Emperor Penguin. Photo: Myeongho Seo/Shutterstock

Audubon for Kids

Don’t Break the Food Chain!

Visit Antarctica without leaving the house by creating a food chain featuring an iconic seabird: the Emperor Penguin.

A big part of any animal’s daily routine is getting enough to eat—and seabirds are no exception. At the beach, you might see gulls and terns jostle each other for food along the shore and occasionally snatch people's snacks. Magellanic Penguins find lunch each day by heading off the coast of South America to go fishing. Atlantic Puffins also consume fish, such as herring, which in turn consumes plankton, which, just like the plants in a park or garden, have the ability to create energy from sunlight.

Talking about food chains with your child is a great way to explore the relationship between different animals in a particular environment. All life on our planet gets energy from the sun, so every food chain begins with sunlight. Organisms called “producers,” such as plankton, grass, and algae, transform sunlight into a food source. That food can sustain the producers, but it also draws hungry animals, known as "consumers"—and those animals, in turn, can be prey for larger ones.

For this activity, you will create an Antarctic food chain, starting with the sun and moving through several links of consumers. Afterwards, you can try building chains in other ecosystems and talk about how, in nature, a single chain is part of a larger web that supports all life.

Materials:

  • Sheets of paper
  • Pencil
  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • Marker or colored pencils

Activity Instructions:

  1. Cut four sheets of paper in half lengthwise. You’ll have eight long strips total.
     
  2. Label each strip with one of the following: Sun, Algae, Krill, Fish, Squid, Emperor Penguin, Leopard Seal, Killer Whale. Encourage your child to look up pictures of these in a book or online and draw a picture of each on the corresponding strip using colored pencils or markers.
     
  3. Find the sun strip and tape the ends together to create a loop—the first link on your food chain.
     
  4. Ask your child which organism has the ability to turn sunshine into food. Explain that certain organisms such as plants and, in this case, algae, can create food from sunlight. (Your child might have seen algae growing inside a fish tank or in a pond.) Slip one end of the algae strip through the sun loop and tape the ends together, creating a link on a chain.
     
  5. Next ask your child: Which organism eats algae? The correct answer is krill, a small, shrimplike animal. Loop the krill strip through the algae one and tape the ends to form a new link.
     
  6. Continue forming links on the chain, talking about which organism eats the other ones as you go. Your child might have questions, and leave lots of room to discuss them. When you're done, the full chain should be in this order: Sun -> Algae -> Krill -> Fish -> Squid -> Emperor Penguin -> Leopard Seal -> Killer Whale.
     
  7. Now that everything is connected, ask your child what might happen if you lose a ring in the chain. The chain can help you talk about how damage to one part of an ecosystem could have ripple effects for others. That's why it's important to protect fish if we want to protect seabirds like penguins.
     
  8. When you’re done, you can try the exercise again with a different seabird food chain, such as:

    Sun -> Plankton -> Fish -> Squid -> Albatross

    Sun -> Plankton -> Sea Urchin -> Crab -> Seagull

    Your child can also make a food chain based on animals in your area, or even place themselves in a food chain with their own favorite foods!
     

  9. You can also talk about how each chain is part of a larger food web. With your Emperor Penguin chain, for example, you can create an extra loop or two for additional connections such as the Adelie Penguin, which also consumes squids and can be prey for leopard seals.
     
  10. Bonus: If your child is especially interested in food chains, you can talk with them about another link in the larger food web: the “decomposers.” These organisms, like mushrooms or marine worms, help break down waste and plant or animal remains into nutrients that the producers, like plankton and algae, use to create food. When you add a decomposer to both ends of a food chain, it forms one big loop, and you can see how the food chain is actually supporting a circle of life.
“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”