The following is an audio transcript of the video lesson plan Panther Hunt.

Hello, I’m Katie and today I will be demonstrating the lesson Panther Hunt. This simulation activity has your students acting as panthers hunting for enough food to survive in order to demonstrate the concept of carrying capacity.

This activity is perfect for a science or a math setting. We have an upper elementary and a middle school version of this lesson. The activity is the same in both versions, but our upper elementary version includes more scaffolding. Today I will focus on the middle school adaptation. At the end of the demonstration, I’ll provide some tips for how to adapt this lesson for a high school audience too.

By the end of this lesson, your students will be able to:

  • Define carrying capacity and explain how it relates to an animal species.
  • Compare and contrast how animal and human populations use resources.
  • Examine how human actions can impact the carrying capacity of a habitat.
  • And in the middle school version, they will calculate the carrying capacity of a specified area.

You will need 200 standard dixie cups and a space for students to complete the activity. This could be your classroom, the gym, or an outdoor space too.

Your dixie cups represent a panther’s prey. You’ll mark the bottom of the cups with a letter to represent 5 different prey animals. That is an S for squirrels, R for rabbits, P for porcupines, B for beavers, and D for deer. In the lesson plan, we’ve calculated the number of each prey you will need for a class of 25. However, we also provide instructions for how to scale this for small or larger classes.

Before the start of the lesson, place your dixie cups around your hunting zone. Explain to students that they will be acting as predators hunting from a community of prey. When they hunt, they’ll have a “den” they take their prey back to. That could just be their desks.

So how are panthers going to hunt? They will rise from their desk, walk over to a piece of prey, pick it up, and return with just the one cup to their desk. They’ll repeat the process until the hunting zone has been fully depleted.

Panthers will need to hunt at least 50kg to survive. As your panthers hunt, you’ll want to make sure that they can reference the hunting goal and the mass of each species on the whiteboard or on a slideshow.

This is a really fun activity, and as you can imagine, your students might get pretty energized for hunting. So in the lesson plan, we do offer guidelines for classroom management.

Once the hunting zone has been depleted, have students return to their desks and tally up their prey. On the whiteboard or on an anchor chart, record the number of panthers who survived.

Now the important question: Is this number, the maximum number of panthers that could have survived? It’s likely not, because some panthers most likely collected more than 50 kg. Also, if panthers were able to combine their prey, more panthers could have survived.

We can then ask: How can we find out how many panthers could have survived? Your middle schoolers may be able to come up with the idea to add all the prey weights together – which would be 1060 kg for a full set of 200 cups – and divide by the amount each panther needs to survive – 50 kg.

It’s now appropriate to introduce the idea of carrying capacity. Explain that the maximum number of panthers that could have survived in the habitat is called the panther’s carrying capacity. And define the term, carrying capacity.

We have a really wonderful opportunity for robust discussion at this point. For example, students could reflect on the distribution of prey throughout the classroom. Species with a greater mass are more valuable to panthers, so panthers with better proximity to those prey would have been more likely to survive. You can tie that in to the real world by thinking about how quality of human life at a community, national, or global level depends on a person’s access to resources. You can have your students consider: are natural resources distributed equally across the planet? Are social resources, such as money and or access to goods and services distributed equally?

The lesson plan offers an option to extend the lesson into a Round 2, where students are asked to consider: “What things might impact the resources in a habitat and thus influence carrying capacity?” The class selects a human impact they’d like to examine and are then challenged with representing that impact within the model.

Suppose a highway was built through the community that panthers can’t cross safely. You could place tape down on the ground that cannot be crossed to represent this highway, and therefore the hunting zone of each panther will be different and more limited. Or maybe students want to represent a dam built on the local waterway, so they remove beavers from the ecosystem because they would’ve lost their habitat.

Have fun with it! Put one of these modifications in place and run the simulation again! How did this human action impact the carrying capacity of panthers? And is there anything that can be done to restore their carrying capacity to its original size?

While this activity is written with a younger audience in mind, it can be incorporated into high school lessons as well. For example, in an AP Environmental Science class, you can use this lesson to demonstrate several topics – such as topic 2.5: natural disruptions to ecosystems, topic 3.4: carrying capacity (focusing on population overshoot), or topic 3.5: population growth and resource availability. You could even have students calculate the biodiversity index or the species richness of this community of panthers and prey to cover topic 2.1: introduction to biodiversity.

With older students, you might also have them consider some of the limitations of this simulation.

And that concludes the lesson Panther Hunt!

For more amazing lesson plans and classroom resources to help your students make the population connection, visit!