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Chapter 4: River of Change

This chapter is devoted to creating a cloth and paper model of the river valley that provides a hands-on approach to understanding river and floodplain ecology in the Southwest. The basic activity, "Changing River," provides a setting for the subsequent activities that explore the roles of animals, plants, cottonwood trees, agriculture, and change in the river of the past (Rio Bravo), the present (Rio Manso), and the future (Rio Nuevo). By creating models of these three stages of the Rio Grande, the powerful teaching technique of contrast is used to clarify the role humans have played and can play in this river ecosystem.

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Canada Geese on Rio Grande Sandbars- Photo by Mark Higgins

Canada Geese on Rio Grande Sandbars- Photo by Mark Higgins

Chapter 4 Activities

Changing River: In a directed class activity, students construct a paper and cloth model of a section of the Rio Grande Valley as it was before major human intervention, and then manipulate it to demonstrate the human-caused changes over the last century. In the context of today’s river, the students contrast the differences between managing the river for only human benefits and managing the river with broader objectives of both ecosystem health and human needs. They then construct a model of the river of the future using those broader objectives.

The rest of the activities in Chapter 4 are based on the Changing River activity above. In practice we have found that these remaining activities work well alone, in separate sessions or combined together.

Cottonwood Creation: Students learn about cottonwood seedling survival. In Part One students identify the conditions a cottonwood seed needs to germinate (start growing) by tossing cotton balls on the river model. In Part Two, students use coins or dice as they try to grow seedling roots fast enough to keep up with a lowering water table. Students realize that very few cottonwood seeds actually become trees and that altered river conditions are very limiting for cottonwood establishment. This activity delves into a specific example of a species and its survival—what allows a species to continue to exist in its location.

Who Lives Where?: Students explore animals’ niches in bosque habitats using the Changing River model and see how human-caused changes to the bosque impact the ability of animals to survive and thrive over time. A section discussing threatened and endangered animals and introduced and non-native species is included. There are 48 native and 10 introduced bosque animal species illustrated with detailed natural history information.

Who Grows Where?: Students explore plants and the role plants play in the bosque ecosystem using the Changing River model and see how human-caused changes to the bosque impact the ability of plants to survive and thrive over time. There are 25 native and non-native bosque plant species illustrated with detailed natural history information.

Working Water: Concentrating on the agricultural aspect of the Middle Rio Grande Valley, students create an irrigation system on the Changing River model, expanding on and exploring human influence on the Rio Grande created in the Rio Manso river model.

Bosque Chaos: By the roll of dice, students use the Changing River model to see how chance influences natural and human-caused changes in the bosque.

Click Here to ​Download all of Chapter 4 (1.99 mB PDF)


*Next Generation Science Standards- NM STEM Ready! Science Standards Aligned 

A Note about Science Standards

The Chapter 4 River of Change activities are correlated with New Mexico STEM Ready! Science Standards; these include both the national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and New Mexico-specific performance expectations. These are highlighted in three places:

1. Standards are listed at the beginning of each activity in a call-out “Standards Box”.

2. Specific questions and prompts help students critically think about the concept to be addressed. The appropriate Disciplinary Core Idea (DCI) code, Crosscutting Concept (CCC) and/or Science and Engineering Process (SEP) that relate to each concept are highlighted directly in the text.

3. At the end of each activity, there are more detailed entries addressing how the activity particularly helps students with that specific DCI. 

New Mexico STEM Ready! Performance Expectations for 5th grade and middle school fit into our scope and new connections specifically addressing these standards are included.

Appendix K (358 kb PDF) shows which activities address which standards.

Chapter 4 includes detailed information cards and illustrations for the following animals and plants that live in the Middle Rio Grande Valley.


Animals are found in the Who Lives Where? activity pdfs, pages 202-233

Who Lives Where? Rio Bravo: Native Animals

Common Name / Scientific Name


  • Mayfly  Baeti sp.
  • Field Cricket  Gryllus sp.
  • Plains Cicada  Megatibicen dealbates
  • Caddisfly  Hydropsyche sp.
  • Harvester Ant  Pogonomyrmex sp.
  • Leaf-roller  Anacampis innocuella
  • Mosquito  many spp.


  • Shovelnose Sturgeon  Scaphirhynchus platorynchus
  • Rio Grande Bluntnose Shiner  Notropis simus simus
  • Red Shiner  Cyprinella lutrensis
  • Rio Grande Silvery Minnow  Hybognathus amarus


  • Western Chorus Frog  Pseudacris triseriata
  • Northern Leopard Frog  Lithobates pipiens


  • Western Painted Turtle  Chrysemys picta
  • Spiny Softshell Turtle  Apalone spinifera
  • New Mexico Whiptail  Aspidoscelis neomexicanus
  • Bullsnake  Pituophis catenifer
  • Gartersnake Thamnophis sp.


  • Canada Goose  Branta canadensis
  • Mallard  Anas platyrhynchos
  • Greater Roadrunner  Geococcyx californianus
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo  Coccyzus americanus
  • Sandhill Crane  Antigone canadensis
  • Killdeer  Charadrius vociferous
  • Great Blue Heron  Ardea herodias
  • Cooper’s Hawk  Accipiter cooperii
  • Bald Eagle  Haliaeetus leucocephalus
  • Great Horned Owl  Bubo virginianus
  • Belted Kingfisher  Ceryle alcyon
  • Southwestern Willow Flycatcher  Empidonax traillii extimus
  • American Crow  Corvus brachyrhynchos
  • Summer Tanager  Piranga rubra
  • Red-winged Blackbird  Agelaius phoeniceus


  • Desert Cottontail  Sylvilagus audubonii
  • Little Brown Bat  Myotis lucifugus
  • Beaver  Castor canadensis
  • Botta’s Pocket Gopher  Thomomys bottae
  • New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse  Zapus luteus luteus
  • Muskrat  Ondatra zibethicus
  • White-footed Mouse  Peromyscus leucopus
  • North American Porcupine  Erethizon dorsatum
  • Coyote  Canis latrans
  • Mule Deer  Odocoileus hemionus

Who Lives Where? Rio Bravo: Upper Watershed, Native Animals

  • Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout  Oncorhynchus clarki virginalis
  • Osprey  Pandion haliaetus
  • American Dipper  Cinclus mexicanus
  • Black Bear  Ursus americanus
  • Elk  Cervus elaphus

Who Lives Where? Rio Manso: Animals Introduced to the Middle Rio Grande

  • Isopods: Pillbug and Sowbug  Armadillidium vulgare and Porcellio laevis
  • Carp  Cyprinus carpio
  • Mosquitofish  Gambusia affinis
  • Bullfrog  Lithobates catesbeiana
  • European Starling  Sturnus vulgaris
  • House Sparrow  Passer domesticus
  • House Mouse  Mus musculus
  • Feral Dogs and Cats  Canis lupus familiaris and Felis catus

Who Lives Where? Rio Manso: Upper Watershed, Introduced Animals

  • Rainbow Trout  Oncorhynchus mykiss
  • Brown Trout  Salmo trutta


Plants are found in the Who Grows Where? activity pdfs, pages 249-261

Who Grows Where? Rio Bravo: Native Plants

Common Name / Scientific Name

  • Rio Grande cottonwood  Populus deltoides subsp.wislizeni
  • New Mexico olive  Forestiera pubescens
  • Coyote willow  Salix exigua
  • One-seeded juniper  Juniperus monosperma
  • False indigo  Amorpha fruticosa
  • Western white clematis  Clematis ligusticifolia
  • Screwbean mesquite  Prosopis pubescens
  • Wolfberry  Lycium pallidum
  • Prickly pear  Opuntia spp.
  • Giant sacaton  Sporobolus wrightii
  • Sedge  Carex spp.
  • Saltgrass  Distichlis spicata
  • Smooth scouring rush or horsetails  Equisetum laevigatum
  • Yerba mansa  Anemopsis californica
  • Hooker’s evening primrose  Oenothera hookeri
  • Broad-leaved cattail  Typha latifolia
  • Sacred datura  Datura wrightii
  • Sunflower  Helianthus annuus
  • Spectacle pod  Dimorphocarpa wislizeni

Who Grows Where? Rio Manso: Plants Introduced to the Middle Rio Grande

  • Saltcedar  Tamarix chinensis
  • Tree of heaven  Ailanthus altissima
  • White sweet clover  Melilotus alba
  • Russian olive  Elaeagnus angustifolia
  • Cheatgrass  Bromus tectorum
  • Kochia  Kochia scoparia

Spanish Activities

Changing Rivers Spanish

Model Pieces Spanish

Cottonwood Creations Spanish

Who Lives Where Spanish Cards/¿Quíen vive dónde? 

Who Grows Where Spanish Cards/¿En dónde crecen estas plantas? 

Working Water Spanish

Bosque Chaos Spanish

Revisions, Spring 2020/2022

Funding from: New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Share With Wildlife Fund

  • Writing Group: Letitia Morris, Lisa Ellis, Karen Herzenberg, Stephanie Kircher, Molly Madden, Kelly White, Laurel Ladwig, Layout
  • Advisory Group: Selena Connealy, Aryn LaBrake, Heather MacCurdy, Deb Novak, Jennifer Owen-White
  • Contributors: Reese Bice, illustrations, Katie Elder, Matt Schmader
  • Reviewers: Delfine Baca, Eric Griffin, Amy Grochowski, Candy Hodoba, Ani Jamgyal, Joan Morrison, Virginia Seamster, Fiana Shapiro, Storm Usrey
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