Climate Change and Mammal Dispersal

Russell Graham, Pennsylvania State University
Suzanne Pilaar Birch, University of Georgia
Lydia Tackett, North Dakota State University

Author Profile


Students will learn how species shift along environmental gradients (temperature, precipitation, and vegetation) in response to climate change over the last 20,000 years, from the time of the Last Glacial Maximum through deglaciation and the Holocene. The activity involves making maps of species distribution using the Neotoma database. Students will develop skills in data analysis and interpretation over a two-to-four class arc.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Introductory Level: Remember and understand

Interpret species dispersal change in relation to climate change
List different aspects of environment that change with climate

Middle Level: Apply and analyze

Identify thresholds for changes in species distributions
Determine which species is least responsive or most sensitive to climate change

Advanced Level: Evaluate and create

Evaluate relationships between variables and establishing significance of correlation between climate change and species range shifts
Make predictions of species reactions to climate change and other variables

Context for Use

This activity can be adapted for large or small classes and at three levels of engagement: introductory (high school or early undergraduate), middle level (undergraduate), and advanced (Upper level undergraduate and Master's). Some prior introductory knowledge of biology and physical geography are useful. The activity can be used early in the semester in order to introduce students to concepts of climate change and species distribution as well as familiarize them with published scientific data and basic quantitative analysis.

Description and Teaching Materials

This activity will take two class periods at the introductory level, three at the intermediate level, and four sessions at the advanced level. It includes a downloadable Instructor Handout detailing the structure of each module as well as a Student Handout for guidance. There is also a powerpoint on climate change and small mammal dispersal and a step-by-step guide to using Neotoma. Students can work alone or in groups, depending on the size of the class.

In the first class period, after starting with a general discussion establishing what the class knows about small mammals and their habitats, the included powerpoint can be accompanied by a lecture about their distribution and dispersal. It concludes with a simple think-pair-share on species range shifts.

In the second class, after a followup discussion, the Neotoma database and explorer are introduced with an example testing a simple hypothesis about species range shifts. Students will then address this question activity on their own and compare results for different species. If continuing to the mid-level with a third class, students will address a more complex hypothesis using multiple species as homework and discuss their findings in the third class. In class, jigsaw groups (or the class as a whole) will be formed, wherein each student chooses a region to look at in depth. Finally, for advanced undergraduates or graduate classes, readings should be assigned prior to the fourth class session, where students will consider variables other than climate change that may influence mammal dispersal, including predation and competition. A final paper to assess learning outcomes may be assigned.

Instructor Handout: Handout for Instructors (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 19kB Aug14 16)

Neotoma Step-by-Step Example: Neotoma Step-by-Step (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Oct13 15)

Climate Change and Dispersal Powerpoint: Climate Change Dispersal Lecture (PowerPoint 12.7MB Oct13 15)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Recommended Species

Northern Species

Red-backed vole Myodes gapperi
Heather vole Phenacomys intermedius
Arctic shrew Sorex arcticus
Boreal red backed vole Mictomys borealis
Yellow-cheeked vole Microtus xanthognathus
Meadow vole Microtus pennsylvanicus
Northern flying squirrel Glaucomys sabrinus

Western Taxa

Black-tailed prairie dog Cynomys ludovicianus
Western pocket gopher Thomomys talpoides
Plains pocket gopher Geomys bursarius
Pocket mouse Chaetopus hispideus
Thirteen-lined ground squirrel Spermophilus tridecemlineatus

Eastern Taxa

Least shrew Cryptotis parva
Eastern Chipmunk Tamias striatus
Pine Vole Microtus pinetorum
Gray Squirrel Sciurus carolinensis
Fox squirrel Sciurus niger 
Eastern flying squirrel Glaucomys volans

Southern Taxa

Rice rat Oryzomys palustris
Cotton rat Sigmodon hispidus
Round-tailed muskrat Neofiber alleni 
Eastern woodrat Neotoma floridana
Armadillo Dasypus novemcinctus (invasive) / Dasypus bellus (extinct)


Intro: Have students write a response to a relevant question in the next class meeting or on a quiz or exam.

Middle: Evaluate students on participation and quality of presentation.

Advanced: Graded assigned paper.

References and Resources

Neotoma Database

MOM (Mammal Body Mass) Database

Mammals of North America Smithsonian Database

PAST (Paleontological Statistics) Program Download

Stats Cheat Sheet