Teaching Biodiversity & Evolutionary Biology in a North American Marine Coastal Environment

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The oceans are among the most biodiverse of Earth's environments. Introducing students to this diversity in the field provides an opportunity to examine the evolution of animals. We detail how readily afield-based biodiversity and evolution class can be designed and taught in a phyletically diverse marine setting in North America.

Key Words: Teaching biodiversity; marine field stations; taxonomy; molecular phylogenetics; morphology.

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An understanding of biodiversity--and, specifically, of how diversity is tied to evolution--is difficult to fully convey in a classroom setting. Taxonomy and biodiversity are often taught through rote memorization of taxonomic names in the spirit of the Linnaean hierarchy, not allowing students the opportunity to handle real, tangible specimens. Field-based courses permit students to have hands-on, practical training in these areas without relying solely on textbooks. For biology teachers, this may entail the uncertainty of finding accessible and relatively small areas in which substantial marine phyletic biodiversity can be found. Indeed, it may surprise some to hear that such localities exist in North America. In May 2009, we conducted an 11-day field course in Passamaquoddy Bay, New Brunswick, based out of Huntsman Ocean Sciences (HOS) in St. Andrews. The main objective of the course was to survey and inventory the local marine biodiversity in terms of taxonomic richness and, moreover, to use genetic material from collected specimens to create an animal "tree of life" showing the evolutionary history of the organisms collected by the students. The variety of environments in Passamaquoddy Bay and the resources provided by HOS create a rich field experience that provides firsthand experience in discovering biodiversity and in using various methods of organismal collection. This article is meant to highlight the availability of such a location for conducting a marine field course that focuses on surveying biodiversity. Furthermore, we suggest a model for conducting subsequent molecular phylogenetic analyses that can discern the evolutionary relationships of the collected specimens. Although this course was conducted at a graduate level, it is applicable to undergraduate biology students and could even be adapted to fit a high school biology curriculum. Field studies conducted in the manner of this course illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of modern organismal biology and engage students in scientific inquiries outside the walls of the classroom.

* Course Location

All around the world are rainforests, coral reefs, and islands, each extremely high in biodiversity, and such phyletically diverse regions can also be found in North America. St. Andrews (Figure 1) is the base for HOS, an extensively equipped research station (costs associated with accommodations at HOS, including meals and vessel hire, can be found at http://www,huntsmanmarine.ca). Located on the shores of Passamaquoddy Bay at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, HOS houses full laboratory facilities complete with stereo and compound microscopes as well as numerous holding tanks and aquaria with flowing seawater for live specimens. For the offshore collections conducted during this course, the HOS's 50-foot research vessel, the Fundy Spray, was used for oceanographic sampling, including bottom dredging, sediment grabbing, and midwater trawling. In highlighting the use of HOS resources, we note that we have no official affiliation with this facility, nor do we benefit from endorsing it. A recently published review of marine laboratories (Hodder, 2009) included several useful Web sites, such as the Organization of Biological Field Stations (http://www.obfs.org) and the National Association of Marine Laboratories (http://www.naml. org), which contain databases of marine labs and other field stations all around North America that can be utilized for teaching courses like this one. …

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