Activity: Habitat Field Work

Summary: Observe, collect environmental data and describe an aquatic site near school using a field notebook.

You Need:


Part 1

Begin with a group discussion on fish habitat.

  • Ask students to list what fish need in order to survive and how they use those components.
    • For example, basic needs include food, water and shelter. Shelter is used for protection from predators and for spawning.
  • Ask students to name some different types of aquatic habitats where fish can meet their basic life needs. Answers might include lakes, ponds, rivers and small streams. How might these habitats vary? (Water might be warm, cold, fast moving, sluggish, turbid, clear, etc.)
  • Explain that flowing water contains more oxygen than still water. Fish are very sensitive to the amount of dissolved oxygen available.
  • Using the Aquatic Habitat Data worksheet, discuss examples of common Great Lakes fish and their preferred habitats. Ask if students are familiar with these fish. Do they know of other examples?
  • Introduce the concept of indicator species. Explain that the presence of some organisms such as mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies indicates good water quality, an important part of healthy fish habitat. Note also that the number and type of aquatic plants (which form the base of the aquatic food web) can indicate health of a stream, river, pond or lake.
  • Ask if students are familiar with an aquatic habitat near their home or school. Have them describe its main characteristics.
  • Explain to students that they’ll be visiting a nearby aquatic area (river, pond, marsh, drainage ditch, etc.) to examine the habitat, record their observations (field data), and make predictions about what fish might live there.

Part 2

  • Create groups of three to four students. Distribute field notebook pages. Help students select roles:
    • Note taker: records observations
    • Observer(s): relays information to note taker
    • Illustrator/photographer: sketches or photographs key characteristics of the aquatic habitat.
    • Data analyst: creates simple table or graph using data collected.
  • Have the groups visit a nearby aquatic site, taking the field observation worksheet with them.
  • Each student completes his or her task within the group, recording and/or illustrating characteristics of the aquatic habitat.
  • Encourage students to record as much detailed data as they can. For example, if applicable, estimate the number of aquatic plants, or the number of different aquatic organisms.
  • Numerical data can be used later to create a simple table or graph.

Part 3

  • Return to the classroom and have groups complete their field data worksheets. Remind them to use the examples of common fish and their habitat to make a prediction about what fish species might favor that particular habitat.
  • Write the prediction on the field notebook page.
  • Have the groups share their field notebooks and observations with the class. Did any groups see fish or other living organisms? Remind students that the presence of some organisms can be used as water quality indicators.
  • If no aquatic organisms were seen, what do students predict might live there based on the physical characteristics of the site? Emphasize how much we can learn about a particular habitat by making careful observations.
  • Finally, discuss any factors that may be impacting or altering the habitat, such as proximity to roads or buildings (which might increase runoff), and what steps could be taken to lessen or mitigate these impacts.
    • Examples might include creation of grassy buffer zones to filter urban runoff, shoreline restoration projects that replace concrete banks with natural materials and native plants (soft engineering), or working with local watershed groups to post informational signs to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Activity Extension

Invite a local fisheries scientist or watershed expert to speak to the class about what is known about the particular habitat visited by the students. For larger rivers and water bodies, scientific assessments can often be found online that document major fish species and historic range. Compare the results with the student predictions.

See: MDNR Fish Atlas

For older students: Use three-dimensional modeling software to create a virtual habitat that includes environmental threats. Discuss possible mitigations to offset the threats.


Jim Diana, Professor of Natural Resources, School of Natural Resources and Environment and Associate Research Scientist, Center for Great Lakes & Aquatic Sciences, University of Michigan College of Literature Science and Arts; and graduate students from Professor Diana’s 2007 course, Biology and Ecology of Fishes.