Theoretical Morphology – Modeling the Growth of Clonal Organisms

Thomas Olszewski
Texas A&M University
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Students use a Matlab/Octave program to model the growth of stromatoporoid sponges in a variety of different sedimentary conditions and exploring how assumptions about their growth affect their morphology. Main strength: this exercise demonstrates unfulfilled alternatives to real specimens, thereby providing a basis of interpreting what we actually see in the rock record.

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This exercise is used in a majors-level paleontology course. I implement it in our departmental computer teaching lab, where Matlab is available. However, the code (pam5.m) can also be run using Octave, a shareware package that is equivalent to Matlab.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

They should have already been exposed to the concept of theoretical morphospace.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a one-week lab exercise that is coordinated with classroom lecture on theoretical and functional morphology.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Using theoretical morphospace to interpret the depositional conditions influencing the growth of real specimens.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Exposing students to the idea that the real world is one possible alternative and interpreting observations and data requires a basis for considering alternative hypotheses/explanations.

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

Students will have been exposed to the concept of theoretical morphospace in class prior to undertaking the lab. When introducing the lab exercise, the basic algorithm for stochastic growth is presented and students are walked through how to run the program (it is interactive). After they have completed all the exercises, they are asked to use their virtual stromatoporoid sponges as the basis for interpreting a set of real specimens.

Determining whether students have met the goals

1) The quality of the assignments that they hand in.
2) There is usually an exam question asking students to interpret and use information based on a theoretical morphospace of some sort.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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