Fish Tricks

What You Need


  • Classroom set of Fish Tricks
  • Photos of sea animals (see Planning Ahead)
  • Large poster board
  • Colored paper
  • Colored pencils, markers, crayons
  • Glue sticks
Fish Tricks


To compare and contrast the lives of fish, including the adaptations to their environments, to discover the diversity of life.


This lesson uses the book Fish Tricks: The Wild and Wacky World of Fish by Haude Levesque. This book is one of the finalists of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books and Films is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to Benchmarks for Science Literacy, students at this grade level should begin to connect information to make sense of the world around them. In this lesson, the students will begin to do just that. They will take what they know about living things and what is necessary for life and apply that to the life of fish. They will learn about deep sea-dwelling fish, learn about the differences between fish and other sea-dwelling organisms, and learn how the organisms have adapted to the environment.

In the first part of the lesson, the students will be exposed to the diversity of sea-dwelling organisms by viewing a short documentary about exploring one of the deepest points on Earth, the Mariana Trench. This will encourage the students to think of what adaptations living things have made to survive in the deep sea, but also what they must do to live at water level.

In the next part, students will learn about what makes fish unique from other creatures that live in the water. They will learn about different types of fish and scales. As a group, they will work together to ask, “What have fish done to adapt to their environment?” and “How does it compare to how humans have adapted to their environments?”

Students may see fish as a monolithic group, but after completing these activities they should begin to have a greater appreciation of the diversity of this group of organisms.

Fish Tricks uses simple language, examples, and colorful illustrations to explain how diverse and interesting fish are. They book starts with the five senses, then moves into how they adapt to the environment, and finally goes into fish “family” life. This lesson focuses on the first two but the last can be covered as well.

In order to do this lesson, students should already have an understanding of what natural selection is and its role in evolution.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.6-8.1Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts.
    Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; provide an accurate summary of the text distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.7
    Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation

Planning Ahead

Read the book Fish Tricks before presenting the lesson. If time allows, find a documentary on deep-dwelling sea creatures, or the life of an ichthyologist, to get a greater appreciation for how research is conducted for this field.

You should prepare a couple of things before starting the lesson. First, make sure you have a large poster board. Create two columns on it labeled, "Fish" and "Non-fish."

You'll need photos with names attached (or just names) of these animals: whale, dolphin, walrus, seal, otter, sea snake, turtle, octopus, squid, snail, jellyfish, anemone, coral, sponge, lobster, crab, mussel, clam, oyster, sea star, sea urchin, clown fish, flounder, shark, stingray, catfish, seahorse. Have something sticky on the back. You can use a site like Arkive to find photos.

Second, use the Fish Tricks teacher sheet to make index cards for the various fish tricks described in the book. Students will use these cards in the Assessment. 


To engage students in this lesson, students should watch one or two videos about life in the deep sea. Students are probably well aware of many types of fish, including sharks, stingrays, and Nemo (aka clown fish), but do they know about the fish that live deep on the ocean floor?

Before they watch the video, prime students by explaining that the deep sea is located more than 650 feet below sea level (roughly two football fields in depth). The area highlighted in the videos, the Mariana Trench, is equivalent to 101 football fields, or 65 Washington Monuments.

Ask them:

  • What do you expect to feel, see, or hear at these depths?

Now students should use their Fish Tricks student esheet to watch one or both of these videos to gain a greater appreciation of fish diversity:

Once students have watched the video(s), lead a class discussion on these deep-water fish. Ask the students:

  • What do the deep-sea fish look like?
  • How does the environment impact the adaptations of the deep-sea fish?
  • Describe the environment.

Typical answers can be found at Creeps from the Deep resource from Ranger Rick. If possible, show visuals like the images on this page to the class to help wrap up the discussion.


Now students should read pages 6-11 in Fish Tricks (through “What is a fish?”) to get a “fish” foundation. One common misconception that students have is that all organisms that live in the sea are fish. To help overcome this misconception and to drive home the diversity of life, have students separate sea dwelling organisms into “fish” and “non-fish” groups.

As the students are reading the book, pull out the poster board labeled “Fish” and “Non-Fish.” After students have finished reading, hand out the photos of animals that you prepared ahead of time to students. It might be helpful to split the students into groups (to move the activity along). Each group should decide whether their creature belongs on the “fish” or “non-fish” side.

Use the Fish Tricks book as a guide to categorize “fish” and “non-fish” (See pages 10-13). You also can consult Fish from the National Museum of Natural History for more examples of fish. Explain to the students that different creatures can share similar environments. Summarize the main characteristics of fish (have gills, fins, scales, and vertebral columns).


One common misconception that students may have is that fish may be considered homogenous in activity; the assignment described below will help clarify this misconception. Students will see and hear about how fish have adapted in different ways to their environment, highlighting organism diversity.

Activity: Each student should receive an index card with "tricks” listed on it. Working in groups of two or three, students should read the corresponding passages in the book, and create a Venn diagram comparing the fish that use those tricks on their index card with fish that use different tricks. The purpose is to illustrate the many ways in which fish have adapted to their environments and how natural selection selects what fish live in the environment. Additionally, students should begin to understand the importance of collaborative work. You may want to assign the tricks to which the students should compare the ones they have on their index card.

Before students begin the activity, give an example of what is expected for the assignment. You can read the “Mouth Tricks” (page 72) section from the book to the class. After reading that section, draw a table and label one column “Mouth Tricks” and the other “Moving Tricks” (page 74). Ask students to name the different activities listed in the passage (students can raise their hands for this).

Some Mouth Tricks examples may be:

  • Some males and females protect fertilized eggs in their mouths
  • Young fish are allowed to leave the protective area of the parent’s mouth
  • Parents rein in the young fish when danger is around
  • The parents do not eat until the fertilized eggs have hatched
  • Some parents build nests for the fertilized eggs
  • Mucus can be released by some parents to feed the young fish

Then have them directly contrast what Mouth Tricks fish do with what Moving Tricks fish do.

  • Do the banded acara hold fish in their mouth?
    (They don't but how do they protect fertilized eggs? The female lays its sticky eggs on loose leaves. Both parents choose the leaf.)
  • Does the fish eat before the eggs hatch?
    (Yes, but the parents take turns leaving the eggs to feed or chase away predators.)
  • What do the banded acara do when they sense danger?
    (If a predator gets too close, they protect the fertilized eggs by moving the leaf.)

Students should start to realize that while the protective environment is different, the outcomes are similar for both kinds of fish.

Now draw a Venn diagram and label one circle Mouth Tricks and the other Moving Tricks. Ask students what the biggest difference is. They should bring up the protective environment. You can write in for Mouth Tricks: use mouth as a protective environment; for Moving Tricks: use outside of the mouth as a protective environment. In the middle circle, you can list all the other similarities (parent protects the young child/fish from danger).

Student Assignment

Separate the students into groups of two or three and provide them with the Fish Tricks student sheet. Tell them to use the class example of “Mouth Tricks” to complete each assigned trick found on the index card. Allow students 3-5 days to complete the assignment. They are expected to work together and should turn in a Venn diagram (on poster board/colored paper; with drawings if applicable) for each trick completed.

You should also provide students with the Venn Diagram Rubric from ReadWriteThink to help them think about what they should include in the diagram. You can use this rubric to assess students’ work.

As a wrap up activity, choose a trick from each group and have the students present their findings. After each presentation, ask the class what unexpected fact they learned about fish and display the colorful Venn diagrams around the classroom


You can extend on the learning in this lesson by guiding your students through Marine Sanctuaries, which helps students develop an understanding of diverse marine ecosystems and the problems they face.

FishBase is a global biodiversity information system on finfish. It has wide range of information on all species currently known in the world: taxonomy, biology, trophic ecology, life history, and uses, as well as historical data reaching back 250 years. The Fish Quiz on this site actually contains five separate quizzes on biodiversity, species, family, larvae, and fishsound. Students can test their knowledge of fish of doing one, or all, of these quizzes.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards