Niche Partitioning in Silurian Tabulate Corals

Peg Yacobucci
Bowling Green State University
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In this group lab activity, students read a journal article, and then duplicate the article's measurements on a Silurian tabulate coral head. Students must evaluate their data in light of the journal article's data and critically evaluate the author's interpretations. In addition to introducing the concepts of morphospace and niche partitioning, this activity shows students that scholarly papers often leave room for further research.

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Upper-level undergraduate course in paleontology

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be able to:
- read a scientific paper in order to extract the key conclusions and evidence supporting those conclusions
- interpret a graph
- calculate a mean

Paleontological concepts students should understand are:
- natural selection and competition
- how colonial corals live and feed

How the activity is situated in the course

This activity is one component of the lab on fossil corals.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Niche partitioning; concept of a morphospace; aspects of colonial coral morphology

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Analyzing student-generated data; critically evaluating a research article, including considering alternative explanations for data presented

Other skills goals for this activity

Working in groups; making careful measurements of fossil anatomy

Description of the activity/assignment

After viewing various fossil corals and answering questions about them, students divide into teams of 2-3. They first read a short paper by Rodney Watkins, who used measurements of corallite diameter and density to argue for the evolution of niche partitioning in Silurian tabulate reef corals from Wisconsin and Illinois. (Watkins, 2000, Lethaia 33: 55-63.) Then they make the same measurements on a tabulate coral head from the Lower Silurian Brassfield Formation of southwestern Ohio (a rock unit they will have seen about a week before on a fieldtrip). Students will find that the coral falls nicely into Watkins' morphospace, even though this coral pre-dates the formation of large reefs in the area, and therefore presumably any selective pressure for niche partitioning. Students have to report their measurement data, briefly explain Watkins' interpretation, and then write a paragraph on the implications of their results, including alternative explanations for the pattern Watkins found.

Determining whether students have met the goals

The exercise is evaluated on three components:
- Clarity and correctness of the students' explanation (in their own words, as a group) of the basis of Watkin's conclusion
- Accuracy of the students' measurements (as compared to the instructor's measurements of the same coral head)
- Thoughtfulness of the students' interpretation of their own result, and its implications for Watkins' study

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