Educational Resources for TRanslating ENvironmental CHange into organismal responses
What is TrEnCh-Ed?
TrEnCh-Ed is the educational branch of The TrEnCh Project, which builds computational and visualization tools to Translate Environmental Change into organismal responses. We created this website as a tutorial on the science behind those tools for people who are interested in learning about how living things on our planet are responding to climate change.
TrEnCh and TrEnCh-Ed are productions of the Buckley Lab at the University of Washington, Seattle, and are funded by NSF DBI#1349865 (“CAREER: Computational and visualization tools for translating climate change into ecological impacts”).
How to use the site
The material on this website is written to be easily accessible to advanced high schoolers, beginning undergraduates, and beyond. If you are an educator, we invite you to integrate TrEnCh-Ed into your classroom or homework activities in any way that works for you. Alignments between our content and Next Generation Science Standards is available in the teacher’s guide. The resource page also included worksheets for high school and undergraduate students. The best way to approach the site is to move from left to right along the tabs on the home page:
Miriam Bertram is the Assistant Director for the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington and often works with educators and scientists to collaborate around classroom content development. She is co-editor of an open access teaching resource “Climate Science for the Classroom” which you can preview here. Miriam periodically teaches cross-disciplinary undergraduate climate courses and will be facilitating two Current Climate Change Workshops for educators at UW Seattle in 2020. She works with TrEnCh-Ed on climate science content and organizing workshops to introduce high school teachers to TrEnCh-Ed.
Lauren Buckley is a Professor in the UW Department of Biology who leads the TrEnCh project. Her research aims to improve forecasts of ecological and evolutionary responses to climate change and focuses on montane butterflies and grasshoppers. She teaches courses in Climate Change Biology and Physiological Ecology and Evolution. Learn more about Lauren in her Scientist Profile
Abigail Meyer is a research analyst in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington working on the TrEnCh project. She works at the intersection of computer science and environmental research. She is passionate about climate change, ecology, and education. Abby works on the TrEnCh-Ed content and website.
Elli Theobald is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the department of Biology at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on teaching practices that promote equity and inclusion in college classrooms. She teaches the large introductory biology course focused on Evolution and Ecology as well as an upper division course in the biological impacts of climate change. Elli works to align TrEnCh-Ed with teaching standards and best practices and to develop content.
Nicholas (Nick) Verbanic is a chemistry and AP Environmental Science teacher at Lake Washington High School in Kirkland, WA. He is a recent graduate of the Master in Instructional Leadership program at the University of Washington where he researched the equitable implementation of Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in a high school chemistry professional learning community. He is working with TrEnCh-Ed to help teachers see how climate science is in the Next Generation Science Standards so they can help educate future generations of scientists. He led the development of teacher guides.
Mark Windschitl is a faculty member in the College of Education at the University of Washington. He studies the use of ambitious teaching practices in classrooms and how students learn about complex phenomena. He is assisting in envisioning the TrEnCh-Ed curriculum and designing workshops to introduce high school teachers to TrEnCh-Ed.
Macy Zwanzig is a life sciences teacher at Redmond High School. She has been working with TrEnCh-Ed to apply her knowledge of climate science and life sciences as they relate to NGSS and AP Environmental Science standards to develop some useful tools for teachers to take back to their classrooms.
What is Climate, and How is it Changing?
Mark Twain is often credited with one of the most intuitive and accurate descriptions of the difference between weather and climate you are likely to encounter. He said: “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.” Weather is the name we give to specific atmospheric conditions occurring at a specific place and time: It was sunny and warm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the afternoon of June 19, 1995. Climate is what we call the general conditions we see over a long period, usually on a larger spatial scale: Malaysia has a tropical climate that is hot and humid with abundant rainfall throughout the year. You can think of climate as a running average of weather records in which day to day fluctuations—like an unusually warm December weekend in Chicago—are evened out, and broad patterns—like frigid, snowy winters in the Midwest—become obvious. For this reason, when we talk about climate change, what we’re referring to is a pattern of significant, long-term changes that are taking place on the scale of the entire globe. You can explore some of these changes in the interactive linked below, produced by the NASA Climate Change website.
Perhaps the biggest changes we’re seeing are in global temperatures. As a result of huge increases in carbon emissions, average global temperatures have risen a little over 1° C (or about 2° F) since preindustrial times, and climate change-induced warming is projected to continue throughout the rest of the 21st century and beyond. However, climate is multi-faceted, and many other aspects of it are also changing. The increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that drives warming contributes to ocean acidification, since carbon dioxide that dissolves into water turns into carbonic acid. And higher temperatures increase evaporation, which means more water is moved from the earth into the atmosphere. This water vapor is then carried off on air currents, bringing more precipitation to places that are already prone to it (storms may occur less frequently but be much larger). In other places droughts will become more common, and humidity levels will change as well. These changes will have major effects on water availability for both people and agriculture, and may make once-extreme events like flooding routine.
Even the wind is affected by climate change. Winds are produced when air currents of different temperatures meet. Because air temperatures are warming more quickly at the earth’s poles than at the equator, these differences are getting smaller, and average global wind speeds are slowing. This illustrates one of the major complexities of climate change, which is that it’s variable: it isn’t taking place at the same rate across space and time. Polar and temperate regions are experiencing more dramatic increases in temperature than the tropics, winters are warming more than summers, and nights are warming more than days. In addition, climate extremes, including events like heat waves and floods due to torrential rain storms, are increasing in frequency and length. Together, all this means that in addition to changes in mean climate conditions, the range of climate conditions a species experiences may expand or contract, and it may be more likely to be exposed to extreme conditions.
Temperature and Physiology: All Curves, All The Time
How does climate affect life on earth? Human beings are pretty special in this regard—we—have developed technologies like air-conditioning and heating to change our environments, we can choose clothing to suit the weather, and many of us can easily travel long distances. Most species aren’t like us, so the environmental conditions where they live have much more of an impact on their activities and function. The specific details of this impact (which conditions are the most important, and what effect they have) depend on that particular organism’s physiology.
One of the most important ideas to understand about how climate affects living things, especially when it comes to ectotherms – organisms whose body temperature is dependent on external heat sources rather than internal physiology–, is that responses are non-linear—meaning that when we graph them, we don’t see a straight line. This is illustrated in the figures below, all of which show body temperature on the x-axis and relative fitness on the y-axis. (More on fitness in the Gradients section, but the basic idea is that high fitness means more offspring, which is good!)
Each curve shows how a hypothetical ectotherm’s fitness changes with its body temperature. Note that since measuring fitness directly requires waiting for an individual to reproduce, we often create curves like these by approximating fitness with some other measure of performance, like locomotion. Part a) shows that above or below a critical minimum and maximum temperature (CTmin and CTmax), the animal has zero fitness—in other words, if it’s too cold or too hot, it can’t move (or presumably reproduce) at all. Its tolerance range is everything in between. Its performance breadth is the range of temperatures at which it has relatively high fitness, and To is its optimal body temperature—the temperature at which it has maximum possible fitness. Part b) helps to demonstrate why it matters so much that this is a curve. Look at the arrow that shows climate warming. If an individual is currently at point A, a few degrees of warming will increase its fitness. But for an individual currently at point B, any warming will be detrimental—it will tip it over the peak of the curve and lower fitness. Parts c) and d) show why climate change may have a bigger impact on “thermal specialists” (organisms with a narrow range of temperature tolerance) than “thermal generalists”; the same amount of change in body temperature results in much bigger changes in fitness in figure c) than figure d).
One of the most useful measures of performance is metabolism (the chemical reactions that sustain life and provide energy), and plotting metabolism against temperature can help us understand why organisms often respond to climate change in non-linear ways. This is because metabolism and temperature have an exponential relationship: metabolism increases more and more rapidly as temperatures increase. As a result, a smaller change in temperature in the tropics, where it’s already hot, can have larger impacts on metabolics. This relationship can also produce counterintuitive responses to climate change. For instance, warmer winters can be detrimental to overwintering insects because if their metabolism rates ramp up when they should be in diapause, they quickly deplete their energy resources.
Move, Acclimate, Adapt, or Die
In the face of climate change, there are four basic ways living things can respond. First, if conditions where an organism lives are no longer suitable, it might move to where the climate is more favorable—a phenomenon known as a range shift. The figures below, for example, illustrate bird species whose distribution ranges are shifting uphill into cooler mountaintops or northward into cooler latitudes. (Species can also “move” in time rather than space, shifting the timing of when certain important life events take place. The grasshopper case study on this website illustrates this kind of phenological shift.)
Second, living things might stay where they are and acclimate, which is when individual organisms become accustomed to new climatic conditions. For example, the American pika (Ochotona princeps), a tiny alpine mammal, normally lives exclusively in exposed boulder fields—but as winters in its habitat have warmed, it has changed its behavior. It now seems to be spending more time in coniferous forests and under downed logs—places where it can escape high temperatures. Other animals have the capacity to become more physiologically tolerant of high temperatures after spending some time experiencing them, such as Deronectes diving beetles.
Acclimation is a short-term response to environmental changes that is limited to an individual’s lifetime, while adaptation is a longer-term response that involves changes to the genetic makeup of a population. There may be a tradeoff between non-genetic acclimation (also known as plasticity) and genetic adaptation. In the Pacific Ocean there are many species of porcelain crab (in the genus Petrolisthes) that live in different temperature zones, from cold to hot. Unfortunately, the species that have evolved to be the most tolerant to extremely high temperatures also show the least ability to acclimate, and are the most vulnerable to even small changes in temperature.
Another example of adaptation was discovered after an extreme drought that lasted for years in Southern California—likely linked with climate change. Researchers found that in mustard plants evolved to produce seeds earlier in the season so that they now finish their reproductive cycles before the rainy season ends. This is a great example of how multiple responses to climate change can intersect—this mustard species has adapted in a way that moves the timing of its reproductive events to match a more favorable climate. Similarly, the butterfly case study on this website illustrates morphological (physical or structural) changes that are likely the result of both acclimation and adaptation.
Finally, organisms that fail to respond sufficiently to climate change in other ways may die. Entire species may go extinct either locally (in one location) or globally, or they may experience marked decreases in abundance—the size of a population. The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), a small rodent that lived on only one island in Australia, is likely one casualty of climate change. While we may never know for sure what resulted in this species going extinct, the most probable direct cause is the loss of its habitat, as rising sea levels caused by warming and expanding ocean waters shrank down the available territory on the small island.
What determines these outcomes?
Everything we’ve talked about so far reveals that: 1) “Climate change” is a complex phenomenon, involving many environmental variables shifting in ways that aren’t uniform across space and time, and 2) Individual species can display a multitude of responses to these impacts. This incredible complexity is the central challenge of predicting how climate change will impact life on earth. Ecologists approach this challenge in several ways, but the one that we’ll focus on here is the use of species traits. A trait is any phenotypic characteristic or feature of an organism (e.g. body size, coloration, diet, etc.). Functional traits are the most useful in terms of making climate change predictions—these are simply traits that are relevant to an organism’s interactions with its environment or its ecological role.
In the case studies on this website, you’ll be able to use real data to test hypotheses about how functional traits affect the way different species or populations respond to changes in climate. One trait that’s likely to have a major impact on climate change responses, for example, is dispersal ability: the extent to which individuals (or their genes) are able to move from one location to another. A young brown bear leaving its mother’s side to seek out its own territory is dispersing; so is a dandelion seed blown miles away by the wind. It’s pretty intuitive that climate change is more likely to result in range shifts for species with relatively high dispersal ability than those with low dispersal ability. (Perhaps less intuitive is that high dispersal ability may result in slower adaptation, if it increases gene flow between populations and causes the loss of rare genes that might be beneficial under a new climate regime. For more, see the “Gradients” section.) Another trait that’s likely to affect outcomes is thermal specialization, described above. Species that are thermal generalists can thrive under a wider range of temperatures than thermal specialists, and are therefore more likely to acclimate, while specialists are more vulnerable to the threat of extinction because they’re sensitive to smaller changes in temperature.
Finally, since the data you’ll be exploring all come from montane, or mountain-living, animals, elevational range is an important functional trait. (Elevational differences are also discussed in greater detail in the “Gradients” section.) For instance, since mountain peaks tend to be both narrow and rocky, it’s more difficult for high-elevation populations to move upward to track climate than low-elevation populations. But weather extremes are more common at high elevations, so—surprisingly—these populations may already have the genetic capacity to acclimate to the extreme temperatures climate change is likely to bring.
Environmental vs. organismal drivers
As you work through the case studies, think about how both climate variability (which has to do with the environment) and functional traits (which have to do with organisms) influence species responses to climate change. If you find that a particular population shows a bigger response than others, is it because the climate in its range has changed more? Or is it because one or more of its functional traits make it either more sensitive, or more capable of responding, to climate change? Try to use the available data to tease apart these possibilities.
What is a gradient?
The word gradient comes from the Latin root gradus, meaning “a step towards, or a step climbed on a ladder or stair.” Biologists are very interested in climatic gradients—places where the environment changes in a measurable and predictable way as you move in a particular direction. For instance, average temperatures gradually fall and average precipitation and wind speeds rise as you travel upwards on an elevational gradient, such as a mountain. Similarly, we see dramatic shifts in climate along latitudinal gradients—lines running between the Earth’s north and south poles—with equatorial locations being much warmer and having much longer growing seasons than those closer to the poles.
It can be difficult, time consuming, and expensive to conduct laboratory experiments that directly manipulate climatic variables and test how organisms respond. That’s why natural gradients are so valuable. Observing species where they naturally occur at different locations along a climatic gradient provides insight into how their distributions, behavior, physiology, or genetics are affected by environmental conditions. To do this, biologists often set up an elevational or latitudinal transect—a series of study sites located at approximately equal distances apart along a gradient. Data collected from a transect can then be used to try to predict how organisms will respond to future climate change. In fact, this is often called a “space for time substitution” approach, because instead of conducting a study that stretches out for a long period of time, we can conduct one that stretches out over a large space, and by doing so allows us to “look into the future.”
For example, if we find that the abundance of various plant species is different at different sites on a transect, that suggests something about the ideal environmental conditions for each species, as well as the limits of the conditions it can tolerate. If conditions change, one thing species might do is shift their geographical distribution to track, or follow, their ideal climate. By comparing climate data with species abundance data, we can build a statistical model that predicts where each species will be distributed in the future.
Ecology and evolution along gradients
The case studies on this website involve data collected on invertebrates living along both elevational and latitudinal gradients: grasshoppers in Colorado and butterflies in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and the Canadian Rocky Mountains. It’s worth taking a moment to consider several characteristics that are common to the ecology and evolution of species living along environmental gradients. Remember that gradients are directional; that is, conditions don’t change randomly as you move along them, but tend to increase or decrease continuously. Therefore, opposite ends of a gradient are: 1) extremely different from each other, and 2) where we find relatively extreme environmental conditions. For this reason, we often see different fitness constraints affecting individuals living at opposite ends of a gradient. (Biologically, fitness refers to the ability of an organism to reproduce and pass on its genes to the next generation, and since no individual can have an infinite number of offspring, a constraint is anything that limits this ability.)
At low elevations on a mountain, for example, where daily temperatures are the warmest and the growing season is the longest, competition with other species for food and other resources may place the strongest constraint on fitness. In contrast, insufficient warmth and a very short season for growth and reproduction may be the biggest fitness constraints at high elevations. These differences affect how these populations evolve, because natural selection will favor different traits for each population— at low elevations, individuals that are better competitors will pass on more of their genes, while at high elevations, the same will be true of individuals that require the least resources to reproduce. For example, the same species of alpine plant may produce larger flowers in lower elevation meadows, because showy blooms attract pollinators away from competing plants. In meadows located at the highest elevations, smaller flowers may be more favorable because they can develop more quickly, and be pollinated in time for fruit and seeds to mature before the season ends.
If these phenotypic differences are the result of evolutionary change, meaning they come from differences in genetics, we describe these populations as being locally adapted. That is, the effects of natural selection have led to them becoming more well-suited to the specific (local) environmental conditions where they are found. You might imagine that any population experiencing a specific set of pressures from natural selection should eventually become locally adapted, but this can only happen if gene flow among populations is limited. Gene flow occurs whenever individuals, or the genes they carry, move between populations—like an adult butterfly laying eggs at a different location from where it emerged as a caterpillar, or a seed being blown on the wind to a different location from where its parent plant was rooted. When new genes arrive in a population, they change its genetic makeup. This can be beneficial; greater genetic variation contributes to the population’s ability to adapt to future changes, by increasing the chances that it holds alleles coding for traits that are suitable for different conditions. However, genes flowing in from elsewhere can also “drown out” those of local inhabitants, making it less likely for local adaptation to occur.
Differences among populations along a gradient can also be due to plasticity rather than genetic changes. Plasticity refers to organisms with the same genetic makeup displaying different phenotypes depending on the environment in which they live; this name comes from the idea that plastic substances can be molded into many different shapes. Often, the conditions an individual is exposed to as it is maturing (e.g. from an egg to a larva or a larva to an adult) can influence the way its phenotype develops. We call this developmental plasticity. Individuals that are highly plastic can respond well to short-term environmental changes, but these responses cannot then be passed down to their offspring. (In general, high-elevation populations of a species tend to be more plastic than low-elevation populations, to allow them to survive and reproduce in the more variable conditions that occur near mountain peaks.
The figure below shows how we can tell the difference between adaptation and plasticity using a reciprocal transplant: an experiment where individuals of the same species from two populations (e.g. cold vs. warm habitats) are collected from the field and then transplanted into the opposite habitat. If the differences between them are due to adaptation, we would expect the transplanted individuals to behave the same as they do in their home location, but if the differences are due to plasticity, we expect to see a shift to the opposite phenotype once they’re transplanted.
Coping with climate change
The history of gene flow and local adaptation in a given population, as well as its degree of phenotypic plasticity, will all affect its ability to thrive under new conditions. That’s because these forces interact in complex ways to determine how a species living along an environmental gradient will respond to climate change. For example, plasticity can allow individuals to survive under less than optimal conditions, but slow down the process of adaptation to these new conditions.
Researchers led by ecologist Lauren Buckley and Joseph Ehrenberger investigated the impact of behavioral plasticity in a North American lizard species (Yes, behaviors are phenotypic traits!). In this case, what is “plastic” is how these Eastern Fence Lizards behave in response to changes in temperature. Instead of allowing their body temperatures to be dictated by their surroundings, they shuttle between sunny and shady areas all day, keeping their internal body temperatures relatively constant. This strategy is known as behavioral thermoregulation. Thermoregulation is very important for these lizards, because temperature has such a powerful influence on physiological functions like metabolism in ectotherms. But it may ultimately leave them more vulnerable to climate change. Key here is the idea that because behavioral plasticity currently allows most lizards to survive and reproduce under a range of conditions, there isn’t strong selection for lizards whose genes make them more robust against extremely high temperatures. And we know that extreme temperature spikes are going to become much more common in the future. When that happens, these lizards’ reliance on plasticity may ultimately mean they haven’t adapted fast enough.
Looking to the past for answers
A major challenge in trying to figure out how living things will respond to changes in our climate that are happening over time is… time itself. Although climate change is actually happening faster than we had expected, it still takes many years of observations before we can begin to see long-term patterns in biological responses. That’s why, although most scientists didn’t begin to seriously sound the alarm about climate change until the 1980s, the case studies on this website rely on data recorded decades earlier. Past scientific studies and museum specimens that were originally collected for other purposes have proven to be incredibly useful for understanding both how life on earth has already changed with climate, as well as what the future holds.
One reason historical records are so valuable is that they help to address the problem of shifting baselines. Fisheries scientist named Daniel Pauly first used this term in 1995 to describe how our ideas about what is “normal” or “extreme” (i.e. our “baselines”) shift unconsciously over time as our experiences change. One clever study searched newspaper headlines published between 1869 and 2015, pulling out headlines where a superlative like giant, huge, or monster was used to describe a fish that had been caught. For many overfished species, such as whale sharks, the authors found declines in the lengths of fish that made the headlines—meaning newsworthy fish don’t have to be as big as they used to be. Examining historic datasets is one way to guard against the problem of shifting baselines, because it gives us information about how things have changed.
Why repeat the same study?
One of the most extraordinary examples of research using historical datasets involves the diaries of the 19th-century American environmentalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, who lived in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau was passionate about nature, and between 1851 and 1858 he recorded his observations about 300 different species of plants and birds, including the first dates each season on which he saw trees leafing out, flowers blooming, and migratory birds arriving to breed. Biologist Richard Primack saw the opportunity for a resurvey, a repeat study of the same species in the same area to track changes over time. By combining the tables in Thoreau’s diaries with temperature data from a nearby observatory and his own contemporary observations, a team led by Primack determined that spring temperatures in Concord had warmed by an average of 5°C, and over the same period wildflowers had shifted the phenology of their first flowering dates by an average of ten days. Not only does this kind of work allow us to quantify the amount of change that has already taken place, it also provides a (rough) estimate of how things will change in the future. In this case, we can predict that on average, every 1°C of warming will result in the first appearance of flowers Concord occurring an average of two days earlier. You can explore some of the Concord wildflower data in our Plant Phenology data visualization.
The relationship between spring temperatures and first-flowering date, from Ellwood et al. 2013, PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053788. Each data point represents a year of pre-2010 phenology data averaged across species. Mean phenology and 95% prediction intervals are also depicted for 2010 (green) and 2012 (red). Species include 1) serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), 2) marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), 3) pink lady slipper (Cypripedium acaule), 4) rhodora (Rhododendron canadense), 5) nodding trillium (Trillium cernuum), and 6) highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum).
Another famous resurvey project is currently being conducted at the University of California, Berkeley. Researchers at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology are revisiting hundreds of sites that were originally surveyed between 1904 and 1940 by Joseph Grinnell, the founding director of the museum, and his expedition partner and paleontological collector Annie Montague Alexander. Grinnell and Alexander wanted to document bird and mammal diversity across California because they were interested in biological responses to changing land use. A century later, scientists and students launched The Grinnell Resurvey Project to retrace their footsteps and discover how these species have responded to the effects of climate change in the intervening years.
The value of museum specimens
Physical museum collections—preserved specimens, like pressed plants, pinned insects, and bird skins—can be even more exciting sources of historic information than written records. This is because we can often extract additional biological data from these specimens. For example, measurements of museum specimens of two species of North American mice showed that as winters in Southern Quebec warmed, both species experienced changes in skull shape and tooth positioning, which may be related to shifts in their diet caused by changes in vegetation. And in one of the case studies on this website, museum specimens of butterflies were used to measure shifts in wing coloration that occurred with climate change. The development of new technologies that didn’t even exist at the time when some specimens were collected can also increase their scientific value tremendously, including DNA sequencing and other biochemical analyses.
We built these interactive data visualization apps using RShiny to allow you to form hypotheses about biological responses to climate change and test them using data. One thing we love about these examples is that they take advantage of both climatic gradients and historical data to really help us understand and predict the effects of climate change. Each case study includes all the background you need to understand the data and an interactive interface you can use to visualize it in different ways. Worksheets with additional background and questions designed to promote inquiry-based learning are available on the resources page. The visualizations listed below start with organismal level responses to climate change and proceed to population level responses.
This teacher guide will provide you with a better understanding as to how the tools of the TrEnCh-Ed program are organized and how they can be potentially used in your classroom. These tools can be used in teaching the high school Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the Advanced Placement (AP) Environmental Science course, and introductory climate science and ecology college courses. The tools are also designed to align with the AAAS Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education.
The worksheets contain additional background and questions to facilitate inquiry-based learning. We additionally include a folder with resources for teaching the basics of climate science as background for the TrEnCh-Ed activities. Fill out this request form with information about your educational role to access the answer keys.
Educators interested in helping us better these resources are encouraged to fill out this feedback form of TrEnCh-Ed. As well, we have created a folder to collect any edits you make to the materials we provide to help us continue to improve TrEnCh-Ed.
Acclimation: An individual level (generally non-genetic) physiological or behavioral response to a change in the environment that enables the individual to cope with this change (e.g. a plant growing deeper roots (to access moisture deeper in the soil) in response to a drought). See also: “Plasticity”.
Adaptation: A change in the genetic makeup of a population as a result of natural selection in which a beneficial trait becomes more common (e.g. male birds developing colorful feathers because this increases their success in mating).
Allele: A specific version of a gene.
Amplitude: The degree of difference from an average (e.g. the extent of variability in temperature from the mean)
Biomimetic: Something that mimics or is inspired by a biological process.
Climatic Gradient: A directional change in climate (e.g. temperature, precipitation) along a geographic axis (e.g. a fall in temperature with increasing elevation on a mountain, an increase in precipitation with decreasing latitude).
Critical Thermal Minimum/Maximum: The minimum and maximum temperatures at which an organism can function.
Diapause: A period during which an organism is dormant and development is paused, usually seen in invertebrates.
Dispersal: The movement of an individual or a propagule (seed, spore) across space, leading to gene flow.
Distribution Range: The geographic area in which a species or population can be found.
Ectotherm: An organism whose body temperature is dependent on external heat sources rather than internal physiology.
Elevational Transect: A series of sites located along an elevational gradient, at which scientific observations are made.
Fitness: The number of offspring an individual or population produces which go on to successfully breed themselves.
Fitness Constraint: Any factor that limits the fitness of an individual or population (e.g. a limited number of mates; limited food resources; environmental stress).
Frequency: The rate at which something occurs or is repeated.
Gene: A sequence of nucleotides in a fixed location on a chromosome that encodes (contains instructions to make) a protein that performs a particular function.
Gene Flow: The movement of alleles between populations.
Genotype: The genetic makeup of an individual.
Instar: A phase in the development of an invertebrate.
Local Adaptation: The process by which a population becomes more genetically well-suited to the specific environmental conditions where it is found, as a result of limited gene flow.
Metabolism: The chemical processes taking place inside an organism that maintain life.
Morphology: The physical form and structure of a living thing.
Natural Selection: The process by which alleles encoding for traits that increase fitness become more common and alleles encoding for traits that decrease fitness become less common.
Phenology: The timing of important events in the life of an organism.
Phenotype: The set of observable traits belonging to an individual.
Physiology: The physical and chemical functions and activity of living things.
Plasticity: The ability of an individual to change its phenotype in response to the environment without changing its genotype. See also: “Acclimation”.
Range Shift: A change in the geographic area in which a species of population can be found.
Sedentary: Of an animal, meaning that it lives in the same place throughout its life. For example, a mussel attached to a rock.
Space-For-Time Substitution: An ecological technique by which sites that are separated in space are used as analogues for sites that are separated in time.
Thermal Generalist/Specialist: An organism that is capable of functioning at a wide range of temperatures vs. one that can only function within a narrow temperature window.
Thermoregulation: The process by which an organism maintains its preferred body temperature, either through internal physiological processes or behavioral changes.
Trait: Any characteristic of an organism (e.g. coat color); a functional trait is one that is important in determining an organism’s ecology or evolution.
César Nufio's Path to Science
It's a common idea that only a certain type of person becomes a scientist— someone introverted, obsessive, born to wear a lab coat. But the truth is, all sorts of people are drawn to science, and the paths they follow aren't always straight.
The grasshoppers and climate change case study you can explore on this website wouldn't exist without César Nufio, for instance. César was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado's Museum of Natural History when he realized that several dusty boxes, covered in black tarp and half-forgotten at the top of a shelf, would allow him to uncover part of the story of climate change and life on earth over the past 100 years. (Inside the boxes was Gordon Alexander's collection of grasshopper specimens and notebooks—read more about how they were collected back on the data visualization page!)
This wasn't the first time the hand of serendipity had seemed to tap César on the shoulder and point him in the direction of his next step. The roots of his Ph.D in insect science at the University of Arizona can be traced back to, among other things, the fact that an undergraduate marine invertebrate class he'd hoped to take was full and there were still spaces in entomology. Before that, it was far from set in stone that he'd become a scientist at all. When he first arrived at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), he had a different plan: to major in art and become an illustrator. But like most artists, he had a yearning to understand the deeper patterns of the world. It was reading Richard Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene", a book in which an evolutionary biologist attempts to explain the most inexplicable phenomenon of all—human behavior—that made Cesar understand science was another way to approach the answers he sought. And if you go back further still, to his time at community college, there was yet another turning point that shaped journey—a visit from a recruiter that resulted in his decision to apply to UCSC.
César's pathway as a scientist has expanded to include additional ways to shape and share science. César recently served as a Program Director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), where his job was to help shape the choices the NSF makes about what kinds of scientific research to fund. It was a big responsibility, and quite far from what he imagined he'd be doing many years ago. César is currently developing educational content at the HHMI BioInteractive. We wanted to share his story because the shape of it is much more common than you might think. People become interested in science at many different ages, for all kinds of reasons. We hope that for some of you, exploring this website might feel like a little tap on the shoulder.
The stories of the people behind the science
Scientists come from all different backgrounds, experiences, cultures, and communities. In fact, teams thrive with diverse perspectives. Below are profiles of some of the scientists that collected the data for or worked on the TrEnCh-Ed visualizations. Too many undergraduate researchers to list here were essential in collecting the data and conducting the science.
Introduction: Originally from Ecuador, I arrived in Seattle in 2013 to pursue my bachelor’s degree at the University of Washington. It was during this time that I was initially exposed to research and the natural sciences, ultimately double majoring in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology; and Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, with a minor in Marine Biology. I participated in multiple ecological projects assimilating various research approaches, including assisting with Dr. Buckley’s study on insect response to climate change, where my research experience in ecology truly commenced; collaborating with a penguin research lab, where I explored my curiosity about conservation; and lastly developing more independent studies on a variety of sea creatures, like nudibranchs, halibut, and ghost shrimp, that made my passion for marine science grow even stronger. I am currently a graduate student in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the UW, where I am learning very useful genetics skills to add to my knowledge toolbox. My graduate research aims to link the genetic population structure and genetic basis of key trait variation in Zostera marina, a seagrass species and indispensable ecosystem engineer, to improve coastal conservation efforts in the State of Washington.
Favorite part of science: My favorite part of science is wowing myself with the findings of the publications that I, like all scientists, am constantly reading. I also enjoy showing and discussing my research, as well learning about other people’s works in interactive events, such as seminars. In general, I am just a fan of science communication and knowledge sharing.
Mentor/Program of importance in your life: I visited the Friday Harbor Laboratories in the San Juan Islands, WA for the first time during a weekend fieldtrip for my introductory biology class in 2014. Though biology and marine life have always piqued my interest, I had never really been exposed to actual marine science. It was during this trip that I could not only observe the diverse marine life of the region, but also learn about very many aquatic research projects, their findings, the researchers, the facilities and equipment available, and much more that, coupled with my own research experience, ultimately convinced me to pursue a career as an ecologist with a focus on marine conservation.
Favorite hobby/activity: Entomology is another field of biology in which I am interested. I conducted a small study on zombees (bees infected by parasitic flies) in 2015 and thoroughly enjoyed my general entomology class at the UW. I often find myself staring at bugs sitting or crawling on things or flying nearby, which helps me to take a break from the formalities of science and to just appreciate the wonders and beauty of nature around me.
Lauren Buckley leads the TrEnCh project and worked on the data collection, modelling, or analysis for the Energy Budgets, Robomussels, Butterfly Museum Specimens, and Grasshopper Resurvey visualizations.
Introduction: I’m a biology professor at the University of Washington. I started out studying engineering but found that I was more interested in how animals respond to their environment than in how metals bend under force (which was what my engineering courses entailed at the time. But engineering, for example developing alternative energy technologies, is an awesome way to help address climate change). My parents convinced me that continuing to study math would help me as a biologist and they were right! My research combines mathematical models with laboratory and field observations to improve predictions of how animals respond ecologically and evolve in response to climate change. I love exploring Colorado mountains, repeating historic studies to see how insects have responded to climate change.
Favorite part of science: My favorite is making discoveries about how organisms are responding to climate change. Every time I make a new plot of data it’s a potentially interesting new discovery. The visualizations on this website aim to enable you to participate in the discovery process.
Overcoming challenges: It’s sometimes a challenge to present my ideas in a way that they are heard. One early example was a grade school geography bee. On the practice day, the boys I was matched up against in the first chairs would raise their hands to answer the questions before they were even asked. I thought it was stupid to raise hands so early and that it shouldn’t be allowed so I ended up not answering any questions. Afterward, my teacher took me aside and told me that my team was counting on me to answer the questions even if I didn’t like how the boys were playing the game. She also said that I was just as likely to be able to answer correctly. During the bee, I instantly raised my hand and answered the questions and I’ve been gradually learning to raise my hand and speak up since.
Mentor/Program of importance in your life: I had the opportunity to spend the summer at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. It was amazing to live in a rickety shack in an abandoned mining town at the base of a beautiful mountain, surrounded by other scientists excited to study how organisms interact with their environment. In addition to my independent project, many researchers welcomed me to spend some time assisting their varied projects. I was hooked once I saw how much they all enjoyed their research. Check out the RMBL phenology app to learn more about the amazing place!
Favorite hobby/activity: My two young kids are working on their insect catching skills to help in the field. Their often challenging questions about how things work remind me of how fun it is to be a scientist.
Heidi MacLean led the science for the Butterfly Museum Specimens visualization.
Introduction: I am an early career scientist with a passion for research and education. I became obsessed with temperature and how it directly and indirectly influences performance in my MSc at the College of William and Mary. It is a theme that ran through my PhD at UNC and my postdocs in Aarhus, Denmark. I met my husband through heated discussions about thermal performance. Now I balance my time between research and our two small children.
Favorite part of science: My favorite part of science is the opportunity to satisfy curiosities. Unlike other areas of study or jobs I have, science offers the opportunity to both question something about the world around you and figure out a way to get some answers.
Overcoming challenges: In the beginning of my senior year of high school, my older sister was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. She was given six months but through various treatments and a collaboration with an amazing researcher at UCLA, she survived almost two years. I was in my third semester at the University of Redlands when she died. Up to that point, I had been taking a broad range of classes to fulfill the universities liberal arts education requirements. In the semester following my sister’s death, I took a statistics course and a biology course. I was hooked on both! The topics offered something that my politics, language, and literature courses had not been able to- explanations! I switched my major immediately. I devoted all of my time to research and taking three biology courses at a time. It was through the study of biology that I got through my loss.
Mentor/Program of importance in your life: In my masters’ I had the amazing opportunity to work with George Gilchrist. He nurtured my curiosity and introduced me to thermal performance curves. Anyone who had the opportunity to work with George will tell you he was an amazing mentor. George and I met weekly and talked about all sorts of things. We discussed statics, programming, science, life, philosophy, and scotch whisky. When I was finishing my degree, he encouraged me to consider a PhD. He introduced me to Lauren Buckley and Joel Kingsolver and pointed out how much our interests aligned. Without George, I would not be where I am today.
Favorite hobby/activity: Hiking, or in a country as flat as Denmark I will say walking, is one thing that really provides balance and inspiration to my science. No matter where we are in the world, it is so much fun to get out on a trail and look at the plants and animals. It is so cool to see the similarities and differences between fauna and flora in Europe and the US. Especially when working on spring tails and fruit flies, the ability to get away from a bench and contemplate the natural environment is priceless.
César Nufio led the science for the Grasshopper Resurvey visualization. We profile him here.
Introduction: Hi, I'm Meera. I'm a 41-year-old Indian-Chinese woman from Singapore who's lived in different parts of the U.S. for over 20 years. Currently, I'm finishing up my Ph.D at the University of Washington. I'm an ecologist, and am fascinated by the relationships living things have with each other and how they shape communities of plants and animals. I live with my partner (a computer vision researcher), our wonderful and ridiculous cat, three Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, and three Giant American Millipedes (which are not that gigantic).
Favorite part of science: My favorite part of science is that it's much more important to ask good questions than it is to know lots of answers.
Mentor/Program of importance in your life: I didn't know that I wanted to be a scientist until I was in my mid-30s. Since my undergraduate degree was in the humanities, I didn't have the basic academic background that I needed to apply to graduate programs in the sciences. I would not be where I am today if it weren't for the fact that I was able to take affordable community college classes close to my home.
Favorite hobby/activity: So many! Currently, planting and caring for the native plants in my yard is an everyday way to observe some of the myriad interactions between species that inspire my science—in a few minutes I might see bumble bees and wasps pollinating flowers, spiders waiting for prey, or a slug feeding on vegetation.