Climate Change and Migratory Behavior

This page and original activity authored by Julie K. Bartley, Gustavus Adolphus College.
Gustavus Adolphus College, Geology
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This 50-minute guided lecture introduces students to the relationship between climate and a key animal behavior – migration. The first part of the lesson asks students to describe their level of certainty that global climate is warming and assesses their understanding of causal mechanisms, as well as direct and indirect consequences. The second segment describes climate projections and refers to IPCC models. In the final segment, students reflect on the potential effects of climate change on migratory behavior. The idea of climate departure (Mora et al., 2013) is introduced as a way to think about animal populations inhabiting "novel" climate landscapes. Students complete the lesson by connecting climate change projections to the specific migratory ecology of the monarch butterfly.

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Learning Goals

Content and concepts:
  • Global-scale warming is greenhouse-gas forced and is presently occurring on Earth, producing both direct and indirect environmental effects.
  • Projections of future climate change indicate that the patterns of warming will continue, and that different regions of the planet will experience climate change differently.
  • Migratory animals experience climate change throughout their range and therefore experience additional ecological challenges compared to animals who do not migrate.
Higher-order skills:
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluation of models
  • Systems thinking

Context for Use

This mini-module was piloted in an introductory Neuroscience course, with mainly sophomore students enrolled. Students had already had one class session on the neuroscience of migration, with a little information about monarchs, but that knowledge is not prerequisite to the success of this activity.

The activity was designed to occur in a 50-minute, lecture-format classroom. It can be done in a small- to very large-sized section. The activity was developed and tested in a class of ~20 students, most of whom were sophomore or junior level students considering a minor in Neuroscience. The activity occurred in the final 1/3 of the semester, situated during the normal class topic of migration as a neurobiological behavior. The pilot class period was taught by the specialist faculty member (Geology), with the two host faculty members (Neuroscience) present and contributing to discussion. The science concepts are relatively basic and our intention was that the host faculty members would be able to teach it unassisted in future offerings of this course.

This content could be used in a variety of other courses:
  • Introductory or organismal biology
  • Ecology
  • Cognitive psychology
  • Animal behavior
  • Conservation biology
The activity targets students with relatively little biological and climate science experience (first & second-year college students). Could be adapted for a more advanced (junior-senior level) audience by adding readings from the primary literature on migration triggers or the neurophysiology of migration.

Description and Teaching Materials

Before class

It is useful for students to have some introduction to animal migration or to monarch butterflies, as appropriate for the course. This might take the form of a class lesson on migration or a reading suitable for the class level. In the Introduction to Neuroscience pilot course, students read Guerra & Reppert (2013) prior to the activity on climate change and additionally had a class lesson devoted to the neuroscience of migration.

During class

Begin the activity with a student-driven discussion of the evidence and mechanism for climate change. The activity materials have several slides devoted to this background; it may be that only some of those are needed, depending on students' prior knowledge.

Move from a discussion of global temperature averages to one that addresses global vs. local climate change as well as direct and indirect effects of warming. Involve students in brainstorming the kinds of local changes that might occur as an indirect result of warming (e.g., changing weather patterns).

Introduce climate projections – move from 'how do we know what's occurring now' to 'what does the future hold.' Depending on the audience, students might discuss how models are built and that they rely on reasonably well-understood physical principles. They might also discuss uncertainty in the models; uncertainty about human behavior; uncertainty about how local climates might react. It's not necessary to resolve these uncertainties to move forward, but this discussion, like the previous one, should move from global to local.

Prompt students for pre-existing knowledge about monarch butterfly migration and for climate-related factors that could be important. Students should be able to come up with a list of potentially important ecological factors (e.g., temperature, rainfall, food supply) and describe how these could be related to climate change.

Introduce the idea of climate departure, as articulated by Mora et al. (2013). This approach uses both spatially resolved data and forward modeling to generate a prediction of the year in which local annually averaged temperatures will exceed the previously-experienced highest annually averaged temperatures at that location. This time of departure represents a novel climate regime for a particular species.

Facilitate a student-driven discussion about whether this is a useful way to talk about ecological change and whether it would affect migratory species more or less than other species. Depending on the course, students might discuss conservation strategies or particular risks for migratory species like the monarch.

After class

Students can read a more complex article, or the climate departure article for further reflection or discussion; students might also describe the impact of climate change in a different location for a different migratory species as a follow-on or exam question.

PowerPoint Slides for Climate Change & Migratory Behavior (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 10.8MB Dec5 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

It would be relatively easy to present this information in a simple lecture form, but we found that students enjoy engaging with the material and speculating on the consequences of climate change. In addition, the majority of students in our pilot course were already familiar with the basics of climate change; using the first few minutes of class to activate their prior knowledge saved time for conversation about more advanced topics.

In the pilot of this activity, some of the small group work was done in assigned groups of 3-4 students; other discussions occurred as whole-class discussion. In larger classes, we recommend that you organize students formally into groups for discussion and ask each group to report as discussions are processed across the whole class. This method allows a great deal of discussion to occur in a short class period and permits every student to have a voice in the discussions.

The included slide set has a number of hidden slides and internal links, allowing an instructor to skip material that the students have already mastered and to jump to information needed when the students want additional details. Before using the slide set, the instructor should adjust those slides and links according to the particular students and class type.


In our initial pilot, students had a final exam question that asked them to report the main conclusion of the Guerra and Reppert (2013) paper. A second question asked them to describe one specific problem facing the monarch butterfly in a warming world and to explain why this is a particular problem for a migratory species.

In addition to an exam assessment, other options include
  • Depth and quality of discussion during the lesson
  • Take-home essay in which students describe climate challenges for a migratory species different
  • Term paper option that involves some in-depth examination of a migratory species or comparison of a migratory and non-migratory insect
  • Class discussion or essay about intervention or conservation strategies that might apply specifically to migratory species

References and Resources