Movement And Mutualism: Modeling Ecosystem Interactions

Movement And Mutualism: Modeling Ecosystem Interactions

Grade Level

6 - 8


1- 2 hrs


Life Science

a golden, blue artwork with three outlines of gold bees flying towards a golden circle. in the corners are honeycombs
Dancing bees as depicted by Anishnabe artist Elizabeth LaPensée. Credit: Elizabeth LaPensée

a green post it pad with the words in white "edu collab"Pointed antlers bob up and down as the beautiful creature cuts blades of grass to eat, the quick flash of white from his tail the only visible sign that he’s there. When he’s full, the organism gracefully leaps through the field with an expression of freedom. Suddenly his big, wide-set eyes spot movement. With a turn of his oversized cupped ears and a quick snap of his neck, he looks toward the rustling of branches from the woods and smells the scent of a foe. He realizes that the furry animal he just saw is stalking him. In an attempt to escape, he uses his strong, lengthy legs to flee. Although he’s running, he continues to use his heightened senses to track the sharp claws and teeth following him. It seems as if the predator is going to catch him. As the pointed face of his opponent pounces at him, the deer gives one last effort, throwing his sharp hooves at the body of the attacking coyote.

This is a captivating story of a coyote hunting a white-tailed deer, right? Wrong. Above is a description of what you would see if you were watching a rendition of the Yaqui Deer Dance. Throughout history across various parts of the world, nature and movement have had significant influences on culture. In many traditional cultures, movement is said to bring life, and through this, the tales and teachings of the journey. There are usually differences in which organisms are represented in dances corresponding to the surrounding environment; however some similarities exist between the teachings they represent. The overall theme is that all of the natural world is connected and therefore should be valued and respected. There are many representations of nature found in dance including, moves and dance stories from traditional Native American, African, Hawaiian, Chinese, and Indian cultures. 

  • a man in traditional native american clothing performs acrobatic feats with six different spinning hoops

    In the Native American hoop dance, the performer uses many hoops to represent various organisms. To learn more about the hoop dance and its teachings, and see a performance, watch this TEDx Talk. Credit: devinsupertramp/YouTube

  • a large traditional white chinese lion puppet in a parade with lots of people

    The Lion Dance is a traditional Chinese dance in which the performers wear a lion costume and mimic the movements of a lion to bring good luck and fortune. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a black white photo of a woman in a grass skirt with her arms held out across her body traditionally hula dancing

    Hula dancing, first performed by Polynesians on the Hawaiian islands, contains many movements of nature including the swaying of trees in the wind and waves in the ocean. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • Bamileke dancers in camaroon dance in a circle in traditional costume

    The imitation of nature is present in many traditional African dances; for example the rhythm of waves, the whisper and thunder of an elephant’s walk, and the portrayal of cattle. Photo: Bamileke dancers, Cameroon, Wikimedia Commons.

  • a person wearing a bright orange ornate tiger costume, with a very fierce mask

    The Tiger Dance or “Puli Kali” is a traditional Indian dance performed mainly during harvest seasons. The performers dress as tigers, go door to door gathering their audience, and imitate tiger hunting in their dancing. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Even though traditional dances and teachings are less common today, it is important to acknowledge them and continue to learn from their teachings. In this STEAM learning experience, we will learn the science behind the relationships organisms have within ecosystems and create representations of them through culturally-relevant dance, honoring the past and carrying the teachings into the future.

Representing Nature Through Dance

In the 1900s, many popular dances imitating animals in the U.S. were seen as inappropriate and banned in the White House due to being “vulgar”. The turkey trot, for example, was said to be one of the worst of these dances since the performers were dancing from the hips up rather than the hips down. The dancer took hopping steps from side to side then flicking steps to imitate turkey behavior. The dancers also flapped their elbows up and down as a turkey would. So scandalous! How would you dance like a turkey?

People are still mimicking animals in dance today. The dance group Pilobolus is a perfect example. This group takes its name from the phototropic (light loving) fungus, pilobolus crystallinus. Every performance incorporates methods of the fungus—adventurous, adaptive, athletic, surprising, and revealing of beauty in unexpected places. Wynton Marsalis, a jazz trumpet player and composer, connected the behavior of various organisms to the music he composed. He then recruited a tap dancer and a “jooker” (street dancer) to embody the animals in the performance of “Spaces.”

dancers rolling in tandem on the floor
Credit: Kiki Jenkins via Youtube

In “Science And Art In Motion,” Science Friday’s Ira Flatow spoke with scientists and dancers who are interpreting their fields of study with dance. Kiki Jenkins, a dancer and marine conservationist, tells the story of saving sea turtles from fishing nets in one of her major dance projects. Emily Coates, director of Dance Studies at Yale University, and Sarah Demers, a physics professor at Yale, are working together to teach physics through dance to enhance the understanding of both contents as discussed in this TEDx Talk. Check out this dance they created from physicists talking about the Higgs Boson Model. You will continue in a similar fashion in this activity, representing organisms by applying your knowledge of adaptations & ecological interactions to create a dance of your local ecosystem.

For more research on learning and teaching through movement, refer to the following sources:
– ASCD: Teaching with the Brain in Mind
– KQED: Why Kids Need to Move, Touch and Experience to Learn
– Education Week: The Power of Movement in Teaching and Learning
– PBS Nova: Dancing to Learn…Science

Related Segment

Science In Motion

Representing A Niche Through Dance

The first step in using dance to convey ecology (or any other scientific concept) is creating a place where everyone feels safe expressing themselves creatively. We’ll call it a “dancing niche.”  A niche is a role an organism plays within its habitat. This role includes how an organism makes its living and how it interacts with the biotic and abiotic factors in its environment. For example, a panda’s niche includes their diet, almost solely composed of bamboo. It also includes spending much time eating, living near a water supply, not moving a lot, and living alone to avoid competition.

Before we get started, we need to be sure to create a dancing niche for you and your classmates. The dancing niche includes your interactions with peers, adults, and space itself so that everyone has the opportunity to learn. In the habitat of our classroom, we need to make sure that each organism is doing the following:

  1. Respectful of others’ dance moves, space, and ideas (no idea is a bad idea when it comes to creating!).
  2. Participating in every aspect of the experience (especially the dancing).
  3. Communicating positively (verbally and nonverbally).
  4. Being safe while having fun.

If we follow these guidelines, we will have a great time embodying our inner animal and getting our groove on.


– Honey Bee Waggle Cutouts (Black/White or Color), 1 set per group of 4-6 students
Student Guide, 1 per student (print or digital)
Rubric, 1 per group

Representing Adaptations Through Dance

An adaptation is an inherited characteristic that helps an organism survive and reproduce in its environment. The top ten animal adaptations according to Animal Planet can be seen here, including living in groups and the ability to fly. The adaptations that we’re going to represent fall into one of two categories:

  1. Physical Adaptations: body process or structural feature of an organism (ex. bird beaks)
  2. Behavioral Adaptations: action/response made by the organism (ex. birds migrating south in winter)

Be sure to put these definitions on your guide before continuing. All work from this point forward should also be recorded in your guide.

Let’s first test your skills in identifying adaptations represented in dance. 

Watch this video of an example of an Anishnabe fish dance.

  1. Identify two adaptations of fish that the dancers are representing.
  2. Determine if the adaptations are physical or behavioral.

Watch this video of an example of an Anishnabe swan dance.

  1. Identify two adaptations of fish that the dancers are representing.
  2. Determine if the adaptations are physical or behavioral.

Let’s start dancing by representing an easy adaptation. Have you ever heard of the honey bee waggle? When worker bees have found a good source of nectar, they will “waggle” in the direction of the flower compared to the sun to let the other bees know where it is.

a close up on a colony of honeybees. a dotted line forms as one of the bees performs their dance in a oval, before shaking its body
Worker honey bee telling others where to find a good source of nectar. Credit: Gfycat
  1. After watching this video explaining the phenomenon, gather materials from your teacher and set them up on the floor to match the diagram below. Teacher Tip: You could have the cutouts on the floor before the lesson to save some time.
  2. Practice the honey bee waggle by following the shapes. After you think you’ve mastered the dance, try it without the guide!
  3. Determine if your dance move represents a physical or behavioral adaptation. Justify your answer. Is your dance move representing a physical feature or an act of the organism?
  4. Explain how this adaptation helps the organism survive in its environment.
a student wiggles like a bee
Credit: Megan Sorensen
a colored diagram showing two ovals with various yellow hexagons along the edge of the oval paths. at the top hexagon where the two oval lines meet is the word "start". in the middle of the ovals is a squiggly line
Credit: Megan Sorensen


Not as hard as you thought, right? Let’s try something harder. Elephants’ trunks are adapted to smell, grab food, collect up to eight liters of water for showering, and make trumpeting noises. 

a baby elephant splashes in a pool of water, raising its trunk and flinging up water
Baby elephant using its trunk to shower while the adult uses its trunk to guide the baby. Credit: GIPHY
a closeup shot on adult elephants using trunks to lift up grass to mouth
Elephants using their trunks to move food from the ground to their mouths. Credit: GIPHY


  1. a boy in a gray sweater uses his arm to mimic the trunk of an elephant
    Credit: Megan Sorensen

    Decide how to represent the trunk of an elephant in a dance move.

  2. Determine if your dance move represents a physical or behavioral adaptation. Justify your answer. *Hint: Is your dance representing a physical feature or an act of the organism?
  3. Explain how this adaptation helps the organism survive in its environment.
  4. Be prepared to share your dance move and the type of adaptation with the class.


Let’s try representing another organism.

a brown grizzly bear holds on to a branch with two paws while moving its back up and down on a tree to scratch it
Grizzly bear using a tree to scratch its back. Credit: GIPHY
  1. Decide how to represent an adaptation of a grizzly bear. *Your dance can be more than one step.
  2. Determine the part of your dance move that represents a physical adaptation and the part that represents a behavioral adaptation. Justify your answer.
  3. Explain how these adaptations help the organism survive in its environment.
  4. Be prepared to share your dance move and explain how it represents the adaptations you chose with the class.
two girls jump up and down with their hands up like paws
Credit: Megan Sorensen

Teacher Tip: Make sure that you are circulating between groups while students are creating and practicing their dance moves. This allows you to assist students in the process and assess student understanding, especially if there isn’t time to share dance moves each time. You may also choose to have your students record their dances to showcase or review later.

Related Educational Resource

The 2019 Science Friday Educator Collaborative

Representing Ecological Interactions Through Dance

Adaptations can help an organism become better suited for its environment and survive interaction with other organisms. The types of interactions organisms have with other organisms include predation, competition, and symbiosis.


two students mimic a prey and predator. the student acting like prey hops along while a predator comes after her and jumps on her back
Credit: Megan Sorensen

Predation is an interaction in which one organism kills another for food or nutrients. In this type of interaction, the predator is the organism that does the eating, and the prey is the organism that is eaten. Credit: Megan Sorensen


In competition, two organisms attempt to use the same limited resources in the same place at the same time.

  • a forest of spruce trees

    Spruce trees grow tall to compete with other plants for sunlight while ferns produce many offspring in hopes that they will land in a well-lit area. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a microbe with a bunch of tiny cilia around its body. it's clear and you can see its internal organs

    Paramecium aurelia and Paramecium caudatum compete for the same nutrients when in the same environment. When together, P. caudatum out-competes P. aurelia for essential nutrients. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a small green lizard perched on a green branch

    Anole lizards compete with one another for resources on the island of Puerto Rico. So much, in fact, that different species of the lizard of evolved to take advantage of different resources. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a snowy scene showing a wolf on the left, a bunch of ravens on the ground in the middle, and a grizzly bear on the right. there's dead prey in front of the bear

    Wolves, ravens, and grizzly bears compete for food in Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a savannah scene with zebras, buffalo, and antelope around a watering hole

    Zebras, buffalo, and antelope compete for water in South Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Related Segment

Is Music A Shared Language?


a kid lifts up pretending to be a flower, while another student comes along flapping like a hummingbird and pretends to sip nectar using a long piece of rolled up paper
Credit: Megan Sorensen

In mutualism, both species benefit from the relationship.

  • a hummingbird drinks nectar from a pink flower

    The hummingbird drinks the nectar from the flower and the flower is pollinated by the hummingbird and able to produce offspring. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a clown fish is nestled in the protection of a purple shimmery anemone

    Clownfish live in sea anemones protected from predators while the anemone are cleaned and protected by the clownfish. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a closeup on a black ant on a blade of grass. it is surrounded by black aphids

    Some ant species herd aphids to eat the honeydew that they produce while the aphids are protected by the ants from predators. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a bird sits on top of the head of a deer

    Oxpeckers (birds) get food from eating ticks and other insect off grazing animals while these animals get rid of parasites. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a bunch of fish latch on the sides of a swimming shark

    Remora fish eat from the surface of sharks while the sharks are groomed by the remora fish. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


In commensalism, one of the species involved is helped and the other species is neither helped nor harmed.

  • a ,amta ray swimming in the ocean with other fish

    Bait fish are protected by the threatening size of the manta ray, but the manta ray is not benefited or harmed. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a large brown toad that is covered and camouflaged in brown foliage

    American toads take shelter in plants, however, the plants do not benefit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • five very prickly spherical seeds

    Burdock seeds stick to the fur of passing animals and grow new plants in other areas, but the animals that carry the seeds are not benefited. Credit: Max Pixel

  • a bird sits atop a large african buffalo

    Cattle egrets eat the insects stirred up by African buffalo while the buffalo doesn’t gain anything. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a squirrel peeks it's face from a small hole in a tree

    Squirrels take shelter in trees while the trees do not benefit. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


two kids demonstrating a parasitic relationship. one student is walking while another one goes and jumps on their back
Credit: Megan Sorensen

In parasitism one organism benefits by living with, on, or inside the other organism that is harmed. The organism that benefits from the relationship is the parasite and the organism that it lives on, in, or with is the host.

  • a close up of a tick with a white body

    Ticks burrow into the skin of other organisms and feed on their blood. Other organisms such as foxes can attempt to scratch them off in defense. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a small fish with a hole in its belly where two large tapeworms were in. the tapeworms are shown outside of the body. they are a creamy white and about half the size of the fish

    Tapeworms attach themselves to the digestive tract of organisms to feed on what they ingest which takes nutrients away from the infected organism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a closeup on a mosquito feeding on a human

    Mosquitoes feed on the blood of their host while the host loses blood and can get diseases from the mosquito. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a large crab belly up, with a large white parasite near its bottom

    Sacculina carcini, a type of parasitic barnacle, attaches itself to the reproductive organs of crabs feeding on it while preventing it from producing offspring. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • a microscopic slide. the view is purple with clearer spots indicating different cells. in the middle are two curled worms

    Heartworms are found in the heart and major blood vessels of their hosts, feeding on the blood of the host, eventually clogging blood flow in the host organism. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  1. List two organisms that interact to show each type of interaction in your local environment. *Your organisms should all be in the same ecosystem (forest for example).
  2. Describe an adaptation of each of the organisms that contributes to the relationship.
  3. Explain how each organism’s adaptation helps them survive.
  4. Develop a dance move for each of the adaptations you describe. *One person can represent an adaptation, or your group can work together to represent an adaption. For example, one person could represent a heron slowly stalking a fish through the water, then grabbing a fish with their beak (arm and hand) in a swooping motion OR you could choose to break this up into parts. In the heron example, one person could stalk the fish, another represents the swooping motion, and a final person could represent the snapping of the beak.
  5. Determine how your developed dance moves work together to represent the interaction between these organisms.

Teacher Tip: Make sure that you are circulating between groups while students are creating and practicing their dance moves. This allows you to assist students in the process and assess student understanding, especially if there isn’t time to share dance moves each time. You may also choose to have your students record their dances to showcase or review later.

Representing An Ecosystem Through Dance

Your final challenge is to develop a performance that incorporates the interactions that you represented in the previous section. 

  1. Determine how the organisms you chose to represent each type of interaction (predation, competition, mutualism, commensalism, parasitism) are related within your chosen ecosystem. *It might be helpful to draw a diagram or web to show these relationships.

    an animation showing an interconnected web between different animals, like bees, woodpeckers, toad, etc, and the different interactions (competition, mutualism, commensalism, parasitism, etc) drawn with lines between them
    Credit: Megan Sorensen
  2. Determine how to combine your dances into one cohesive dance. Practice your dance to prepare for a performance.
  3. Along with performing your dance (live or recorded), your group must submit a description of how your dance represents your local ecosystem. Your writing should include the type of interactions in which each organism is involved, and the adaptations represented that help them survive.
  • – Describe the interactions that connect all the organisms in your represented ecosystem.
  • – Describe the adaptations (physical/behavioral) that help each organism survive.
  • – Describe what would happen if one of the organisms was removed from the ecosystem.

Use your completed guide and the rubric to guide your thinking.


Next Generation Science Standards

MS-LS2-2 Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics
Construct an explanation that predicts patterns of interactions among organisms across multiple ecosystems.

MS-LS1-4 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
Use argument based on empirical evidence and scientific reasoning to support an explanation for how characteristic animal behaviors and specialized plant structures affect the probability of successful reproduction of animals and plants respectively.

National Core Arts Standards (Dance):

Anchor Standard #1: Generate and Conceptualize Artistic Ideas and Work
Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.

Anchor Standard #6: Convey Meaning Through the Presentation of Artistic Work
Convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.

Common Core State Standards:

Write arguments focused on discipline content. 

Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.

Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 8 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly.


Resource written by Megan Sorenson
Editing by Brian Soash and Shirley Campbell
Digital Production by Brian Soash, Ariel Zych, and Lauren Young

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About Megan Sorensen

Megan Sorensen is a middle school science teacher in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan. She believes in the power of experience and implements lessons that allow students to explore STEAM in their everyday lives. When she’s taking a break from encouraging others to investigate their curiosities, she spends her time taking care of her many plants and going on adventures in nature by running, hiking, kayaking, and cross-country skiing with her dog.

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