1. Engage students' interest through a comparison of their immediate ecosystem, the Amazon rain forest, and the Sahara desert.
Ask students to identify characteristics of the biome in which they live (e.g., temperature, precipitation, vegetation, and animal diversity). Have students compare the general characteristics of their biome with those of the Amazon rain forest and Sahara desert. Ask: How does the average annual precipitation likely differ between these areas? How might the amount of precipitation affect the amount or type of plants growing in each area? Then project the MapMaker Interactive Abiotic Factors in Virunga National Park on a screen and select the bookmark Precipitation in the Amazon and the Sahara. During this time, if students are unfamiliar with the MapMaker Interactive, point out some of the basic features like the legend on the side of the map and the bookmarks at the bottom of the map. Also practice zooming in (+) and out (-), and note how this changes the map scale. Select the magnifying glasses for the Amazon rain forest and then the Sahara desert. Have students compare average rainfall and images of each area. Emphasize geographic distance between each area. Confirm that in this example, the area receiving more rainfall (i.e., the Amazon), has greater plant growth. This will demonstrate a connection between the abiotic and biotic factors of biomes. Reinforce the connection between abiotic and biotic factors using a local, personally relevant example (e.g., precipitation and vegetation differences across their state or region). Tell students they will evaluate how abiotic factors can influence plant diversity even within a single national park.
Check for students’ understanding of concepts and ability to collect, interpret, and communicate information by attending to their thinking during discussions and assessing their worksheets with the answer keys provided.
Extending the Learning
- Have students read “The Battle for Africa’s Oldest National Park” in order to learn more about the human activities threatening Virunga’s mountain gorillas. Summarize the primary threats and propose possible solutions. Ask students to discuss how the threats to mountain gorillas are similar or different compared to those experienced by wildlife in their own country.
- Have students predict how the vegetation zones throughout Virunga National Park will likely shift in the future due to climate change, given increasing average global temperatures and changing precipitation levels. Over the past century, for example, vegetation has begun moving up mountain slopes (i.e., toward higher elevations) where temperatures are cooler. However, plant migration tends to take time since seeds are usually dispersed by wind or animals, and some plant species have slower growth rates. Climate change will also cause some areas to become drier or wetter, thereby altering an abiotic factor important for determining vegetation zones. Ask students to predict what might happen to the mountain gorilla population if the types of plants they eat are unable to migrate to more suitable habitats.
- Have students read “Zoologist Dian Fossey: A Storied Life With Gorillas.” Identify Dian Fossey’s specific area of gorilla research and draw similarities between Fossey’s work and that of Jane Goodall, who studies the social interactions of chimpanzees. Highlight Fossey’s use of novel research methods (e.g., she engaged gorillas rather than sitting and observing their behavior). Then ask students to outline, in general, the possible advantages and disadvantages of using novel research methods to further scientific understanding, citing examples where possible.
Subjects & Disciplines
- use MapMaker Interactive to compare and contrast mean annual precipitation, elevation, and temperature at three locations within Virunga National Park
- identify the type of vegetation zone at three locations based on variations in abiotic factors
- explain how abiotic factors influence the distribution of vegetation zones
- deduce which location mountain gorillas inhabit based on dietary and habitat requirements
21st Century Student Outcomes
- Information, Media, and Technology Skills
- 21st Century Themes
Critical Thinking Skills
Science and Engineering Practices
- Analyzing and interpreting data
- Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering)
Connections to National Standards, Principles, and Practices
National Geography Standards
- Standard 1: How to use maps and other geographic representations, geospatial technologies, and spatial thinking to understand and communicate information
- Standard 8: The characteristics and spatial distribution of ecosystems and biomes on Earth's surface
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.1.: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of science and technical texts, attending to the precise details of explanations or descriptions.
- CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.9-10.1: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9-10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
ISTE Standards for Students (ISTE Standards*S)
- Standard 3: Research and Information Fluency
Next Generation Science Standards
- HS-LS2-6.: Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.
What You’ll Need
Materials You Provide
The resources are also available at the top of the page.
- Internet Access: Required
- Tech Setup: 1 computer per small group, Presentation software, Projector
Students will participate in whole class discussions and paired work, which will require a physical space that allows for uninhibited transitioning between activities.
- Heterogeneous grouping
This activity is intended to be conducted in two 50-minute class periods. Day 1: Students explore the map, analyze variations in abiotic factors, and construct an explanation about the influence of abiotic factors on the distribution of vegetation zones (Steps 1-3). Day 2: Students deduce the vegetation zone that provides habitat for mountain gorillas and consider why mountain gorillas do not inhabit all areas of the park with this vegetation type (Steps 4-5).
Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covers 7,800 square kilometers (3,000 square miles) and is the oldest national park in Africa. The park is located along the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the center of Africa’s Albertine Rift. Tectonic activity produced a chain of eight volcanoes known as the Virunga Massif, which runs through the southern section of the park. Mounts Nyamuragira, Nyiragongo, and Mikeno are among the seven volcanoes located fully or partially within the park. The park is bordered by Rwanda and Uganda to the east.
Even within the relatively small area, certain abiotic factors vary considerably across Virunga National Park. Elevation above sea level ranges from 680 meters (2,230 feet) to over 5,000 meters (3 miles) due to the presence of volcanoes. Annual rainfall also varies considerably, with some areas receiving as little as 500 millimeters (20 inches) of rain each year, and others as much as 3000 millimeters (118 inches). The park contains an immense diversity of vegetation types, or zones, from savannas and marshland to montane forests and lava plains. As a result, it also has a remarkable diversity of animal species. Many of these species are classified as rare, endangered, or endemic species, like the okapi (Okapia johnstoni) and mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). Only about 700 individual mountain gorillas remain in the wild and nearly one quarter live within the boundaries of Virunga National Park.
The exceptional biodiversity of the park is constantly threatened by human activity within and around the area. Militia members and poachers operate within the park. While there is little direct poaching of mountain gorillas, they can be caught by traps set for other animals. Habitat loss is another threat to mountain gorillas. Inside and around Virunga National Park wild habitat is converted to agricultural land and areas for livestock. Trees are also illegally cut down and burned in order to produce charcoal. The high demand for charcoal which is used for heating and cooking has led to widespread illegal logging and habitat loss.
- Recognition and understanding of ecosystem diversity on a global scale (i.e., biomes)
- Basic understanding of plant biology, primarily the general processes of transpiration and photosynthesis
- Basic knowledge of abiotic factors and their variability, including precipitation, elevation, and temperature
- Understanding that various human activities have endangered species through habitat degradation and loss
- Ability to collect and analyze evidence from multilayered maps and data points
- Ability to construct explanations using scientific reasoning that is supported with evidence
Recommended Prior Activities
lacking or absent of life.
all the different kinds of living organisms within a given area.
to identify or arrange by specific type or characteristic.
community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.
height above or below sea level.
species that naturally occurs in only one area or region.
process by which plants turn water, sunlight, and carbon dioxide into water, oxygen, and simple sugars.
all forms in which water falls to Earth from the atmosphere.
type of tropical grassland with scattered trees.
capacity of soil to sustain plant growth.
evaporation of water from plants.
all the plant life of a specific place.
altitude, soil, and precipitation region in which a plant best survives.