To study the natural world, scientists classify things, starting with living and nonliving things. Living things can be further classified into smaller and smaller groups to allow for easier study. The main classification of living things is in a specific kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. This system classifies living things based on their common ancestry, appearance, structure and even habitat.
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Living and Non-Living Things
Before breaking living things into specific categories, it's important to understand what makes it a living thing. This may seem obvious with large animals like elephants or easily recognisable plants like trees. However, when it comes to some organisms like lichens, fungi and even bacteria, there needs to be an understanding of what the difference is between living and nonliving things. A simple project for this is to make a diorama of five to 10 things and categorise them as living and nonliving. Suggestions for things to include are grass, a flower, a rock, dirt, an earthworm, a piece of metal and a fly. In general, living things grow, reproduce, consume energy, breathe and respire, feed and interact with the world around them.
Taxonomy is the science of classifying living things. Years ago, scientists classified all living things as plants or animals, but in the past few decades they have identified five different kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists and monera (also known as bacteria or prokaryotic life). Some scientists separate bacteria and other simple life forms differently, but for practical purposes most students only interact with plants, animals and sometimes protists and fungi. Because classification has changed over the years, students can make a chart or poster detailing the characteristics of life in the five kingdoms. This can then be compared to another chart on how scientists originally separated life into two kingdoms. Students can write an explanation as to why the number of kingdoms was increased based on their differences.
Animals were originally classified by their physical characteristics and behaviour. Students can assemble pictures of a variety of animals and classify them by how they look. Once they have separated the animals into groups, have them research how the animals are actually classified. To keep things interesting, add some animals that have convergent evolution (like fish and dolphin), in which their appearance and behaviour is similar because of their environment but they come from very different ancestry. Students can then explain how appearance and behaviour alone are not the best way to classify animals.
Vertebrates and Invertebrates
One of the most basic ways to classify animals is as vertebrates or invertebrates. Have students research the common characteristics of each, then build a model of each one. Have the students label the parts of vertebrate and invertebrate structures that show how they are different from one another. Then have students find pictures of examples of each type of animal and identify what makes it either a vertebrate or an invertebrate.
Take a trip to a zoo or a protected wildlife area. As students observe the different animals in their habitats, have them classify the animals into their phyla, orders and classes. Have the students take pictures or video of the animals they see. After the trip, use the pictures to make a scrapbook or edit together a video that demonstrates the differences among the different types of animals, including their descriptions and why they are classified this way.
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