UNCG Biology 589a — Biogeography

Biogeography, the study of the geographical distribution of animals and plants, has been one of the core disciplines of evolutionary biology since the days of Darwin and Wallace. We will examine the origins of biogeography as an historical science, the biogeographic evidence that supported the theory of evolution, Ice Age biogeography and the “refuge” theory, Gondwana distributions and continental drift, and the relationship of phylogeny to biogeography. We will also examine the conflict between evolutionary and ecological explanation in biogeography, and ask whether this conflict is real, and if so, how it may be resolved. The course format will be a mixture of lecture and discussion, with readings from Brown and Gibson’s Biogeography, as well as from primary sources.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, Center for Critical Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, 100 Foust Building (rjohara@uncg.edu). Office hours: Tuesday/Thursday 3:00–5:00 p.m., or any other time by appointment or chance. If you’d like to know more about my own work and interests you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net).

Required Texts

Copies of these two required texts are available in the Campus Bookstore, and copies will also be put on reserve in the Jackson Library.

Recommended Text

Assignments and Grading

Grading will be based on these three assignments:

Sequence of Topics

  1. Course mechanics; the place of biogeography in the sciences; approaches to biogeography. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 1.
  2. Biogeography as an historical science: “Mengel’s warblers” as a case study.
  3. The phenomena of biogeography. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 1; Wallace’s introduction to Island Life.
  4. Early history of biogeography; biogeography as evidence for evolution.
  5. The physical environment and ecological setting. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapters 2–4.
  6. Geographical variation within species: a case study.
  7. Species and allopatric speciation. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 6; Myers & Giller, Chapter 7.
  8. Dispersal. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 7.
  9. Endemism. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 8; Myers & Giller, Chapter 5.
  10. Refuge theory. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 14; Myers & Giller, Chapter 10.
  11. A Darwinian interlude.
  12. The importance of phylogeny to biogeography. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 9; Myers & Giller, Chapters 11–13.
  13. Particular taxa and their distributions, including continental drift. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapters 10–13.
  14. Historical biogeography versus ecological biogeography. Readings: Brown & Gibson, Chapter 18.
  15. Biogeography in comparative perspective:

    By these researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate productions. When we study history, we obtain a more profound insight into human nature, by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society. We trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations—the various peculiarities of national character—the different degrees of moral and intellectual refinement, and numerous other circumstances, which, without historical associations, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood. As the present condition of nations is the result of many antecedent changes, some extremely remote and others recent, some gradual, others sudden and violent, so the state of the natural world is the result of a long succession of events, and if we would enlarge our experience of the present economy of nature, we must investigate the effects of her operations in former epochs. (Charles Lyell, 1830, Principles of Geology.)

Course Project

As a course project each student will select a taxon or a region to research in some depth in the library. Students will turn in an abstract, a bibliography, and a map on the biogeography of the taxon or region on 22 April, and will give a 20 minute in-class presentation on their topic also. These in-class presentations will be given on 22 April, 27 April, and 29 April in an order to be determined.

The material you hand in should be in the following format: (1) A one-page abstract, typed and single spaced, reviewing the biogeography of the chosen taxon or region. (2) A one-page bibliography on the biogeography of the taxon or region, typed and single spaced, following the bibliographic format used by Brown & Gibson. (3) A one-page map to aid the reader of your abstract. This need not be overly comprehensive: if you choose a taxon with 20 species, for example, you need not illustrate the distribution of every one of those species. The purpose of the map is to help in understanding the abstract, and it should include those taxa and locations mentioned in the abstract.

I will be happy to provide guidance on the selection of a topic should anyone so desire, and to suggest avenues for library research. I encourage you to choose your topic soon and verify that enough information on the topic is available in the library.

Guidelines for Abstract Writing

Nearly every paper published in the sciences today is accompanied by an abstract. An abstract is a miniature version of the paper, able to stand on its own, which repeats all of the important conclusions of the work. Abstracts are often reproduced separately in publications like Biological Abstracts and may be the only part of a paper that many people see. Abstract writing is thus an important skill that should be cultivated by all students in the sciences.

Students in this class will be required to submit three abstracts of chapters from Brown & Gibson’s Biogeography or Myers & Giller’s Analytical Biogeography over the course of the term. These will be due February 23, March 16, and April 6. It is not necessary that these be on chapters that we have already covered in class, or will cover: you may choose any chapter you wish in either book. (Exception: there are a couple of chapters in Myers & Giller that have summaries at the end. You may not choose to write abstracts of these chapters.) Do not expect to be able to write your abstracts the night before they are due: in order to write a good abstract one must have thoroughly absorbed the material (as a result of several readings), and must carefully condense it into the proper form. And good abstracts, not hasty summaries, are what are expected.

Common Errors in Abstract Writing

Often an abstract is written as though it were an introductory paragraph to the paper as a whole. An abstract is not an introduction: it is a free-standing miniature paper of its own and should not make reference to the remainder of the paper. Thus in an abstract one should never say “The results discussed below demonstrate that Darwin was mistaken,” because when the abstract appears on its own in Biological Abstracts or some other indexing source, “discussed below” has no meaning. Similarly, one should avoid phrases like “I will show that Darwin was correct in his assertions,” because in isolation these phrases are also meaningless. “I will show” such-and-such means that you will show it somewhere in the next few pages, but for a reader examining only the abstract there are no more pages.

Often abstracts are written discursively rather than declaratively. This is also a mistake. An abstract is a highly condensed piece of writing, and in an abstract one should dispense with many of the phrases that fill out ordinary prose. Instead of saying “We believe that Wallace was an unimportant figure” you should say “Wallace was an unimportant figure.” Replace “The research conducted by Mengel laid the foundations for further work in refuge theory” with “Mengel laid the foundations for later refuge theory.”

Sample Format for Abstracts

Submitted abstracts should be typed, single-spaced, and should fill one page with standard margins (about one inch all around). The following format should be followed as closely as possible:

Lynch, J.D. 1988. Refugia. Pp. 311–342 in: Analytical Biogeography (A.A. Myers and P.S. Giller, eds.). London: Chapman and Hall.

Abstract by: Jane Smith, Department of Biology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina 27402 U.S.A. [date].

[text of abstract]

Sample Abstracts

Every scientific journal specifies the particular format in which its abstracts appear, and these vary slightly from one journal to the next. In most journals the authors’ addresses appear as part of the abstract, but in some journals, such as Science, they appear at the bottom of the page. You will be provided with some examples that illustrate many of the principles of abstract writing. Note in particular the declarative style that these examples use.

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