Module 5: Some Modern Biotic Responses to Climate Change

James S. Oliver III and Russell W. Graham, The Pennsylvania State University
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Initial Publication Date: July 5, 2018 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


In this module, students explore biotic responses to changing climate. The module steps through different styles of response (i.e. stasis, adaptation, extinction) and provides examples of each from modern biota. Students are given a set of exercises where they create a hypothesis about future changes to mammal distribution using the Neotoma Explorer.

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Learning Goals

By the end of this activity, participants will:
  1. Gain knowledge about biotic responses to climate change.
  2. Learn about specific examples of these responses.
  3. Make predictions about future mammal distributions.

Context for Use

This is a laboratory type exercise that can accompany a lecture series on climate change and biotic response. It can be be used for any size class since it is on line. Classes of about 20-25 are the most ideal of they are being facilitated by an instructor. This is the fifth in a series of 7 modules to be used by participants to understand how climate change in the past and future affects the distribution of mammal species. Each module builds on the next to introduce participants to climate patterns, change in climate through time, ecology & paleoecology and the interaction between climate and biotic distributions.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students are given background information and then asked to answer a series of questions in order to assess their comprehension of the material. The exercises in this module require that students use the online Neotoma Explorer. If they have problems with the exercises, they should reread the material, use references that are provided, or be facilitated by an instructor.

Module 5: Some Modern Biotic Responses to Climate Change (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 3.6MB Jul5 18)

Teaching Notes and Tips

There are five primary responses for a species to climate change (stasis, macroevolution, microevolution, dispersal, and extinction). Examples of each of these responses is provided in this module. Dispersal, however, is the primary focus here because it has been, and will probably be, the most prevalent response in the late Quaternary and future climate changes. It is important to distinguish between dispersal and migration that are frequently used incorrectly as synonyms. Migration is a seasonal movement whereas dispersal is movement to an area of favorable habitat and colonization of an area. Dispersal can be detrimental to a species at times. For example, because polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are being forced inland by the disappearance of sea ice, they are coming into contact with brown bears and interbreeding. This dilutes the genomes for both species and can be particularly catastrophic if the hybrids are fecund. Although not discussed in this module, diseases or parasites can be spread from one species that is relatively immune to another species that does not have immunity to the pathogen. A situation like this is occurring with the northern dispersal of white tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) that carries the nematode parasite Parelaphostrongylus tenuis into the range of the moose (Alces alces) which have a much lower resistance to the parasite and therefore higher fatalities.



Write a discussion differentiating between dispersal and migration.

Write a discussion about the differences between microevolution and macroevolution and exlain why macroevolution is probably not relevant for future climate change.

References and Resources



Beever, E. A., Ray, C., Wilkening, J. L., Brussard, P. F., & Mote, P. W. (2011). Contemporary climate change alters the pace and drivers of extinction. Global Change Biology, 17(6), 2054-2070.

Bradshaw, W. E., & Holzapfel, C. M. (2006). Evolutionary response to rapid climate change. Science, 312(5779), 1477-1478.

Elmhagen, B., Kindberg, J., Hellström, P., & Angerbjörn, A. (2015). A boreal invasion in response to climate change? Range shifts and community effects in the borderland between forest and tundra. Ambio, 44(1), 39-50.

Gleason, J. S., & Rode, K. D. (2009). Polar bear distribution and habitat association reflect long-term changes in fall sea ice conditions in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea. Arctic, 405-417.

Keller, H. (2015). A geospatial analysis of climate change and its effect on the American Pika's habitat in the Great Basin. Projects in Geospatial Data Analysis: Spring 2015.

Laliberte, A. S., & Ripple, W. J. (2004). Range contractions of North American carnivores and ungulates. BioScience, 54(2), 123-138.

McCain, C. M., & King, S. R. (2014). Body size and activity times mediate mammalian responses to climate change. Global change biology, 20(6), 1760-1769.

Mills, L. S., Zimova, M., Oyler, J., Running, S., Abatzoglou, J. T., & Lukacs, P. M. (2013). Camouflage mismatch in seasonal coat color due to decreased snow duration. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(18), 7360-7365.

Nussey, D. H., Postma, E., Gienapp, P., & Visser, M. E. (2005). Selection on heritable phenotypic plasticity in a wild bird population. Science, 310(5746), 304-306.

Pilfold, Nicholas W., et al. "Migratory response of polar bears to sea ice loss: to swim or not to swim." Ecography (2016).

Pounds, J. A., et al. (2006). Widespread amphibian extinctions from epidemic disease driven by global warming. Nature, 439(7073), 161-167.

Réale, D., McAdam, A. G., Boutin, S., & Berteaux, D. (2003). Genetic and plastic responses of a northern mammal to climate change. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B- Biological Sciences, 270(1515), 591-596.

Stewart, J.A.E., et al. (2015). Revisiting the past to foretell the future- summer temperature and habitat area predict pika extirpations in California. Journal of Biogeography, 42(5), 880-890.