Exploring Great American Biotic Interchange Biodiversity

By Megan Higbee Hendrickson- Academy of the Holy Names

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Driving Questions

  • How did the rising of the Isthmus of Panama effect biodiversity in North and South America?
  • How can we use fossils to provide evidence of animal migration across the Panamanian land bridge?

Intended Audience

Middle School
6th Grade Earth History

Time Frame

Three 85-minute blocks


NGSS Performance Expectations:
Analyze and interpret data for patterns in the fossil record that document the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of life forms throughout the history of life on Earth under the assumption that natural laws operate today as in the past.

Analyze and interpret data on the distribution of fossils and rocks, continental shapes, and seafloor structures to provide evidence of the past plate motions.

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:
Evidence of Common Ancestry and Diversity
The collection of fossils and their placement in chronological order (e.g., through the location of the sedimentary layers in which they are found of through radioactive dating) is known as the fossil record.  It documents the existence, diversity, extinction, and change of many life forms throughout the history of life on Earth. (MS-LS4-1)

Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions
Maps of ancient land and water patterns, based on investigations of rocks and fossils, make clear how Earth’s plates have moved great distances, collided, and spread apart. (MS-ESS2-3)

NGSS Science and Engineering Practices:
Analyzing and Interpreting Data
Analyzing data in 6–8 builds on K–5 experiences and progresses to extending quantitative analysis to investigations, distinguishing between correlation and causation, and basic statistical techniques of data and error analysis.

  • Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence for phenomena.

ELA/Literacy Common Core Standards:
Compare and contrast the information gained from experiments, simulations, video, or multimedia sources with that gained from reading a text on the same topic.

Resources and Materials

National Geographic “Clash of the Americas

Battle for the Americas

National School Reform Faculty Text Rendering Protocol

Key Academic and/or Scientific Language

Plate tectonics, paleontology, fossil, binomial nomenclature, classification of animals, isthmus


What knowledge and skills will students acquire?

Students will be able to:

  • Use an interactive notebook to take Cornell notes
  • Collaborate with peers during discussions
  • Ask questions about process scientists use when identifying fossils and the process scientists use when developing theories
  • Create a scientific illustration
  • Analyze information from video and print source on a topic
  • Explain how animals are classified
  • Summarize the events that occurred during GABI


  • Students notebooks will be assessed for completeness of notes
  • Articles should show evidence of deep reading.  Students should demonstrate thoughtful contributions during text rendering protocol
  • BioDiversty plaques will be assessed using a rubric
  • Students will take a unit assessment and complete three tasks on a Think-Tac-Toe board covering topics taught during our Earth History unit

Teaching Phase

Block 1: Introduction to GABI
Driving questions:
Why are paleontologists interested in studying fossils in Panama?

What is the Great American Biotic Interchange (GABI)?

  • Science Starter: What is a fossil?  What does a fossil tell scientists about the past? (Science starter should be completed in the student’s notebook.) After students have completed their responses have them discuss as a table group.  Students should select a spokesperson to share the table’s ideas out to the class.
  • Teacher Slide Show: “Biodiversity in Panama”
  • Read “Battle for Americas”Distribute the article to the students.  Allow students time to “actively” read the text.  (A text that has been actively read should show signs of comprehension that could include: highlighting, underlining, questions, or ah-ha’s recorded in the margins on the text.)

Block 2: Text Rendering Protocol & Video
Driving Question:
How did the rising of the Isthmus of Panama change the biodiversity of North and South America?
How do scientists use data to dram conclusions about Earth’s history?
Text: Battle for the Americas
Text Rendering Protocol

To allow students to collaboratively construct meaning, and expand thinking about text or a document.


  • A facilitator (For this lesson the teacher should facilitate, as students become familiar with the protocol they will be able to take over the role of facilitator.)
  • A scribe to track the sentences, phrases, and words students find important. (In addition to the scribe that records information on the projected copy of the article, I have the students record the information on their individual articles to keep them engaged in the text.)

Set Up:

Protocol Steps:
Round 1: Each student shares a sentence from the article that they found to be significant. (If this is the first time using the protocol in class, the facilitator should model the process.) Each student will underline the sentence and put the sharing students initials next to the sentence. (Note: Sentences cannot be repeated so you may have students find a couple of sentences that they could use.)
Round 2: Each student shares a phrase that is significant.
Round 3: Each student shares a word that they found significant.
Round 4: The group discusses what they have heard and what it says about the document.
Round 5: The group shares the new words and any new insights about the document.
Round 6: The group debriefs the text rendering process.

Student watch “Clash of the Americas
While watching the videos students should take Cornell notes in their interactive notebook.  At the conclusion of the video students should complete the reflection portion of their notes, if time is short, students may complete their reflections for homework.

Block 3: Creating a Biodiversity Wall
Driving Questions:
What is biodiversity?
What species were introduced to North and South America as a result of the closing of the land bridge?

  • Numbered Heads together warm-up focusing on question “What animals crossed GABI into either North or South America?  Use your video notes and article to support your discussions.”
  • Share pictures of the BioDiversity wall as seen in BioMuseo.  Discuss the significance of the colors of the cards.  Determine a definition for biodiversity.
  • Distribute a GABI animal inventory to students and discuss the animals found on the list.  Point out significant migrators from both the north and south.
  • Distribute a Biodiversity wall plaque-planning sheet to students. Discuss the color key found on the planning sheet and allow students to select their GABI animal. (Students could be assigned animals randomly by allowing them to draw an animal off the list from a bag, or by assigning a number to each animal and allowing students to choose a number.)
  • Have students use their iPads to look up information on their animal.  Students could record some or all of the following information: scientific name, common name, diet, habitat, origin, lifespan, and size.
  • Students should create an illustration of their animal and fill in the border and background using the color key on their planning sheet.
  • Student illustrations should be displayed in a common space, such as a hallway, lunchroom, or commons.  Display can be organized by direction of animal migration or animal classification.


Reading | Writing | Speaking | Listening Strategies

  • Use text and video sources to ask questions
  • Participate effectively in discussion
  • Present information and supporting evidence
  • Draw evidence from informational text
  • Determine central ideas from text
  • Write an argument to support a claim
  • Listen and participate in discussion about non-fiction text
  • Listen to content presented in video format
  • Compare and contrast content from text and video source on a similar topic

Learning Progression

Prior Knowledge

  • How to use Cornell notes during an informational video
  • What are the science and engineering practices
  • Strategies to read non-fiction text
  • How to use iPad to obtain information from internet

Current Knowledge

  • How to determine main idea
  • How to determine evidence and supporting information
  • How to actively participate in discussion

Future Skills

  • How to obtain information from non-fiction text and video sources
  • How to construct answers to scientific questions
  • How to determine importance of historical events

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