Fish Tank Territories2022-03-15T09:45:45-05:00

Introduction: This activity offers an engaging way to practice observation and data management skills. Careful observation is an important skill in science. Good observation includes having a question in mind while looking, and recording information in a clear way. After observing, scientists communicate their results to share information; this generates new questions to pursue.

What to Expect: Each pair of students should plan to observe at the same time every day. Different pairs of students should compare their results after several days to look for daily patterns.


  • Aquarium with at least two species of fish
  • Tape, grease pencil, or overhead marker to mark aquarium areas
  • Clear plastic sheet same size as side of aquarium
  • Observation Data Sheet
  • Compilation Data Sheet
  • Watch or clock with second hand


1. Be sure the aquarium has some variety of habitats: plants, rocks, hiding places, open areas, light and dark backgrounds, covered or partly enclosed spaces. Fasten the clear plastic sheet to the outside of the largest side of the aquarium. Using tape or a marker, mark a grid of rows and columns so a fish’s location can be described easily. You may wish to describe boundaries for front and back of the aquarium, too. (See Compilation Data Sheet.)

2. Have the students identify and name all the individual fish. Be sure each student can recognize the different individuals.

3. Divide students into pairs or small groups. Each group of students should watch ONE FISH for 3 to 5 minutes at a time, recording the location of the fish on a data sheet every 10-20 seconds. Each group should choose a fish to focus on, making sure several different fish are included in the study.

4. After observing the same fish daily for 3 to 4 days, students should have baseline data on normal patterns of space use for each fish. Have students discuss results so far and describe their fish’s habitat use.

5. Students should then change ONE factor in the habitat. They could move an existing thing (plant, rock, etc.) or add something new to the tank. Before making the change, students should predict how the change would affect the fish’s behavior.

6. As soon as the habitat is changed, the group should observe their fish again. Students should determine whether the fish changed its behavior in response to the new configuration in its habitat. Observations using these same conditions should be made for 3 to 4 days. New changes can be made one at a time, with students recording observations about their effects over the course of a few days.

7. Groups should report their results to the class. The class should then draw conclusions about the ways fish use habitats in the class aquarium.

Evaluation: Reports presented to the class; each group will create a poster, graphs, or other display to illustrate results; each student will hand in individual observation sheets, and each student will contribute to the group report.


1. Using the knowledge gathered from the research project, students modify the aquarium to best suit the needs of the fish.

2. Students can find out more about fish habitats and behavior using reference and resource books and the Internet.

3. These techniques can be modified to study other classroom animals or the students’ pets at home.



Observation Data Sheet




Animal Observed:

Time Observed: Begin______________ End_____________ Total Minutes_______________

1. Describe the movements of your animal:

2. What change did your group make?

3. Predict how you think the change will affect your animal’s movements:

4. What are the differences between your two mappings?

5. Why do you think the mappings are different?

6. What other behaviors did you observe?


Compilation Data Sheet

Using the table below, compile data regarding the fish you are observing. For each given time, note the location of the fish using the codes below and observe its activities. The first row of the table is a sample.


1 =Vertical Left Quadrant of Tank

2 =Vertical Middle Section of Tank

3 =Vertical Right Section of Tank

A =Horizontal Top Section of Tank

B =Horizontal Middle Section of Tank

C =Horizontal Bottom Section of Tank

F =Far side of Tank

N =Near Side of Tank

START TIME (Minutes:Seconds)

SAMPLE: 0:15 (Start time is 15 seconds into observation) 2 B F



Being chased

Sources: Elisa Green, SEA Experience 1997. Resources for this lab include Living in Water, National Aquarium in Baltimore; Mapping Fish Habitats, LHS Gems; Science for All, NASCO. Copyright 1998-2008 by Sea Education Association, all rights reserved. Compiled and edited by Pat Harcourt & Bill Meyer.

This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation (Proposals # TEI-8652383, TPE-8955214, and ESI-925324), the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Foundation, the Donner Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily of the Foundations.

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