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Ecology All Around Us

Biodiversity isn't just something that exists far away - like all living things, you exist within a particular environment that shapes you even as you shape it. In this lab, we'll look at the biological diversity of plants and animals in our own backyards, see how that compares to different kinds of habitats, and look into the historical ecology of our hometowns: the long-term impacts that human societies have on their local surroundings. This lab will involve collecting lists of different species and creating maps of our own histories.

Introduction to Historical Ecology

Historical ecology is a way of asking how past human actions shaped the environments around us, and how our current human actions shape the environment going forward. In ecology, all living things occupy niches or roles in that habitat.  However, humans, like beavers and other living things, also make our niches.  Learn about the long histories of human influence in the Amazon rainforest and see the complicated impacts of beaver dams on ecology.

Where can we find Ecology?


Human and nonhuman ecosystems are tangled up all around us - and they all have a past, present, and future.  Check out this lesson plan for inspiration in setting up your own survey, see students from San Francisco participating in a survey called a bioblitz, and hear what biologist David Haskell learned about ecology from studying a square meter in his neighborhood park.

Exploring a Backyard

 Now that we know a little about ecology, let’s start thinking like an anthropologist. Watch the Exploring a Backyard video below and note what is natural and what has been made/changed by people. 

You might want to pause the video to take notes. 


A Backyard Discussion

Now that you observed the backyard and took notes, let’s explore it with Dr. Flachs.


Let’s go make a story map of your backyard

 Now that you have collected data, let's check in with Dr. Flachs to see what we should do with it. 

See the Storymap that  Dr. Flachs created about The Global Lives of Indian Cotton. 

Once you or your group creates a StoryMap (or alternative artifact) of your chosen area, send us the link through this online submission form.  

Creating a Story Map

There are a number of great resources that describe how to make story maps, including story maps about how to make story maps! While there are lots of great, free, open-source software platforms that can help tell stories using images and maps, the Story Map platform created by Esri, a popular spatial information software company, allows anyone to view and make maps for free. A story map is a platform where users create an interactive website where they scroll through a narrative through a combination of maps, pictures, video, and text.  Experienced GIS (Geographic Information System) users can upload maps created using GIS software or Esri’s (proprietary) online mapmaking interface, joining datasets and conducting analysis and visualization that links maps with political or ecological borders to spreadsheets of underlying data. However, one need not have any experience with creating maps or visualizing data spatially. Potential story-mappers can also create simple maps with polygons, points, lines, and labels directly in the platform. In combination with text, photo, and video content that users can scroll or slide through, these simple maps can easily illustrate spatial relationships on one side of the screen while providing a deeper dive on the other. 


The most difficult and important part of creating a story map has nothing to do with the software interface. As with any writing, the key is in storytelling. Identifying the narrative arc of a story map may be more challenging than conventional writing because viewers may not approach the map in a linear way, reading it top to bottom. However, that’s also an advantage for the kinds of complex relationships that describe human and ecological systems. Many successful maps focus on a single topic and explore it through different segments or paths, an approach that takes advantage of the ways that users navigate websites by jumping to topics of interest. Story maps offer a wide range of content blocks that can give each topic a distinctive or mirrored feel, and the mix of media and text helps to break up reading on a screen. 


While it is possible to create a story map that has no maps in it, I’d argue against it. Not only would this miss the key geographic feature of the software, it misses a chance to illustrate relationships across space and time. Ultimately, that is one of anthropology’s true specialties. Even simple spatial relationships can reveal the hidden infrastructures that inform our experiences of daily life. By including maps that ground lived experiences in place, story maps create a new tool for communicating the global and local connections that bind us.


Fun facts about the mulberry craze of the 1800s from Purdue extension:

and modern farmer: 

Recognition and thanks for helping with this activity:

Dr. Andrew Flachs: Lesson development and on-air personality
Iris Kunert: Photos and video for Exploring a Backyard and Backyard Discussion 
Superheros of Science (@PurdueSOS): Studio recording and video editing
Special thanks to the Purdue University Department of Anthropology

Email questions or comments to 

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