Exploring species distribution changes and their drivers using digital natural history data 

Developed by: Tanya Dewey1*, Tiffany Doan2, John Carroll3, Liz Alter4

1Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO; 2New College of Florida, Sarasota, FL; Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA; 4California State University Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA
*Corresponding author


Species are typically found within a geographic range that is determined by physical tolerances and biological interactions. However, the geographic range for a species may change over time as local conditions become unfavorable or new areas become more favorable. In this CURE, students will develop their own research questions to explore changes in species distributions using digital collections data. Students will compare present species distributions, using resources such as iNaturalist and/or their own field observations, with historical distributions using digitized natural history collections data. Working in teams, students will select species of regional importance or interest and develop research questions and form hypotheses. Using tools developed in this course, students will access, download, and clean digital natural history collections data, georeference records, and use mapping tools to develop visualizations. This research will allow students to draw conclusions on how species ranges have shifted over time, and then explore other data - climate, invasive species, urbanization - to form new hypotheses on the drivers of the range shifts they observe. By using publicly available digitized collections to answer student-led research questions, students gain ownership of the research question and learn to leverage existing, open-access databases to answer ecological questions. 

Learning Objectives

  • Develop a research question: formulate testable hypotheses and state their predictions. 

  • Describe the potential utility, along with the biases and uncertainties, in specimen and observational data.

  • Download and clean digital collections data

  • Compare and agree upon analytical approaches to be employed.

  • Analyze data to create and interpret informative graphs or other data visualizations.

  • Alter research strategies through an iterative process.

  • Contribute observations to natural history databases to augment data available for analysis.

  • Prepare and present results/conclusions to peers in oral and/or written format.

Intended Audience: Undergraduate, all levels. Suitable for in-person, hybrid, or online courses.

Learning Time: Flexible, from 7-15 weeks

Required Resources: Access to computers and internet. All resources, data, and tools needed to complete this tool are freely available online. No physical lab or materials are needed.

Optional Tools: QGIS, R Studio


Curriculum Materials

  • CURE Syllabus- Distributions and their Drivers

  • Background on Species Distributions

  • Introduction to iNaturalist and GBIF- Digital Natural History Resources 

  • Introduction to Taxonomy and Taxonomic Name Changes

  • Downloading and Cleaning Data from iDigBio

  • Downloading and Cleaning Data from iNaturalist

  • Mapping Distributions with QGIS

  • Spatial Analysis in QGIS and Excel

Created by Carly N. Jordan Last Modified Sat February 12, 2022 6:43 pm by Carly N. Jordan