Scattered among the ancient Elms and fever trees of our fair seaside village, Oh Best Beloved, lives a pleasant and fruitful tree known as the Rotini. You would recognize its fruit, as it is named after the corkscrew seedpods it drops to the grass below. It is a common tree, its leaves most similar to the Red Maple. You would recognize this tree as it no doubt thrives outside your school too.
The Rotini seedpods can be found covering the ground beneath its branches at all times of the year, depending on locale and climate—before the full moon of September, for instance, here in Maine. In our longitude, the Jub-Jub beetles feed on them and lay their eggs beneath the roots of the tree. They must work fast, for the beetles themselves are the favorite source of energy for the local moles, who furtively feed and grow fat for the winter, stashing Rotini seeds in their burrows well below the frost. Furtive, I say, because the moles are the favorite food of the Jub-Jub Owls, a rare species that hunt hereabouts by night, swooping in the gloaming and snatching unwary moles like an invisible hand.
The most fortunate and plump owls have no predatory consumer, though from time to time they must range far and wide to the bigger fields to hunt, and the moles breathe easy—if only for a short while. The beetles, however, must take greater care because the moles are more brazen. The rotini just drop from their branches in the wind, regardless of beetle, mole, or owl.
Ask any of our 5th or 6th grade science students: this is the fantastic story of energy moving upward along a food chain. They know this because they too inhabit the educational commons...and they have simulated the lives of its owls, moles, and beetles. They are part of a school learning web: an intellectual ecosystem that encompasses math facts and French vocabulary and the feeding habits of local flora and fauna. And they have roamed the land of the Rotini trees in a simulation of the rotini-beetle-mole-owl food chain.
As with any food pyramid, as, for instance, phytoplankton turning into seagulls, it’s all about energy ascending from producers to higher and higher order consumers. In this case, it’s all about rotini turning into owls. Though there are only two owl “lives” to be maintained in this chain, they must each eat the equivalent of a whole #10 can of rotini to survive. For each mole to sustain itself, it must fill a pint container with rotini energy—obtained by feeding on the lowly beetle. And each beetle must fill an 8 ounce-cup with rotini, foraged from the ground beneath the trees. Owls and moles feed at night; beetles feed 24-7. Will the Jub-Jub Owls become an endangered species, or be forced to relocate in order to feed elsewhere? Not if they can catch enough moles. But will the mole population survive on the available beetles? Only if there is sufficient rotini collected by the beetles. After the kids drew their designated species lot in life at random, we let the feeding frenzy begin!
Charlotte and Colette perched in their owl “nest” on the monument with their empty #10 cans, awaiting darkness and the signal to swoop. The moles clustered around the flagpole eyeing their prey—and pondering life as the preyed-upon. The beetles, all eight of them, were blissfully picking rotini from the grass, but fearing “dusk.” As author Cherie Mason puts it, “Everybody’s somebody’s lunch.”
By the time the moles descended upon them, the beetles were well fed. And the moles were surviving quite nicely, thank you, when the owls took off. But moles can be a handful for an owl, when they cut and run. A container full of rotini may slow them down, but they do not want to die...nor die out. In fact, everyone in the simulation was highly motivated to feed. Which means that the rotini was also providing energy for that learning web, feeding the students’ understanding as well as beetles, moles and owls.
Despite there being sufficient rotini to maintain two Owl lives, hunting proved difficult. Moles were the most hard-pressed, since they were the species that were both predator and prey. The beetles made great sacrifices for the cause of the local ecosystem. Variables were introduced: open season on moles; reincarnation for beetles; and omnivorous diets for owls. Nature is nothing if not adaptive. And the kids concluded the experiment by thinking about next time, and how to adapt the simulation in order to explore more and more complex food chains and webs. What if humans were added? What would they feed on? Do humans have natural predators? Is climate change having a predatory effect on humans? A simulation game is a great way to explore all kinds of real-world scenarios.
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