 reptile species
  • Thousands of different insect species
Experiencing, investigating and pondering how life survives and is interconnected with the physical environment should lead the students to the realization that even in an extreme environment, life finds a way! 
During their field trip, students will take measurements in the field, analyze their data, and develop hypotheses about how different micro-environments affect the distribution of plants and animals in the park. Students are also asked to communicate their understanding and attitudes about the park using graphics and language arts skills.

How does geology affect life?

Cracks in the lava form a kind of micro-habitat that provides a number of advantages for living things, particularly here in the high desert.
Shade reduces solar heating, provides shelter from the wind, traps moisture (even ice!) and soil. 

Wind-blown soil, or loess, provides an important growth medium for plants. 

Solar Heating
 can lead to temperatures that exceed 150°F on the surface of the dark lava rock. High temperatures may cause animals to alter their active periods from daytime (diurnal) to twilight (crepuscular) or night time (nocturnal). 

In summer, porous lava rock provides insulation and a cool refuge for heat-sensitive species like pika. In winter, temperatures beneath the lava and/or a thick blanket of snow provides the stable temperatures many animals need for hibernation (ex. bats, marmots and ground squirrels).
The lava rock provides den and nest sites for a variety of species. Bears have used lava tubes for den sites. Marmots den in rocky areas and many of our lava tubes contain pack rat middens and nests. Some lava tubes and cliff faces provide nest sites for great horned owls, violet green swallows, ravens,  mountain blue birds and prairie falcons.

A wide variety of other wildlife visit caves and waterholes in order to obtain water from melting ice. 


Equipment is available for loan from the park for use during your visit.

The equipment bag includes the following measurement tools:

  • anemometer (wind)
  • thermometer (temperature)
  • light meter (light)
  • carpenter's rule (distance)
  • measuring tape (distance)
  • hand lens (close up viewing)
  • humidiguide (humidity)
  • GPS (location)
In addition to this equipment students should utilize the attached Beaufort Wind Scale and Field Worksheets to estimate and record field data.

Pre-Visit Activities

Attend a "Life in the Extreme" teachers' workshop. Click the link to find out when the next workshop will be offered. 

(1) Utilize the  "Life on the Lava" presentation to introduce the geology and the interaction of life with the geology, the extremes life must cope with, and adaptations that enable life to survive here.

(2) During their field trip students will visit three habitats:  lava flow crackslava tube cave and  a cinder flat. Follow links to display each habitat type in the classroom and ask students to formulate some questions or hypotheses they hope to answer or test during their visit to the three habitats, for example:

  • Which habitat supports the greatest diversity of life and why? Students will find that Cinder gardens show the greatest diversity, largely because there is more soil (growth medium) and loose material like cinders that can be easily penetrated by plants to find nutrients and water. In turn the greater diversity of plants provides for a greater diversity of animal life. (Plant Life, Animal Life, Geology/Hydrology/Climate are all interrelated.) 
  • Is there a good or poor relationship between crack width and crack depth on the lava flow visited? The lava flow site visited does not show a good relationship between crack width and depth, but students should graph their data to find this out—see next question. 

  • What would a good relationship between variables look like when they are graphed? Each student group is going to make measurements of either three points along an individual long crack in the lava or from three different cracks in the lava flow habitat. Back in the classroom all the data from your groups should be plotted on a single graph. Either no relationship or a poor relationship between crack width and depth would produce a random pattern of points on the graph, while a good relationship would plot as an elongate cluster of points that a straight line could be drawn through. (The area visited is going to produce a random pattern.) 

  • How will light, temperature, and humidity vary with crack depth or in a lava tube? Why? Examples: Heat rises/ cold air settles--- Are rocks still retaining solar heating? ---Are rocks insulating? --- Are cracks or caves breathing? ---Does sun light penetrate? ---Is wind blocked? ---Is condensation forming? ---Does it hold ice or water? Observations and measurements as well as their educated guesses (hypotheses) or explanations will vary. 
  • What adaptations allow plants and animals to survive here? Plants are limited to physiological changes that assist survival, while animals because they can also change their behavior have both behavioral and physiological adaptations that aid survival. (e.g.: color influences how life absorbs or reflects light & heat or serves as camouflage; insulation—fat/coats/hair/feathers; antifreeze; estivation & hibernation; migration/escape/elevation change; hardening; armor; etc.) 

(3) During the field trip, students will be utilizing the Beaufort Wind Scale to estimate the wind speed. Prior to your visit it will be helpful to complete the following conversions. 

  • For a math exercise have students convert knots in the Beaufort Wind Scale to miles per hour; 1 knot = 1.15 mph.  
  • Students should make their own wind table on an index card using the "On Land" column. Mph, knots, or both units can be used. They should bring their wind scale card with them to use in the park. If the school has hand held anemometers students could couple wind measurements with the observed movement of additional objects/materials not found on the Beaufort Wind Scale and create their own observational wind scale, e.g., "The ___________ HS Wind Scale".  

(4) Contact park staff to arrange a date for a field trip to the park. This will ensure that equipment is available for your use and that a Park Ranger is available to assist. 




Download Life in the Extreme onsite materials