Module 6: Modern (Living) Animals – What Do the Habitat Preferences and Geographic Distribution of Modern Animals Tell Us about Why Animals Live Where They Do?

James S. Oliver III and Russell W. Graham, The Pennsylvania State University


Paleoecologists reconstruct past climates and ecosystems by comparing the habits and habitats preferred by living animals or ones closely related to those found as fossils. In this module, students take the first step in this process by examining modern species distributions to make observations about species habitat preferences. Given a list of species, students use the Neotoma Explorer to obtain species distribution maps and compare them to temperature and precipitation maps. A series of questions guide them through their comparison and analysis of the maps.

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Learning Goals

By the end of this activity, participants will:
  1. Gain basic information about how paleoecologists use modern species distributions to inform studies of past and climates and ecosystems.
  2. Analyze data, make observations, and develop hypotheses.

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 sixth 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 6: Modern (Living) Animals – What Do the Habitat Preferences and Geographic Distribution of Modern Animals Tell Us about Why Animals Live Where They Do? (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 4.2MB Jul5 18)

Species information sheets:

Cryptotis parva (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 493kB May24 18)

Myodes gapperi (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 468kB May24 18)

Microtus xanthognathus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 555kB May24 18)

Cynomys ludovicianus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 8.2MB May24 18)

Neotoma floridana (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 881kB May24 18)

Thomomys talpoides (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 588kB May24 18)

Phenacomys intermedius (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 515kB May24 18)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Neotoma Explorer Hints, Tips, and Cautions

When conducting new searches, be sure to cancel previous search criteria. It is easy forget a previously set criteria and conduct searches on unintended criteria.

When examining dates for a deposit, be sure to expand the Analysis Unit column to view the age range. A date range is often given, but the younger age is not visible until you expand the column. You expand the column like you would in Excel by moving your cursor over the line dividing the columns (in the data part of the table) until a the expand icon (vertical line with arrows on either side), clicking and dragging the icon.

In selecting ages to examine for change, the ranges can be set at any value in the Age Range Box. However, for most of these exercises, it will probably be preferable if the students used the following ranges as they relate to the basic climate events in North America over the last 20,000 years.



Give the students other species like Dicrostonyx, Synaptomys borealis, Sciurus niger, Ochotona princeps, Ovis canadensis, Bison bison and ask hem to gorm hypotheses andn test them.

References and Resources

Module 1: An Ecology/Climate Scenario

See species information sheets for specific references.