Duration: 30 to 60 minutes
Vocabulary: identification, habitat, deciduous, coniferous, evergreen
Summary: Students learn about forest habitat and how to identify local trees.
Objectives: Students will gain a deeper understanding of how and why forests provide an important habitat. They will also learn how they can develop a more personal connection with the trees around them by honing their identification skills.
Materials: PA Native Tree ID booklets, tree identification worksheets, pencils, clipboards
About 25 – 30 % of the Earth is covered by forest. In Pennsylvania, about 62% of the state is covered with forest. All forests are made up of trees, but not all trees are the same! Trees are divided into two main types, deciduous and coniferous. Deciduous trees lose all of their leaves at once at some point during the year (in most cases, during the winter). Coniferous trees do not lose their leaves like this, and are mainly made up of the “evergreen” pine trees. Deciduous trees are also sometimes called “broadleaf” trees, because their leaves are wide compared to the needle-like leaves conifer trees have. In Pennsylvania, the forests can be made up of only coniferous trees, only deciduous trees, or a mix of both. Specifically, a little over half of the forested land in Pennsylvania is made of deciduous trees, while the other have is a mix of both.
Forests are very important habitats for plants and animals. Trees provide many of the components that make up a good habitat (which are food, shelter, and water). Trees provide shelter for animals/plants either in the branches, inside the trunk, or on the forest floor. For example, woodpeckers are a special kind of bird that can peck right through the bark on trees to find insects. After they are done, many other animals like squirrels, owls, raccoons, and possums dig out the trees further and live in them. Because of the order in which they do this, woodpeckers are called “primary excavators” and the other animals are called “secondary excavators.”
Trees also provide food. One of the most common trees in Pennsylvania is the Oak tree, and this tree produces acorns! Squirrels, grouse, wild hogs, and other animals eat these as food. Animals eat other tree seeds as well.
Ask students to think of a tree they know. It could be at their home, in the schoolyard, or in a favorite vacation place. What do they remember about it? What kind of animals might live in their tree? Do they, by any chance, know what kind of tree it was?
What tree names have they heard before? How do they think the trees get those names, and how do people tell them apart?
Have students get into groups of 2 or 3. Hand out identification books, worksheets, pencils and clipboards to each group. Choose a tree to use as an example with students first. Explain that people can tell trees apart by looking at their leaves, fruit, and bark. The leaves are usually the most unique, however, so that is what is focused on here.
Help students decide first whether a tree is coniferous or deciduous. Basically, does it look like an evergreen tree or does it have broad flat leaves? Next, have students look closely at the leaves (choose a tree with low branches so students do not have to pull leaves off). What do the leaves look like? Do they have tiny little teeth around the edge, or are they smooth? Do they have different lobes, like fingers on a hand, or are they one oval. Do they come to a point or are they round? All of these are things scientists look for to help them determine tree types.
Next, show students how to look at the pictures in the identification guides and compare them to leaves. Next, send students to look at trees on their own. Have them look closely at the leaves to see how they differ from other trees, and then compare to those in the book. Have them make a list of trees they find.
Later, bring students back together to share what they found.
Optional: Students can have a competition to see who can get the most right answers, or answer the fastest.
Ask students why forests are a useful habitat for plants and animals?
Ask what kinds of things scientists look for to help them identify trees.
Take students to a different location and have them identify more trees there. Have them compare the types they find in each location.
Ask students why knowing the names of different tree kinds is even useful. How might we use this information?