Phylogeography - Why are we here and how did we get here?

You will be seeing the effects of geological events firsthand and how they affect the similarities and differences we see in all living organisms on Earth today.

You will make a physical representation of some major geological events while also investigating the implications of other such events. A list comparing and contrasting the similarities and differences of various characters of present day living organisms found in a number of geographical locations will be compiled. It will necessarily consist of generic traits as well as a more indepth study of a few specific organisms. In conclusion, students will learn about the role phylogeography has within the scientific community today.

Step 1: Geological Gyrations

Process Step Instructions

  1. Discover the history of plate tectonics
  2. Identify where these events occurred geographically and what geological processes are visible today
  3. Locate images representing the various epochs and the physical layout of the continents and oceans during these epochs
  4. Physically reproduce an accurate historical timeline of the progression of each major geological event and its effect on the distribution and physical characteristics of the continents
  5. Add a timeline of major biodiversity occurrences regarding well known organisms

  • A history of the geological epochs, with a focus on ocean formation.
  • An interactive timeline illustrating important events in history.
Tree of Life - Earth History
  • Extensive information on the Earth's history, geological processes and interactive applets can be found at the bottom of this page.
Gondwana Greening
  • Illustrated, comprehensive overview of major epochs, phylogeography, biodiversity and interesting bits of information.

Step 2: Crazy Chameleon

Process Step Instructions

  1. Research information on the organism listed below
  2. Create a table on the typical characters of various chameleons, keeping in mind the goal of this webquest - phylogeography, biodiversity!
  3. Identify where in the world these organisms are found
  4. Identify an historical lineage or timeline of the existence of these organisms
  5. Compare and contrast the differences and similarities you come across

You may find the following links helpful in getting started:

Chameleon Biogeography
  • An alternative viewpoint for the origin of chameleons is presented.
A Truly Bizarre Lizard - Chameleons

© 2004

  • Brief description and fossil evidence.
Online quarterly Chameleon magazine
  • Updated regularly, this online magazine features articles on all things chameleon.

Step 3: Intuitive Investigation

Process Step Instructions

  1. Investigate the following three topics located in the next few sections and compile comprehensive notes on the following as you will need them later:
    • Major geological events associated with the evolution of each topic
    • Geographical distribution of each topic
    • Defining characters of each topic

Don't forget to refer back to the timeline you created in Step 1.

Step 4: Angiosperms

Process Step Instructions

In North America and other temperate climates around the world, we enjoy breathtaking views of colourful flowers annually. But where did they come from? Did they just 'appear' one day? Was someone responsible for planting the very first flowering plant? Sort of. You will have the chance to investigate Ernest H. Wilson, a British 20th century plant explorer extraordinaire in a later section, but for now we will begin to understand why the Yixian Formation in Liaoning, China is an important geographical location for phylogeography, and why the Mountains of Southwest China are biodiversity hotspots.

Flower Petals

  • An introduction to flower petals and an informative source for information on their evolutionary adaptations.
NOVA - First Flower (PBS)
  • Click on the hyperlink 'launch interactive' and learn about a selection of common flowers that originated in China.
In Search of the First Flower
  • A scientific article illustrating what may be considered one of the very first flowering plants discovered to date.
Liaoning Province
  • Travel guide information on the province, its climate and geographical location.
Mountains of Soutwest China
  • Please read both the overview and biodiversity sections.
Ancient vs. Modern flowering plants
  • Clink on the 'launch interactive' hyperlink to see a movie narrated by a paleobotanist and identify some differences between modern day angiosperms and ancient angiosperms.
Exports from China

© 2001

  • Current Chinese fauna exports and a glimpse into the reason for China's multitude of flowering plant species.
The Mother of Gardens
  • A detailed account of a trip into the depths of the ecological wonders of China's biodiverse landscape and the recollections of historical events.

Step 5: Neoaves

Process Step Instructions

Most modern birds of today fall under this category. Why would birds be important for phylogeography? What can most do that you or I or your pet dog can't? That's right - they can fly! Birds, with their unique adaptations, are one of the few groups of animals that were not dependent on continental drift to shape their evolution. They simply were not put to the same constraints as the rest of us. Some would go so far as to say that birds have adapted to more types of climates than any other living organism - including insects!

Ecology & Evolution of the Galapagos Finches
  • A Tree of Life treehouse that gives an introduction on birds and how phylogeography can be applied.
Tree of Life - Neoaves
  • Neoaves, located on the Tree of Life webpage, is the containing group for most modern birds. Please hyperlink through the different groups of birds to learn about various geographical locations and physical characters.
Life of Birds
  • A very comprehensive look at the history and evolution of birds. When you come across a new character in a bird, make sure you are thinking about where this bird lives and that you are also following a geological timeline!
Bird Biogeography
  • Extensive detail on historical and scientific documentation that describes the evolving biodiversity of birds through phylogeographical considerations including climate, continental drift ancient DNA and global views.

Step 6: Coral Reefs

Process Step Instructions

Perhaps you didn't realize this, but coral reefs are important. Really, really important. They provide information on environmental stress such as pollution and sea temperature fluctuations, as well as being the most biologically diverse communities known to humankind. Their evolutionary history can be tracked back to the early Paleozoic.

Coral Reefs


  • Here you will find a selection of literature on coral reefs and their geographical distribution as well as phylogeographical considerations.
Closing of the Isthmus of Panama
  • Discover a geological event that helped shape the evolution of coral reefs.
Isolation of the Caribbean and Brazilian faunas
  • Continue to explore the effects of natural separations on coral reefs and their biodiversity.
  • This is a more advanced text that delves into genetic information.
Outflow of the Amazon
  • Understand the impact of the Amazon river on biodiversity and phylogeography on coral reefs.
  • Please read page two as well.
  • Plenty of information to draw from as well as information on the historical development of the oceans and their chemical compositions. There is also a sample of coral reef information near the bottom.
  • Scroll around to read relevant information.
Scientific Correspondence
  • A scientific study with results indicating the potential for marine incursions and the resulting paleogeographical and phylogenetic implications these hold.

Step 7: Seeing the Big picture - Relating Geology and Biology: Phylogeography

Process Step Instructions

  1. Using the information that you gathered in the previous three sections, suggest some of your own conclusions about the geographical events you investigated and the evolution of the organisms you focused on.
  2. Back up your suggestions with documented research and analyze the validity of your assumptions
  3. Write a short report that outlines the discoveries you made. The information should also strive to answer the question "How does biodiversity help scientists confirm past geological events?" Be sure to include references and diagrams.
  4. Use the knowledge you have gained by working through the earlier steps. The following links may also be of assistance:

  • A vivid description of biogeography and its history.
  • Follow the module to gain insight into the reasons for diversity on a grand scale.
  • Defining speciation and the evidence for it. Follow the module until you have read the page on speciation evidence.
  • Understand why biodiversity is more rampant in tropical regions.
Hotspots for Evolution
  • Visual investigation into climate differences and their effect on organisms.
Tree of Life - Biodiversity
  • Extensive information regarding all things biodiversity as well as links on biodiversity organized by global geographical region.

Step 8: Further Explorations - Phylogeography and Our World

Process Step Instructions

  1. Research the following:
    • Bottle necks and human phylogeography
    • DNA acquisition and phylogeography
    • Field-work/research techniques and phylogeography
  2. Following the information provided and your own research, create a Tree of Life Biography Treehouse on major scientific advances of phylogeography and the people who contributed these advances. Some ideas are provided to get you started, but there is an endless list of people to choose from who would be suitable for a Biography Treehouse page.

Tree of Life - Biographies
  • Here you will find out about Tree of Life Biography Treehouses and how to make one!.
Francis Crick & James Watson
  • DNA analysis and the Nobel laureates who discovered the double helix.
Interpreting Fossils and Biogeography
  • An interactive applet to work through that will help put the pieces of phylogeography together.
Jennifer McElwain
  • Ancient fossils and modern climate change are reviewed in a short module.
Ernst Mayr
  • A brief historical account on the scientist behind speciation is reviewed.
Ernest 'China' Wilson
  • An historical account of an extraordinary plant explorer that was responsible for importing many common flowers into the west from China. He brought in over 3,000 species and variations, of which 900 were previously unknown. Wilson published his excursions with detailed photographs in 'Plantae Wilsonae', and various other books.
Thomas Huxley & Eugene Dubois
  • An historical look at the history and development of humans.
Humans and Biogeography
  • Bottle neck considerations and the biogeographical effects on human history.

Information on the Internet

About This Page

Created as partial course credit for Origins 2FF3: Origins and Evolution of Organisms at McMaster University under Prof. Jon Stone, Associate Director Origins Institute.

All Rights Reserved.

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