Beetles, Mammals, and Plants: Is Climate Driving Range Shifts Since the Last Glacial Maximum

Christian George, High Point University

Jessie Rock, North Dakota State University

Allan Ashworth, North Dakota State University

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In this exercise, students will learn how organisms responded to the change in climate since the last glacial maximum (LGM) in North America. Using the Neotoma database and ArcGIS Online, students will create taxon modern distribution maps for the species of beetles, mammals, and plants found at the Conklin Quarry fossil site in eastern Iowa. By comparing the modern species ranges of these taxa, students will interpret what the environment may have been like in eastern Iowa during the LGM.

This lesson provides a basic introduction to geographic information systems (GIS). Students will qualitatively analyze the geographic range shifts of a number of different taxa as an introduction to spatial analysis. Though most of the species' found at Conklin Quarry have ranges that are far to the north of Iowa since the LGM, students should realize that there are a myriad of factors that control species distributions and that climate is not the only factor controlling the modern range. This lesson should give some indication of the complexity in trying to reconstruct past climate from the fauna found at Quaternary fossil localities.

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Learning Goals

Students will use paleontological data from the Neotoma database to investigate how organisms responded to major climate shifts since the last ice age. They will learn to recognize and analyze spatial patterns in data as they build a layered digital map. Finally, students will utilize critical thinking as they investigate and compare distribution ranges of species and develop a hypothesis to explain why the ecoregions in Iowa have changed over the last 20,000 years.

Students will be able to:

  • Search and download data from the Neotoma database
  • Create a map using ArcGIS Online
  • Interpret taxon range shifts using GIS
  • Infer the complexity of using various taxa to reconstruct Pleistocene environments

Context for Use

This lesson is designed as a 2 hour lab in an introductory physical geology, historical geology, earth science, environmental science, or biology class.

Description and Teaching Materials

Student Handout for Beetles, Mammal, and Plants Exercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 7.7MB Sep7 16)

Instructors using this assignment are welcome to contact the author for an instructor's handout.

Data files:

Teaching Notes and Tips

The first part of this lesson is designed to provide a basic introduction to a scientific research database, the Neotoma Database, and introduce spatial analysis using GIS. The first tasks are to introduce students to Neotoma Explorer, a web app that functions as a type of GIS to explore the data in the Neotoma database. The strengths of this lesson are to give students the experience of working with actual scientific data, and allow them to make their own interpretations.

While the Neotoma Explorer can display many different kinds of data, another kind of GIS is needed to display all of the data in this lesson. We chose ArcGIS online because it is free and can work as a good introduction to ArcGIS. GIS skills can be introduced through lessons like this in any kind of class. In a class that has more GIS lessons this could be an introduction.

As students plot the modern ranges of these species they should note that they are not exactly the same. There are many factors, both abiotic (like climate) and biotic (ecological interactions) that control species distributions. If your class also covers paleoecology you may wish to expand or emphasize certain sections. If this is the only example of paleoecology in your class you could discuss other examples of using fossils to provide clues about past environments.

References and Resources

Perspectives on Beetles and Climate Change, by Allan C. Ashworth, Department of Geosciences, North Dakota State University:

ArcGIS Online:

Neotoma Paleoecology database: