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Did you know many animals need darkness to survive? In this fun activity students are introduced to the concept of light pollution and learn how artificial light at night affects wildlife.
Three traffic cones
1 copy of the pictures you will use under the traffic cones: 1 milky way, 1 deer, 1 picture of the ocean at night, and 2 small pictures of cities at night
Printed pictures of the sea turtle, bird and mountain lion (they can be used as visuals or 1 can be given to each student as they pretend to be that animal)
• Gather all materials.
• Choose your location, outside works well.
• Before leaving the classroom remind students what animals need to survive and teach your students about how light pollutions affects animal survival. Discuss each animal you will use in the activity.
You can lead a discussion using information provided in this lesson plan or
Use the PowerPoint located on the PowerPoint tab, or
Use videos located on the Video tab.
Background for Teachers
Just as food, water, shelter and space are essential for animal survival, darkness also matters. Some animals need darkness to hunt prey or forage. Breeding and nesting must be done in the dark for some species. And some animals migrate using the stars to guide them and tell them when it is time to travel.
Animals need a day and night cycle for their survival. Hundreds of thousands of years of dark skies have led animals to utilize darkness for migration, reproduction, foraging and safety. Recently humans have lit up the night. In the last century we have significantly altered the nighttime environment with electrical outdoor lighting. Unfortunately, this can confuse animals and sometimes jeopardize their survival.
In this activity you can use three animals to demonstrate different ways animals are adversely affected by light pollution. Students will learn the importance of darkness for reproduction, migration, and hunting.
1) Sea turtles live in the ocean but hatch at night on the beach. Hatchlings find the sea by detecting the bright horizon over the ocean. Artificial lights draw them away from the ocean. They can only stay on land for about 4 hours during the night but once the sun comes up they have a much greater chance of dying. If they follow the wrong light they quickly overheat from the sun or can be caught by predators like birds and crabs. Millions of hatchlings die this way every year.
2) Many birds migrate or hunt at night and navigate by moonlight and starlight. Artificial light at night can cause birds to wander off course. Birds often die by colliding with needlessly illuminated buildings and towers. Birds also get stuck and confused in city lights, using energy resources wandering around aimlessly. Migratory birds also depend on cues from properly timed seasonal schedules. Artificial light at night can cause birds to migrate too early or too late and miss ideal climate conditions for nesting, foraging and other behaviors.
3) Predators such as mountain lion are primarily nocturnal and hunt under the cover of night. They have an advantage by seeing over a greater area, and their prey must seek darkness and spend time hiding. Lighting changes the predator/prey relationship. The prey has less time to use for normal activities, while the preda-tor has a smaller range to hunt in, avoiding the bright lights of the city.
• Prepare a large open space, preferably outside. Place 3 cones, 1 with a picture of the ocean under it, and 2 with pictures of cities underneath, 20 feet away from where students will be starting.
• Remind students that for millions of years species on our planet evolved with the patterns of light and dark. Birds use stars to navigate, baby sea turtles find the sea by detecting the horizon over the ocean, and nocturnal animals use darkness to hide and hunt. What would happen if these animals didn't have darkness?
• Introduce the game to your students. In each scenario they will pretend to be an animal and will move towards one cone. Only 1 of the 3 cones will have what the animal needs to survive. Will they survive? Or will light pollution adversely affect their survival?
• Scenario #1 (Light pollution with baby sea turtles): Tell the students you're taking a long trip over to Florida. Florida has lots of big cities but it also has lots of beautiful beaches for sea turtles to lay their eggs.
• Have the students pretend to be a baby sea turtle. Have them practice pretending to be a hatchling from an egg. What do they look like? How do they crawl and swim? What are they scared of?
• Set up the scenario to start the activity. Ask students to pretend you're a baby sea turtle, who has hatched, and must follow light, such as the moon, to make it safely to the ocean. There are cities nearby with lots of bright lights. How do you know which way to go?
• Have students crawl to a cone hoping it is the ocean.
• Reveal the images underneath the cones. Ask the students what each image means. (The sea turtles that followed the city lights got confused and did not make it to the ocean before the sun came up. What might happen to them now? Those who reached the ocean cone were able to use the light coming from the horizon and made it safely into their ocean.)
• Send the students back to the starting point.
• Scenario #2 (Light pollution with mountain lions): Tell the students you're taking another trip not too far from your home town. You're in Great Basin National Park. This time you are a mountain lion. You have special eyes that let you see in the dark. You prey on animals by using the dark to hide in until it’s time to attack. If there were many lights around you, how would you get the food you need to survive?
• Use the 3 cones used in the previous scenario. Trade the picture of the night ocean for a picture of the deer. Mix the 3 cones up so students do not know which is which.
• Practice being a mountain lion. What do they look like when they stalk and kill their prey? How well do they see at night?
• It’s time to find some dinner. YUM! Have them leave their habitat in search of food. Let them again choose a cone.
• Once all the students have chosen a cone and decided which prey they would like to eat, reveal the images underneath. Ask the students what each image means. (The mountain lions which found the city lights got scared and went home without dinner. Those which chose the deer, successfully stalked their prey, pounced and grabbed their dinner for the night. They are grateful for the darkness.)
• Send the student back to the staring point.
• Scenario #3 (Light pollution with birds): You're in the Great Basin. This time you are a bird. You can be one of the 238 species of birds that spends part of it’s life in Great Basin National Park. Which would you like to be?
• Its becoming winter and getting cold. What do cold birds look like? It’s much warmer in South America. You decide to fly down there where there are more bugs to eat and much less snow.
• Using the same 3 cones, trade the picture of the deer for a picture of the milky way. Mix the 3 cones up so students do not know which is which.
• Have the birds (students) migrate to whichever cone they choose. Once all the students have chosen a cone and settled into there for their new winter habitat, reveal the images underneath. Ask the students what each image means. (The “migrators” that followed the city lights got “lost” and could not survive in the city. What issues might they have living in the city? Those who reached the milky way cone were able to use the stars and arrived safely at their destinations.)
Notes for Slides
1. How light affects wildlife. Animals need darkness to stay happy!
2. What is the difference between these 2 pictures? (Light pollution!). In a natural place without people, the sky is naturally lit up with stars. But when people move there, they change the night. For example in this picture. On the left is with the outdoor lights on. On the right is what the sky looks like with the outdoor lights off. Pretty amazing! Light pollution is simply lighting that is unnecessary, inefficient, overly bright, and not shielded. Light pollution affects our health, our view of the starry night sky, and the health of wildlife.
3. As a class create a list of things animals need to survive. Refer to lessons the children have already been taught about food, water, shelter and space. Many species also need darkness for purposes of reproduction, hunting, migration and protection.
4. Brainstorm what animals could need darkness to survive where you live. Animals that benefit from darkness at Great Basin National Park are bats, hundreds of songbirds, mountain lion, owls, fox, and even insects.
5. Explain a bit about the activity students will soon participate in. They will be pretending to be 1 of the 3 animals on the next few slides. They will crawl, fly, run, dance etc. over to a cone set a distance from them. Under 1 cone are the things that animal needs during the night, the other 2 cones have cities under them. These cities interfere with animals, so they don’t get the food, water, shelter and/or space that they need. They will be learning about how the light pollution is specifically affecting sea turtles, birds and mountain lions.
6. You might want to play one of the baby sea turtle videos to better help students understand how the city lights affect them. Ask student what they already know about sea turtles. Possible points of discussion: When its time for the females to lay eggs, they return to the same nesting ground where they were born. Their eggs look like Ping-Pong balls. They lay eggs at night and then 70-120 days later the eggs hatch during the cover of the night. Baby sea turtles have 4 hours to get from their nest to the ocean. They can hold their breath underwater for up to 5 hours. Some species can grow to weigh up to 2,000 pounds.
7. Ask students what they know about birds. Possible discussion topics: 20% of bird species migrate long distances every year. There are 10,000 different species of bird worldwide. Birds eat seeds, berries, fruits, insects, dead animals, fish and plants. They have hollow bones to help them fly.
8. Ask your students what they know about mountain lions. Possible discussion points: They are nocturnal (sleep during the day and are active at night). They need the darkness to hide as they stalk their prey. They are around 7-8 feet long and 2-3 feet tall. They mostly eat deer but sometimes eat raccoons, birds and small mammals. They do not roar like a lion but make calls like human screams. Kittens have black spots until they are about 6 months old.
9. Ways animals need darkness to survive…Signals that it’s time to migrate. Migration routes- knowing where to fly. Foraging or hunting- darkness creates cover for both predators and prey, many animals are nocturnal, darkness is their preferred time of activity. Reproduction- darkness hides babies. Following the light can lead infants to survival (sea turtles). Safety-Most animals use darkness for safety whether they are predators or prey.
10. There are many ways we can help our animal friends!
-Turn off your outdoor lights that don’t need to be on.
-Aim outdoor lights at the ground, don’t light up the sky!
-Teach your family and friends about the importance of darkness at night.
The following video can be stopped at 6:54 so as to only cover the section on wildlife