Relating Late-Quaternary Plant and Animal Distributions to Past and Future Climate

Samantha W. Kaplan, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point
Margaret M. Yacobucci, Bowling Green State University
John W. Williams, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Author Profile


A guided activity for students to explore the relationship between climate and plant and animal distributions in the past, present, and future. Students use the Neotoma Paleoecology Database, USDA Climate Change Tree Atlas, USGS Atlas of Relations Between Climatic Parameters and Distributions of Important Trees and Shrubs in North America (Professional Paper 1650 A/B), and climate model output.

Learning Goals

Students will understand that species have defined climate ranges that reflect sensitivities to specific climate variables, and that different species occupy different areas of climate space.

Students will be able to interpret a climate space plot.

Students will explore the Neotoma database structure, and relate past species distributions to changes in climate variables.

Students will become familiar with some key plant and animal taxa used in the study of Late Quaternary climate change.

Students will predict potential future species ranges in response to future anthropogenic climate change.

(Optional) Students will independently analyze past, present, and future species distributions, past, present, and future.

(Optional) Students will be able to communicate the results of their analyses to others.

Context for Use

Intended for upper-level undergraduate courses in paleontology, paleoecology, climate change, geography, and geosciences. Can be done as an in-class activity over 2-3 class periods, as a lab activity, or as homework with an in-class introduction.

Students should already be familiar with the use of climate proxies and general patterns of late-Quaternary climate change.

Description and Teaching Materials

In this activity, students explore the relationship between climate and plant and animal distributions in the past, present, and future. Students first investigate modern tree species distributions in North America and their relationship to modern climate variables (temperature, precipitation) using online tree atlas data. Students then explore changes in plant and animal species distributions through four time intervals from the last glacial maximum to the late Holocene using the Neotoma Paleoecology Database. Finally, students make predictions about future plant distributions and test their hypotheses with the USDA's Climate Change Tree Atlas.

Student Worksheet (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 85kB Aug26 16)

General and Background Information for Instructors (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 21kB Aug26 16)

Opening Engagement

GOALS: Students will think about what they already know about natural landscapes and climate. Instructor will elicit preconceptions that need to be addressed and highlight concepts of uniformitarianism and organismal response to anthropogenic climate change.

1. Ask students: What did central Wisconsin [or your local area] look like 20,000 years ago? Compile responses on the board. Draw out prior knowledge and preconceptions.

2. How do we know this? What specific proxies, specific climate variables are involved in making reconstructions like this? Have students brainstorm answers, encouraging them to make use of prior knowledge from previous lectures and readings.

3. Why do we care about what Wisconsin looked like 20,000 years go? Again, compile responses.

4. Draw out two key concepts: past climate change can be related to future climate change, and organisms respond to climate change in ways that we may care about.

5. So what will central Wisconsin look like in 100 years?

Teaching Notes and Tips

You might start the first part of the activity by showing students some modern-day temperature and precipitation maps for North America. A Google image search will bring up a variety of maps to choose from.

A variety of sources of modern non-tree distributions are available on the web, e.g., Biota of North America Program, USDA NRCS PLANTS Database. For the latter, you will need to search by species name, not genus name.

Rather than have each student investigate all the species, you can assign student groups to explore specific species, or let the students choose from the list.

If you would like to have your students be familiar with the Neotoma database before beginning this exercise, you could have them complete the Exploring the Neotoma Paleoecology Database exercise first.


Formative assessment includes the initial engagement activity to elicit prior knowledge and student preconceptions, and instructor interactions and queries of students during the group work. Summative assessment includes evaluation of student responses to questions on student worksheet. Student performance on targeted questions on future exams or quizzes might also be assessed.

References and Resources

Alder, J.R. and Hostetler, S.W. (2013) CMIP5 Global Climate Change Viewer. US Geological Survey. doi:10.5066/F72J68W0

Alder, J.R., Hostetler, S.W., Williams, D. (2013) An Interactive Web Application for Visualizing Climate Data. Eos Trans. AGU 94, 197–198. Doi: 10.1002/2013EO220001.

Bugguide. Iowa State University (2016)

Graham, R.W., and Graham, M.A.. 1994. The late quatemary distribution of Martes in North America. Pages 26-58 in: S.W. Buskirk, A.S. Harestad, M.G. Raphael, and R.A. Powell, editors. Martens, Sables, and Fishers: Biology and Conservation. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, USA.

IPCC Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis.

IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007.

Neotoma Paleoecology Database.

NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

Notaro, M. (2016) Central-Eastern North American Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs). The Center for Climatic Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Thompson, R.S., Anderson, K.H., and Bartlein, P.J. (1999) Atlas of relations between climatic parameters and distributions of important trees and shrubs in North America. USGS Professional Paper 1650-A/B.

USDA Climate Change Tree Atlas.