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Examining human impacts on tusk evolution in elephants using authentic research data

Author(s): Kaitlin Bonner

St. John Fisher College

1492 total view(s), 1567 download(s)

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In this activity students explore and analyze real, authentic research data paired with HHMI’s “Selection for Tuskless Elephants” video in a hands-on investigation of human impacts on elephant evolution.

Licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International according to these terms

Version 1.0 - published on 17 May 2019 doi:10.25334/Q4475W - cite this


The successful integration of data exploration into the classroom has the potential to play a major role in the quest for quantitative literacy in undergraduate biology students. The creation of data-centric pedagogies has become easier with the increased availability of resources through the public archiving of research datasets, large-scale monitoring data, citizen science projects, and data from biological collections. These materials combine the use of publicly-available data with HHMI video resources to create an authentic learning experience that promotes quantitative literacy skill development. The use of the videos provide context, giving the students a chance to experience the environment and collection of the data. Working with the actual research data allows students to think and act like a scientist.


In this activity students explore human impacts on elephant tusk evolution using HHMI’s Scientists at Work “Selection for Tuskless Elephants” and a research data set from Chiyo et al. (2015) on the relationship between illegal tusk harvest and recent population changes in tusk size in the African elephant that is publicly-available through Dryad Data Repositories. There are three options for working with the data, including a data figure analysis activity, Excel data exploration, and option to work with the data using Radiant, a publicly available R graphical user interface. The Data analysis activity walks students through interpretations of changes in elephant tusk morphology in Chiyo et al.’s results and how that relates to changes observed in the Elephant populations of Gorongosa. Direct data exploration can be facilitated using the Excel or Radiant versions of the activity. Both versions go through similar quantitative skill development processes, like making and interpreting figures. Students then compare the impacts of selective pressure as a result of poaching from the research data to the discussion of the Gorongosa population in the HHMI video.


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