Animal Diversity

What You Need


  • The Adventures of Marco and Polo, by Dieter Wiesmuller
Animal Diversity


To motivate and guide student observation of animal and plant similarities, diversity, and appropriateness to live in different environments; to show that stories sometimes give plants and animals attributes that they don’t really have.


This lesson exposes children to a wide range of animals and guides them through observation of animal similarities, differences, and environmental adaptations. This lesson can be used as part of a study of plants and animals. Before doing the lesson, students should know the meanings of the terms plant, animal, and living.

As Benchmarks for Science Literacy points out, “Observing is not enough. The students should have reasons for their observations—reasons that prompt them to do something with the information they collect.” Students should be encouraged to ask questions, to find answers by careful observation, and to compare their findings with those of other students. They can use their findings to create exhibits with photos, drawings, and even live specimens from the area where they live. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 102.)

Research shows that lower elementary students tend to consider only vertebrates as animals, or to group animals by similarities in external appearance, behavior, or habitat. Young students also define plant in a narrow way, failing to classify grass, trees, and vegetables as plants. In addition, these students "typically use criteria such as ‘movement,’ ‘breath,’ ‘reproduction,’ and ‘death’ to decide whether things are alive. Thus, some believe fire, clouds, and the sun are alive, but others think plants and certain animals are nonliving.” (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, pp. 340–341.) In their study of plants and animals, students should be guided to an understanding that internal structures and processes can be more significant than external features in classification.

Because this lesson includes only online observations, students also will need ongoing opportunities for hands-on observation (using hand lenses, if appropriate) with many kinds of living plants and animals in as many environments as possible. Also, because the main lesson concentrates only on animals, students will need similar lessons that deal with plants.


To introduce the lesson, present a living animal or plant as a hands-on classroom example. Ask students to talk about or draw things that they observe and share their observations with the class.

Ask students:

  • What do you see, hear, smell, or feel as you observe this plant/or animal?
  • How can plants/or animals be like each other?
  • How can they be different from each other?

Explain to students that they're about to see an online book with pictures of many animals. Their job is to observe things about these animals and to figure out how they are alike and different from each other. Another thing they will study is where these animals live and why they can live there successfully.


Using the Animal Diversity student esheet, present the Where Can Animals Live? online book to the class. Pause as each graphic is displayed and ask students the questions shown with the pictures one at a time. Encourage independent questions and discussion.

Stimulate students' thinking about the animals they're observing and why they live in certain places by asking questions such as:

  • Where does this [animal] live?
  • Do you think it could live in [somewhere different]? Why or why not?
  • Do you think [something else] also could live in this [animal's] environment? Why or why not?

As the class goes through the online book, students' answers will vary. Encourage them to focus on true similarities of the animals in relation to their environments. See the Where Can Animals Live? teacher sheet for sample student responses.


Ask a series of questions to tie together student observations during the lesson.

Ask students:

  • What are some ways in which all of these animals are alike?
  • How are they different?
  • What are some features that help animals live in cold environments? In hot environments? In forests or in the water?

To illustrate the main concepts of the lesson, read the book titled The Adventures of Marco and Polo by Dieter Wiesmuller. This story explores the life of a monkey (Marco) and penguin (Polo) that become friends. They visit each other's homes and decide that they'd like to live together. However, when they try to do that, they realize that they each have their own needs and need to live in their own environments.

Use this story (or another one like it) to illustrate ideas in the related benchmark for this lesson: "Stories sometimes give plants and animals attributes they really do not have."


Use the Animal Gallery of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park to extend student learning about animal attributes, similarities, differences, and environments. Choose the option View Slide Show and page through the photos. Since there are more than 30 photos in the slide show, you may want to limit the number of pictures viewed, depending upon the capabilities of the class. Ask questions about each animal and encourage students to offer their own questions and observations.

 Encourage students to choose a favorite animal from this lesson and then to carry out further research about it, using the sites listed above as well as books, videos, and web-cams. The Wildlife Facts section of the National Parks Conservation Association website can be used by older students to gather information about more than 25 wild animals. Students can report about their animals to the class.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards