Humans have now altered essentially every natural ecosystem in the world, and among the numerous consequences of anthropogenic global change, many of the Earth’s species are currently living under drastically different environmental and ecological conditions. On one hand, many species that once thrived in the wild are now threatened by extinction, while at the same time, species that were historically benign are becoming invasive in different parts of the world. To address this major challenge, it is critical that conservation practitioners understand the multiple short- and long-term climatological, geological, and evolutionary mechanisms that have resulted in the current distribution of species; understanding how these same mechanisms interact is also key in predicting species distributions—and possible extinctions—into the future. Using the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), an open-access worldwide database of species occurrences, this research project exercise is designed to guide teams of students through the process of: a) identifying and researching characteristics relevant to understanding species distribution (e.g., age of the group, habitat requirements, dispersal capabilities); b) representing the present and historic species distribution; c) critically assessing the quality and amount of information available; d) using that information to understand species history and potential future challenges the species may either face or impose on the ecosystems; and e) sharing the results with peers and learning from that experience.
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