Lab Exercise: Exploring the Neotoma Paleoecology Database

John W. Williams, University of Wisconsin-Madison
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This lab introduces students and other interested users to the Neotoma Paleoecology Database and Neotoma Explorer, its webtool for finding, exploring, visualizing, and downloading paleoecological data. Neotoma DB is a public-access and community-supported repository of paleoecological data, mostly from the late Quaternary. These data are widely used by scientists to study species responses to past climate change.

This teaching activity is based on an original lab activity by John (Jack) W. Williams, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Lab Exercise - Exploring Neotoma DB (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Nov9 16)

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Learning Goals

1. Gain familiarity with Neotoma Explorer interface, as tool for discovering and exploring paleoecological data
2. Learn how to search for data, using various search options.
3. Learn how to make quick maps of past species distributions.
4. Learn how to view data, using stratigraphic pollen diagrams.
5. Learn how to download paleoecological datasets from Neotoma.
6. Do a bit of thinking along the way about ecological patterns and processes revealed by these first-pass analyses.

Context for Use

This exercise is designed as an in-class exercise for college students or advanced high school students. It may also be useful for educators and scientists seeking an orientation to the Neotoma Paleoecology Database. If used as an exercise for students, it assumes that an instructor is on hand and available to ask questions. It could be used as a stand-alone exercise for an introductory course, or as an early exercise for an intermediate-level college class in paleontology, paleoecology, biogeography, or global change ecology.

Description and Teaching Materials

The exercise is designed as a guided walkthrough of the Neotoma Paleoecology Database and the data exploration and visualization tools available in Neotoma Explorer. Students learn how to search for fossil data, make quick maps and stratigraphic diagrams, and download data. Questions are designed to show students the kinds of ecological insights that can be gained from working with these data. These include: 1) showing how the geographic distributions of species have shifted in response to the climate changes accompanying the last deglaciation; 2) showing major changes in plant community composition at individual locations; 3) showing the ecological associations between now-extinct megafauna and other species.

Lab Exercise - Exploring Neotoma DB (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Nov9 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The instructor should definitely complete the exercise themselves first! The description of some steps are intentionally a bit vague, to get the students to problem-solve and learn as they explore Neotoma DB.


The lab includes a series of questions to be answered by the students as they complete the exercise.

References and Resources

Neotoma Paleoecology Database: