Paleoecology: An Evolutionary Arms Race

Rowan Lockwood
The College of William and Mary
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In this activity, students divide into groups of 4-5, fine-tune a hypothesis relating to escalation, collect data to test this hypothesis using mollusks from local Yorktown deposits (Pliocene), analyze these data, and write-up their results individually.

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Undergraduate elective course in paleontology (15-20 students)

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

- Ability to generate and fine-tune hypotheses (I use another class activity two days earlier to brainstorm and develop the specific hypotheses tested here)
- Understanding of escalation and the concept of evolutionary arms races

How the activity is situated in the course

- As an in-class lecture or lab activity (2-3 hours)
- Activity can be expanded to include bulk sampling in the field, sorting/identification in the lab, and/or oral presentations of results.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

- Escalation
- Evolutionary arms races
- Molluscan ecology

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

- Fine-tuning hypotheses
- Developing approach to data collection and analyses
- Collecting data
- Analyzing data
- Interpreting results

Other skills goals for this activity

- Analyzing data using SPSS statistical software
- Graphing skills
- Writing skills

Description of the activity/assignment

In this activity, students divide into groups of 4-5, choose a hypothesis relating to escalation, and fine-tune it for testing-- using bulk sampled material from the local Yorktown Formation (Pliocene). They select a study organism on which to focus, develop a sampling regime, and decide on approaches to data collection and analyses. As students collect and analyze data, I rotate around the classroom discussing hypotheses, answering questions, and assessing their progress. Students finish the data collection, analyses, and interpretation in class (or lab), then write up the results outside of class.

Students enjoy the activity because:
(1) it is essentially a mini research project-- including developing a hypothesis, collecting data, analyzing and interpreting data, and presenting it (either in writing or orally)
(2) it emphasizes the concept that paleontology can be a hypothesis-driven science,
(3) it provides students with additional experience applying a variety of basic statistical tests (e.g., t-tests, ANOVA, chi-square, regression)
and (4) it includes lots of hands-on experience with fossils.

The activity can be designed as either a lecture or lab activity, and can easily be expanded to include a field component (bulk sampling), additional lab component (sorting and identifying fossils), and/or oral presentation component.

Determining whether students have met the goals

I grade this assignment using a basic 10 pt rubric, assessing students on their ability to fine-tune the hypotheses, make decisions re. study organism and sampling, collect data, analyze and interpret data, and communicate it effectively.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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