Where is the Serengeti? What makes its ecosystem unique?

Balloon Safari
How does the Mara ecosystem work?
David explores the Serengeti eco-system in a hot-air balloon.
Segment length: 5:30


To the Maasai people, Serengeti means "endless plain." To others, it means Africa itself. The Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania preserve much of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, a 26,000-square-kilometer (10,000-square-mile) home to three million animals. This ecosystem is defined as much by the boundaries of the wildebeest migration as by the characteristics of the land and climate.

Twice a year the rains come to the Serengeti. The heaviest rains pour from March until May; the lighter rains fall from November to December. Two million grazers, including wildebeests, have spent the dry months browsing in the northern woodlands of the park. As the rains come, the wildebeests make their several-hundred-mile journey to the Serengeti Plain and the new grasses of the savanna.

The grass knits the Serengeti together. As the great herds return to the plains, the new grass awaits them and will form the staple of their diet. These grazers have evolved a set of front teeth for biting and back teeth for grinding. Each species grazes on specific parts of the grass. Zebras bite off the grass's tough tops, wildebeests chew on the middle leaves and stems, and gazelles and other antelopes eat the stems closest to the ground. The food chain doesn't stop there. Carnivorous (meat-eating) predators lie camouflaged in the grasses, readying themselves for the kill.

As in all ecosystems, the animals of the Serengeti have adapted to their habitat. The giraffe's tough 46-centimeter-long (18-inch-long) tongue reaches between the thorns of the acacia to eat its tender leaves 5 meters (16 feet) above the ground. The cheetah's flexible spine enables it to sprint over 97 kilometers (60 miles) per hour to topple and kill a gazelle. The hippopotamus's eyes, ears, and nose are located at the top of its head so that its 3,175-kilogram (7,000-pound) body can stay submerged under water. The vulture's keen eyesight can spot a dead animal from 300 meters (1,000 feet).

The Serengeti remains one of the last places on earth where life in the wild surpasses the imagination. Yet with the encroachment of people, pollution, and poaching, the balance of nature is being disturbed. If the world doesn't cry out for the Serengeti's preservation, this vast wild place could soon be gone.


1. What are the characteristics of the ecosystem in which you live? How is it similar to the Serengeti? How is it different?
2. Animal adaptation in the Serengeti is fascinating. How have the animals adapted to the ecosystem in which you live?

Key Words

camouflage to blend in with the environment
ecosystem community of organisms occupying a habitat, together with the physical environment it interacts with
food chain succession of plants and animals, each of which is eaten by the next higher organism
grazer animal that feeds on growing grass
habitat place where a plant or animal lives and grows naturally
Maasai native tribal people of the Serengeti who maintain their traditional village life
migration movement of animals to find food, warmth, or breeding grounds
savanna plain with grasses and scattered trees, especially near the equator where rainfall is seasonal
wildebeest a hoofed mammal of the Serengeti with a face like a cow and a body like a horse


  1. Collinson, A. (1992) Ecology watch: Grasslands. New York: Dillon Press.
  2. Estes, R.D. (1993) The safari companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  3. Iwago, M. (1986) Serengeti: Natural order on the African plain. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
  4. Lindblad, L. & S. (1989) The Serengeti: Land of endless space. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.
  5. Silver, D.M. (1994) One small square: African savanna. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  6. Stelson, C.B. (1988) Safari. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.

Additional resources

  1. D. Moss Productions: Portrait of Africa. Videotape. Tapestry Video: (212) 505-2288.
  2. National Geographic: African wildlife. Videotape. (800) 368-2728.
  3. Sunburst Communications: Animal trackers. Software for Apple II. (800) 321-7511.
  4. Tom Snyder Productions: What's the difference? The classification key toolkit. Software for Macintosh. (800) 342-0236.

Additional sources of information

  1. Nature Conservancy
    1815 N. Lynn St.
    Arlington, VA 22209
  2. World Wildlife Federation
    PO Box 96220
    Washington, DC 20077

Main Activity

Adopt a Plot
Put on your naturalist's hat and record the activity on a piece of land near you.

Naturalists who study the Serengeti and its animals have sharp observational skills. They spend hours watching and recording data. One of their most useful tools is a log book, where they record notes, sketches, and questions for further research. You may not be able to sharpen your observation skills on the Serengeti, but you can by walking out your door. Adopt a plot in your backyard, playground, or park. Start your own log and observe the environment at your toes.


Find a spot that is home to a variety of plants and animals. Visit your plot over a specific period-two weeks or more. Schedule visits at different times of day. Start recording in your log by entering the date, weather conditions, temperature, and time.

Observe your plot
Find out how many different birds, animals, insects, and plants come to your plot. Which can you identify? Research the rest. Using a magnifying glass, sketch the grass in detail. Do all blades look alike? Quietly study one animal or insect. Identify the trees in your plot. Press samples of their leaves. Make bark rubbings. Tape these samples into your log.

Discover animal tracks
Place a pan filled with sand in your plot and check it daily. Are there any animal footprints? Can you identify them?

Measure precipitation
Make a rain gauge with a jar and a funnel. Paint a measuring scale on the outside of the jar and put the funnel in the opening. Put your rain gauge in an open area of your plot and record the amount of precipitation. (Remember to empty the gauge after each rainfall.)

Design other experiments
Share and compare your observations with your friends. What did you learn about your own environment?

Take a trip to your nearest zoo. Choose an animal to observe. Using a log book, jot down your observations and make sketches of your animal-its coloration, movement, food, sleeping position, etc. When you return, continue gathering information about this animal at the library or by computer. Design, write, and illustrate several pages about your animal. Combine your pages with those completed by classmates to create a book about the animals at the zoo.

he wildebeests play a critical role in the Serengeti. Which mammals, birds, or insects migrate where you live? Do some research. Where does each migratory animal make its home in the winter and summer? Draw a map to show the migratory patterns of as many animals in your area as possible.

The animals of the Serengeti depend upon its grass. Find out more about grass. Plant several types of grasses in cut-off milk cartons. After the grass sprouts, start observing. Using a magnifying glass, compare and contrast characteristics of the different grasses. Cut the plants at the top, middle, and bottom. Observe these plants over the next few weeks. Dig up the grass and study the root system.

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