The Mystery Organism of the Day

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B. IO. ELIZABETH C. DAVIS-BERG is Assistant Professor, Department of Science and Mathematics, Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, IL 60605; e-mail:.


The Mystery Organism of the Day E L I Z A B E T H C . D AV I S - B E R G

Do you ever wish that you could cover more material in your class but you run out of time? Then this quick fix can help! The “mystery organism of the day” can be used in any course that includes biology. In my Marine Biology course for non-majors, we cover a variety of topics from the ocean’s physical environment, plants, and marine animals, up to and including human impacts on the environment. One of my goals is to create scientifically-literate students who are interested in the world around them. The “mystery organism of the day” is a quick discussion item that I use to start off the class and help students begin thinking about biology.

Figure 1. “Mystery Organism”

This exercise begins by showing a snazzy color picture of the “mystery organism” to the class. The class as a group needs to figure out answers to the following questions: • What is it? Specifically, is it an animal, plant, protist, or something else? • Where does it live? Marine Biology students tend to guess, “It lives in the ocean,” and through discussion we decide on the most probable oceanic zone (e.g., intertidal). • What does it eat? This answer can get quite creative and the explanations are great!

ism as a member of that group. This helps to introduce or reinforce the concepts of classification and observation. We then discuss ecology: where the organism lives, what it eats, its size, and if it has been impacted by humans (e.g., overfishing) or has other direct connections to human health (e.g., dinoflagellates and red tide). My students’ guesses show me where they are having trouble applying the information learned in class. For example, if they think that a coral is a sponge, we discuss how they can tell the two groups apart.

The students apply critical thinking and hypothesis testing in this short exercise. As the semester progresses, the students, as a group, have better hypotheses and rationales than they did at the beginning. They also have a better general understanding of an organism and its environment as more information is covered. This exercise gets all the students to participate. It is an easy way to bring in the interesting and atypical members of a group that might otherwise be skipped. My mystery organisms range from ctenophores to the obscure solar powered sea slugs which steal chloroplasts from their algal food source. My students enjoy this exercise and often ask, “Where is the mystery organism?” if it is not at the beginning of class. This is a simple way to include interesting organisms and get students excited about the diversity of life and biology.

After a two-to-three minute discussion, I display the “answers.” I list the phylogenetic placement of the group (domain, kingdom, and phylum) and explain how students could identify this organ-


• How big is it? Most pictures don’t have scale bars, so students make an educated guess as to the general size of the organism. ELIZABETH C. DAVIS-BERG is Assistant Professor, Department of Science and Mathematics, Columbia College Chicago, Chicago, IL 60605; e-mail: [email protected].

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