Principal Ecological Question Addressed

How do species, communities, and habitats change over the landscape from areas of little or no human influence to areas with high human influence?


What Happens

To investigate how species, communities, and habitats change over the rural-urban (or pristine to human-dominated) gradient students conduct a series of biological inventories, field measurements, taxonomic keying out, natural history classifications, landscape classifications, statistical analyses, and a literature review. Each laboratory session will be geared towards one or several of these aspects, with groups of five students working together. Biological inventories and field measurements will take place outdoors, while the remaining aspects take place in the laboratory.

During the first week, lab sections take a walking tour of the local ecosystem (generally urban or human-influenced if near a college or university) to acquaint students with ecological relationships, plants, animals, and the environment in which they live. In the second week the semester-long project guidelines are handed out to students and gone over during lab. The remainder of the lab is dedicated to literature, literature review, and using database search tools in a computer laboratory. During the next four to six weeks (weeks 2-8), students visit different plots along the gradient to conduct biological inventories and record environmental aspects that they can use to assess a human influence gradient. Over the course of this six week period (e.g., when inclement weather is present) a lab session is devoted to data entry, quality control and assurance (QA/QC), metadata (information about data or data about data), and data synthesis in a computer lab. Students enter the field data, add in natural history information, including scientific nomenclature, body mass (animals) or biomass (trees), native or exotic/invasive, etc. that they have obtained through field guides or reputable on-line documents. Finally, students have their field notebooks evaluated after the second field visit. In the ninth and tenth weeks, the laboratory time is devoted to a basic statistical lab (which can also be broken out for a separate exercise and graded if desired) and graphical interpretations. Statistical information includes a short lecture on what the statistics are testing, why they are useful, and how to interpret them. Depending upon the institution and time a third week and component also can be included on integrating GIS into the exercise. In the eleventh through thirteenth weeks, lab sessions are devoted to data synthesis and analysis, poster presentations and report preparation. Finally, in week 14 each groups of students gives an oral presentations of their posters, and have one final week to complete their final lab paper.


Lab Objectives

The major objectives of the semester project are to:

  1. Investigate how species, communities, and habitats change with varying degrees of human influence
  2. Learn how to conduct field surveys (i.e., biological monitoring) and keep field notebooks
  3. Use different tools and methods common in ecological research
  4. Integrate field data with information from field guides and the literature
  5. Analyze and describe the data you and others have collected, including the use of metadata
  6. Synthesize the results, comparing them with what other scientists have previously found using gradients measured with the same human influence metrics and with different metrics
  7. Present the research findings using standard scientific approaches

Equipment/Logistics Required

The primary pieces of field equipment vary depending upon the taxa investigated (e.g., binoculars for birds, Sherman traps for small mammals, pit traps for arthropods), which can be decided by the instructor.

For the UWM laboratory, birds and trees were the species inventoried.  Based upon this taxonomic grouping, the following equipment was needed:

  1. Binoculars
  2. Field tape measures
  3. Flagging tape
  4. Field guides for birds and trees
  5. Taxonomic keys
  6. Thermometers
  7. Computer lab equipped with:
    1. MS Excel (or other comparable spreadsheet program)
    2. Statistical software capable of regression, t-tests, and ANOVA
    3. Software for poster presentations (e.g., MS PowerPoint)
    4. GIS software, if landscape analysis is desired (optional component)
  8. Access to a library where gray literature (i.e. government reports, theses, etc.) can be found and access to a literature database search engine (e.g., ISI Web of Science)

In addition to the equipment, the field labs will need to sample various points along a gradient that are predetermined by the instructor. This will require scouting out possible locations ahead of time and then arranging for the class to walk, drive or meet at the field sites. Logistically, the different field sites could be close together or far apart, depending upon the location where the course is taught. If substantial time will be required to reach a rural or pristine location, labs also can be run during a weekend day.  By having a weekend option the class an also sample several locations all in one day.


Summary of What is Due

The overall lab project is graded based on three separate components: 1) the field notebook, 2) a poster, and 3) a research paper. In addition, I used a separate literature review exercise that allowed students to get exposure to the library, and finding peer-reviewed articles on ISI Web of Science. This literature review exercise can be included as part of the entire lab or as a separate

Field Notebook. One of the keys in learning to do science is understanding how data are recorded (more in lab on this topic) and why it is important. You are required to keep a waterproof field notebook (e.g., Rite in the Rain) of your time in the labs.  The notebook will be graded twice in order to assess your understanding and progress. Details to be included in the notebook include: a table of contents, page numbers, location of the plots where data is collected, environmental data (e.g., temperature, time of day, sky), and biological inventory information following the examples given in Field Lab 1. The field notebook is worth 25 points, with 10 possible points allocated for the first round of grading and 15 possible points for the second round of grading.

Poster Presentation. Posters are visual mechanisms that allow a quick and easy means to describe the work or knowledge that you have to share.  In conjunction with your final lab research report, you and members of your lab group will prepare a poster presentation of your lab research project. This poster will be the responsibility of the entire group and the grade will reflect the input of all members. There are a number of styles and formats for designing a poster and they will be discussed in detail in coming weeks. The research poster portion of the project will be worth 50 points and will be graded independently of the research paper. The total points awarded to each student will be an average of the instructor’s grades, and the group members’ grade of a student.

Research Paper. One of the ways that ecologists share knowledge is through publishing peer-reviewed journal articles. The research paper will follow the format of a standard scientific article such as the journal Ecology, the guidelines for which I have included on the following pages. Specifically, the paper will include a title, abstract, introduction, methods, results, discussion, and literature cited. Draft sections of the Introduction and Methods are required and will be evaluated for feedback to students.

The research paper will be done individually and should reflect your own work. Thus, while you can work with members of your group on the project and analyses, you will need to write the paper on your own. The research paper portion of the project will be worth 100 points. Thus, the two major elements of the semester research project will be worth 150 points, equivalent to one exam or approximately one quarter of your grade.


Keyword Descriptors

Ecological Topic Keywords:

alien species, biodiversity, bird community, exotic species, human impacts, intermediate disturbance hypothesis, invasive species, productivity, Shannon Diversity Index, species diversity, urban sprawl.

Science Methodological Skills Developed:

classification, collecting and presenting data, correlation versus causation, evaluating alternative hypotheses, field observation skills, field work, graphing data, library research, natural history, oral presentation, quantitative data analysis, scientific writing, statistics, taxonomy, use of dichotomous keys, use of primary literature, use of spreadsheets, use of graphing programs, writing primary research paper.

Pedagogical Methods Keywords:

Assessment, evaluation formal groupwork, group work assessment.