Species Life Cycles: Match…or Mismatch?

Authors: Beth Bisson1, Medea Steinman2, and Esperanza Stancioff1,2

1Maine Sea Grant
2University of Maine Cooperative Extension

Grade level: 4-12

Themes: Phenology, animal and plant life cycles and life history

Activity type: Field observation and drawing

Setting: Classroom and outdoors


  • For two species that are dependent on one another, when and how do their life cycles intersect?
  • What might happen if one species or the other changes its timing?


This activity can be used independently or as an extension of the Signs of the Seasons Plant and Animal Life Cycle Drawings activity. Using those same procedures, students will draw life cycle timeline calendars for two species that are interdependent for food, pollination, reproduction, or habitat. (Examples include monarch butterflies and common milkweed or honeybees and wild blueberry.)

For this exercise, the life cycle drawing is stretched out in a line and matched to the dates on a calendar year.  (If you aren’t able to observe all phenophases, you can estimate, based on guidebook information). Students use SOS phenology observation protocols and data sheets to monitor the species on their school grounds or elsewhere in their community. They use their recorded data to develop a timeline of species’ phenophases.  Students learn field observation and data collection skills. They are encouraged to hypothesize and make predictions about species interactions and effects.  They may also share what they learn by giving presentations at school.

Education Standards

Next Generation Science Standards

Maine Learning Results (Science and Technology)

A1 Unifying Themes — Systems
Students explain interactions between parts that make up whole man-made and natural things.
6-8. Students describe and apply principles of systems in man-made things, natural things, and processes.
9-Diploma. Students apply an understanding of systems to explain and analyze man-made and natural phenomena.

A3 Unifying Themes — Constancy and Change
3-5 a.
Recognize patterns of change including steady, repetitive, irregular, or apparently unpredictable change.
6-8. Students describe how patterns of change vary in physical, biological, and technological systems.

B1 Skills and Traits of Scientific Inquiry
3-5 a.
Pose investigable questions and seek answers from reliable sources of scientific information and from their own investigations.
6-8. Students plan, conduct, analyze data from, and communicate results of investigations, including simple experiments.

C1 The Scientific and Technological Enterprise — Understandings of Inquiry
3-5 a.
Describe how scientists answer questions by developing explanations based on observations, evidence, and knowledge of the natural world.
9-diploma. Students describe key aspects of scientific investigations: that they are guided by scientific principles and knowledge, that they are performed to test ideas, and that they are communicated and defended publicly.

E2 The Living Environment — Ecosystems
Students describe ways organisms depend upon, interact within, and change the living and non-living environment as well as ways the environment affects organisms.
6-8. Students examine how the characteristics of the physical, non-living (abiotic) environment, the types and behaviors of living (biotic) organisms, and the flow of matter and energy affect organisms and the ecosystem of which they are part.

Learning Objectives

  • Students learn about the life cycles and life history of local plant and animal species.
  • Students learn about the timing of individual species’ life stages.
  • Students practice making observations in the field and collecting and recording data.
  • Students practice critical thinking and hypothesis and prediction.
  • Students gain experience collaborating and communicating with their peers towards a common goal.

Expectations and Misconceptions: It’s important to mention to students that variability is normal in the natural world. If they do not see changes when they expect to, or among all individuals of the same species, they should be cautioned against leaping to conclusions. Encourage them to think carefully about what they have observed and consider as many explanations as possible.


  • Signs of the Seasons Field Guide and species list
  • USA-National Phenology Network Nature’s Notebook data sheets

Note: see Resources section below for links to these items on the Web

And, depending on what species will be monitored:

  • Field kit materials as needed (flagging tape, plant markers, marker pen, hand lens, etc)
  • Bird seed and feeders
  • Identification guides
  • Science notebooks
  • Whiteboards
  • Binoculars, digital camera
  • Computer and internet connection

Time Needed

  • Two 30-40-minute class periods for class discussion and planning
  • 10-20 minutes, on a weekly basis, over an extended period of weeks or months to record data on datasheets in the field
  • 10-20 minutes to record observations in logbook after each outing
  • 30-40 minutes to plan and begin creating the timeline calendar
  • Two 30-40-minute class periods to finalize the calendar and write up summary of any conclusions or findings
  • One 30-40-minute class period for presentation(s) of findings and group discussion

Activity Procedure

(See the Resources section below for links to SOS/NPN websites and materials)

  1. Visit the Signs of the Seasons website to get a copy of the SOS Field Guide, see the SOS species list, and learn how to sign up as an SOS phenology observer.
  2. Decide which pair of species your group will observe.
  3. Decide on when and how to collect the data. If you will be observing a number of different species, you may wish to assign small teams to keep track of 2 or 3 species each.
  4. Follow the SOS protocols in the Field Guide for selecting a site and marking any individual plants you are observing; establish a schedule and system for making regular observations.
  5. Ask students to establish a science notebook or journal to be used in the course of this project. Talk about basic information that should be included in a science-minded journal.  This depends on the activities and research but might include things like dates, weather information, careful observations of species, phenophases, behavior, predictions and hypotheses, drawings, samples (pressed leaves or flowers) or notes about the process and any limitations.
  6. Use SOS/USA-National Phenology Network (NPN) Data Sheets to record your observations.  Establish a plan for logging your data into the NPN online database, Nature’s Notebook, and make sure the data are added to the database. Instructions for how to do this can be found in the SOS Field Guide, and on the Nature’s Notebook website.
  7. When phenophase changes are observed, or when anything notable occurs, record these observations through notes and photographs and drawings. These could be used later to embellish your life cycle timeline/calendar.
  8. Guide the students in a discussion about what their field observations and investigations have turned up. What happened with respect to timing of phenophases? What do the findings tell them with respect to ecology and climate in their locale?
  9. Make predictions about what might happen if the one species or the other changes the timing of its phenophases.
  10. Make plans to present the life cycle drawings and the findings to other student groups. Help your students think about how to share their findings and discuss their experiences and observations.

Reflection/Formative Assessment Ideas

Reflection: Ask participants to reflect on their field experience, the data collection system, and the preparation of the timeline. Reflect on what worked well and what they could do differently next time. Ask them to talk about any ways their expectations about the timing of their species’ phenophase changes were or were not met. Can they speculate about possible reasons or causes?

Formative assessment: Collect the students’ science notebooks or journals to see how well they recorded their observations and understood the process and the data they collected. Do they seem more comfortable with the process of making observations and collecting data in the field? Save examples of student work for reference the next time you try this activity.

Extension Ideas

Try to find historical phenology data for these same species and compare your life-cycle calendar with that information.  [Note: SOS staff may be able to help you find historical information. Contact the staff to ask about this.]

Ask students to conduct research in the library about this topic. Can they find stories about species pairings? If so, ask them to learn about those relationships and make predictions about what might happen if either species changed its timing. Can they find examples where mismatches in timing are known to be occurring? What causes are attributed to this? [SOS may also be able to help point you to articles and stories.  Contact us for more information].


Getting set up with Signs of the Seasons:

To get started, follow instructions in the Field Guide for selecting a site and choosing species and individual plants to observe. Then register an account with Nature’s Notebook. Once you do that and enter your site(s) and species list, you’ll be able to access the Data Sheets for downloading and printing. These can be used outdoors when recording your observations.

For assistance contact:

Esperanza Stancioff, Climate Change Educator
University of Maine Cooperative Extension/Maine Sea Grant
207.832.0343; 1.800.244.2104 (in Maine); esp@maine.edu

Beth Bisson, Assistant Director for Outreach and Education
Maine Sea Grant College Program
207.581.1440; beth.bisson@maine.edu

Signs of the Seasons Partners