Get a close hands-on look at an ecosystem in the palm of your hands. Explore the predator-prey relationships with owl pellets and give your students a memorable learning experience!
This article will include everything you need to prepare and carry out a successful owl pellet dissection lab.
Grades: 3-5, 6-8
Like many birds, owls eat and digest their food by swallowing it whole. Owls have many kinds of prey ranging from rodents to smaller birds, and their bodies are not capable of fully digesting the bones, fur, and feathers that get swallowed. How do owls take care of this problem? They vomit them back up. Any remains of an animal that cannot be digested get regurgitated back up into a thick pellet, and the contents of these pellets can tell us a lot about an ecosystem.
Owl pellets are popular for classroom dissections and are easy to purchase and use. Many companies supply owl pellets in bulk to classrooms, a few of which are linked below:
- Carolina Biological Supply Company
- Pellets Inc.
- Fischer Scientific
- Owl Brand Discovery Kits
- Forestry Suppliers
What You’ll Need
In order to provide your students with a safe and enriching experience, the following items are recommended. These items are a low-budget alternative to the more expensive tool kits that can be purchased.
- owl pellet
- paper towels/newspaper
- latex gloves
- Ziploc bags
- bone chart
- lab report worksheet
What to Do
A few notes:
- Before completing the activity with your class, you should introduce the activity to your students and tell them what they can expect from the experiment. Some students may not want to participate in the dissection, so alternative roles should be provided that still includes them in the activity.
- In my own experience, students who do not want to dissect the pellets themselves enjoy reading the bone chart and interpreting the bones that their classmates extract.
- The pellets have a bit of an odor, so warn your students before opening the pellets
- Reinforce lab safety rules before handing out materials
How to dissect the pellet:
- Review lab safety guidelines and put on latex gloves. Students with longer hair should tie their hair back.
- Open the packaging and observe the outside of the pellet. Make any observations on the lab report worksheet.
- Gently pull apart the pellet into smaller pieces. Use a toothpick or tweezers to pick out small bones and feathers. Some pellets are thick and may need a firm pull in order to tear it apart.
- Separate and sort bones on the table. Group similar bones together and make careful observations of the contents.
- Take the bone chart and begin to identify bones within the pellet. Teamwork is encouraged to induce the species of the bone.
- When dissection is complete and bones have been identified, place bones into a Ziploc bag.
- Discard the remains of the pellet and clean the lab station.
5-LS2-1 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
- Develop a model to describe the movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment.
Disciplinary Core Ideas
LS2.A: Interdependent Relationships in Ecosystems
- The food of almost any kind of animal can be traced back to plants. Organisms are related in food webs in which some animals eat plants for food and other animals eat the animals that eat plants. Some organisms, such as fungi and bacteria, break down dead organisms (both plants or plants parts and animals) and therefore operate as “decomposers.” Decomposition eventually restores (recycles) some materials back to the soil. Organisms can survive only in environments in which their particular needs are met. A healthy ecosystem is one in which multiple species of different types are each able to meet their needs in a relatively stable web of life. Newly introduced species can damage the balance of an ecosystem.
LS2.B: Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems
- Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die. Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment.
MS-LS2-3 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
Disciplinary Core Ideas
LS2.B: Cycle of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems
- Food webs are models that demonstrate how matter and energy is transferred between producers, consumers, and decomposers as the three groups interact within an ecosystem. Transfers of matter into and out of the physical environment occur at every level. Decomposers recycle nutrients from dead plant or animal matter back to the soil in terrestrial environments or to the water in aquatic environments. The atoms that make up the organisms in an ecosystem are cycled repeatedly between the living and nonliving parts of the ecosystem.