Local Species Trading Cards: An Activity to Encourage Scientific Creativity and Ecological Predictions from Species’ Traits

Jay M. FitzsimmonsDownload PDF | Volume 6, 2012

Species’ traits are important ecologically.  Examples of species’ traits include body size, generation length, habitat breadth, and mating system.  While individuals certainly vary within species for traits, the variation among species is often great.  Research on a variety of conservation topics has recently focused on whether species’ conservation risk can be predicted by their traits.  Certain suites of traits have been found to be associated with several ecological responses including species’ likelihood of experiencing population decline (Julliard et al. 2003), becoming invasive after introduction from elsewhere (van Kleunen et al. 2010), being sensitive to roads (Rytwinski and Fahrig 2012), and shifting their ranges northward with modern climate change (Angert et al. 2011).

Many species-level traits are intuitive for people to understand.  Traits are based on morphology and behavior, which are easily-observed features with well-understood functions (e.g., big mouths allow animals to eat big prey).  Species’ morphological and behavioral traits describe their natural history, and as noted elsewhere natural history is an accessible entry point for public learning about biology and conservation (Greene 2005, Willson and Armesto 2006, Kolan and Poleman 2009, Callaghan 2011).

Given the ecological importance and educational accessibility of species’ traits, it is important to develop effective teaching methods for trait-based biology.  Active learning may be a fruitful educational method for traits.  Active learning describes a method of teaching in which teachers focus less on instructing and more on providing an environment in which students can learn for themselves (Frasier and Roderick 2011).  Active learning often (but not always: Andrews et al. 2011) results in greater learning outcomes than passive learning, such as listening to lectures (Walker et al. 2008, Armbruster et al. 2009, Brown 2010, Haak et al. 2011).  Hands-on active learning activities are also more appealing to youth than passive activities (Swarat et al. 2012), which should result in greater engagement in and learning from such activities.

Herein I describe a short (less than one hour) hands-on exercise in which youth develop trait-based predictions of butterfly species responses to modern climate change.  The activity revolves around butterfly trading cards that provide trait “statistics” for each of a dozen local species.

Based on my experience leading this activity for a small group of nature-loving youth, the activity is fun, encourages creativity and critical thinking, and provides participants with souvenir cards that might promote further learning if the cards are shared with friends.  A supplementary file (noted at the end of the article) provides a template so readers can design their own species trading cards for teaching.  I believe this activity is flexible enough to be used for any taxa and any ecological responses related to species’ traits, in settings that range from a naturalist youth group such as the one I describe to classrooms of various grade levels.

Setting and Preparation

The Macoun Club (macounfieldclub.ca) is a group of youth (ages 8-18) in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada who love nature.  The Macoun Club is named after John Macoun (1831-1920), one of Canada’s pioneer botanists.  The Macoun Club is associated with the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, which is one of the largest naturalist clubs in North America and publisher of the peer-reviewed journal The Canadian Field-Naturalist (www.canadianfieldnaturalist.ca).  The Macoun Club meets weekly for alternating indoor lessons and outdoor field trips on natural history.  One of the club leaders asked me to give a presentation about my ongoing Ph.D. research on the relationship between butterfly species’ traits and their northward range shifts with climate change.  I developed a teaching activity that I hoped would be more interesting than a PowerPoint presentation.

I created butterfly trading cards akin to sports athlete trading cards with photographs on the front and trait statistics on the back (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of the front (left) and back (right) of butterfly trading cards.

I chose twelve species observed locally in the Ottawa area based on published collection records (Layberry and Jones 2011).  Teaching youth about local biodiversity can enhance interest in local species (Lindemann-Matthies 2005), although this was ‘preaching to the converted’ in the case of the Macoun Club.  Each card’s front included the species’ common and Latin names and a photograph of the caterpillar and adult stages.  Photographs were taken from websites, primarily BugGuide.net, and the photographers have generously agreed to make their pictures available for this publication (see Acknowledgements).  I also added a Macoun Club emblem on the front of each card to indicate these cards were made just for them, to increase their value to club members.  On the back of each species’ card was information on the following traits:

  • Wingspan (in mm)
  • Mobility (scale of 0-10, with 10 being highly-mobile)
  • Flight period (months when adults are flying)
  • Generations per year
  • Overwinter stage (egg, caterpillar, pupa, or adult)
  • Caterpillar host plants
  • Habitat type

Mobility data were obtained from Burke et al. (2011), who obtained mobility estimates for Canadian butterfly species based on survey responses from butterfly enthusiasts across the country.  Data for all other traits were obtained primarily from Layberry et al. (1998), augmented by other sources (Bird et al. 1995, Brock and Kaufman 2003, Wagner 2005, Opler et al. 2011).  I also included a short natural history fact about some of the species, such as when alien species were introduced to North America.

I used standard software and printing facilities to create the cards.  I designed the cards in Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 (see supplementary file).  I used rectangles of standard trading card dimensions (2.5 × 3.5 inches), which I removed prior to printing, to guide placement of information.  I printed the cards in color on 8.5 × 11 inch 80-lb glossy cardstock at a local print shop.  I cut the cards with scissors (although this could be done with a paper cutter to avoid hand cramps) and bundled them into packs of twelve species with an elastic.  In total, the exercise cost about $35 in printing and took me a day to plan, create, print, cut, and bundle cards; it should take less time for others using my template.

The Activity

On the day of my activity, twelve members (ages 8-13) and four leaders of the Macoun Club were present.  Members shared recent naturalist items of interest with each other and then I was introduced.  I described my in-progress Ph.D. research.  Species’ ranges are determined largely by climate; as the world warms we thus expect ranges to shift poleward, and indeed that is what researchers have found elsewhere in the world (e.g., Parmesan and Yohe 2003, Hickling et al. 2006, Pöyry et al. 2009).  While a general poleward shift is evident, some species have shifted poleward rapidly while others have retreated toward the equator or not shifted at all.  My research goal is to determine whether shift rates can be predicted based on species’ traits.

I emphasized that my research is in progress: I do not know what (if any) traits are related to northward range shifts among Canadian butterflies.  I felt this was important to emphasize for two reasons.  First, club members would know that no answers exist so they might be less fearful of being wrong.  Second, showing research in progress illustrates the process of science.  Textbooks, nature documentaries, and most lessons in school (but see Trumbull et al. 2005, Hoskins et al. 2007, Viney 2007) focus on what is already known about nature, not the process of discovery.  The process of science involves uncertainty, problem solving, and a level of creativity that surprises non-scientists (Schmidt 2010).  The process of science is both valuable (Futuyma 2007, Lombrozo et al. 2008) and fun (Blackawton Public School et al. 2011).

Club members were each given the same deck of twelve species’ cards and told to group species into two piles: those likely to shift north rapidly, and those unlikely to shift north rapidly.  A Club leader grouped members into pairs of similar age.  They were given little guidance on what traits are suspected to relate to range shift rates, and approximately 20 minutes to complete the exercise.  After the time was up, each pair shared their findings with the rest of the Club along with justification for why they grouped species the way they did.  After a final question-and-answer session in which members asked me about my research (part of the Club meeting routine), students went home with their deck of cards.

Activity Assessment

Based on the Club members’ and leaders’ comments and my own impression, I felt the exercise was a success.  Everybody had fun learning about nature.  Trading cards have been popular with kids for decades; it makes sense for biologists to use this already-popular format to engage youth with local species (Balmford et al. 2002).  Members’ discussions in their pairs were lively and on-target, indicating deep engagement in the activity.  I recognize that engagement was easier to achieve with a naturalist club than in a school classroom, and likely easier for a well-loved taxon like butterflies than for less-loved taxa (Kellert 1993, Snaddon and Turner 2007).  Club members were also happy to keep the cards.

I was, frankly, astonished at the high level of creativity and critical thinking exhibited by the Club members during the activity.  When members shared their species groupings at the end of the activity, they had come up with many of the same predictions as professional biologists, just with less jargon.  The caliber of their predictions was especially impressive given the almost complete lack of guidance I offered prior to their activity on what traits should be expected to relate to northward range shift rates.  Examples of members’ justifications for species groupings are:

  • The Bog Copper only eats cranberries, and it only lives in bogs, so it probably won’t go north because there’s not much of that stuff around.  [Narrow dietary and habitat niches are expected to limit species’ opportunities for range expansion.]
  • Some of the species have a few generations a year.  So there would be lots of butterflies by the end of the summer, and that means more of them will probably fly places, like flying north.  [This is the concept of propagule pressure in everyday terms.]
  • The Cabbage White probably won’t go north because it eats plants that grow on farms, and there aren’t any farms north of Ottawa.  [This is applying knowledge of local landscape to species’ dietary requirements.]
  • The Monarch has a high mobility number, so it flies a lot, but it only eats milkweed.  And the place where it lives in Mexico is getting destroyed, so I think it’s dying and it won’t go north.  [Evaluating the weight of contradictory lines of evidence in grouping a species.]

One opportunity for improvement that might increase participants’ critical thinking would be to give each participant a pack of six species rather than twelve.  Participants could be asked to work independently to decide which species are likely to shift north rapidly or not.  After sufficient time working alone, participants would then be paired up with a partner holding the other six species, and they could tell each other why they grouped their species the way they did.  The independent work prior to paired discussion might allow timid youth to engage in a way they might not when working in pairs, and encourage both students to share their ideas with each other.

Another change to the activity that might make it more feasible for school classrooms would be to limit each pair’s presentation to the rest of the class to only one species, perhaps with decks of more species so early-presenting pairs don’t ‘scoop’ later-presenting pairs.  The class could also vote on the species most likely to shift north after all pairs’ presentations.

Overall, this activity engaged participants in a high level of critical thinking, creativity, learning about local nature and conservation, and it was fun.  I encourage other researchers and educators to modify this activity plan as they see fit for other taxa and ecological contexts to spread awareness of the importance of natural history and how fun it can be.

Supplementary Files

If the links do not work properly directly from the file, then copy the link and paste it into the address bar of your browser.

  1. Editable template of butterfly cards (PowerPoint 2007 format) that readers can use to make their own cards.  (See naturalhistorynetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Fitzsimmons.Template-for-butterfly-trading-cards.ppt)
  2. Non-editable pdf file of butterfly cards.  (See naturalhistorynetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Fitzsimmons.Copies-of-butterfly-trading-cards.pdf)


I thank David Seburn for inviting me to present my research to the Macoun Club and for comments on the manuscript including his suggestion on possible changes for a classroom setting.  I also thank two anonymous reviewers for feedback.  I thank the following photographers who permitted me to use and publish their butterfly photographs: John & Jane Balaban of mothphotographersgroup.msstate.edu/LarvaeIndex.shtml (Eyed Brown adult), Tucker Barber (Monarch caterpillar), Troy Bartlett (Viceroy adult), Aniruddha Dhamorikar of aniruddhahd.blogspot.ca (European Skipper adult), Jason Doss (Mourning Cloak caterpillar), Denis Doucet (Mourning Cloak adult), Pete Eeles of www.ukbutterflies.co.uk (European Common Blue caterpillar), Jeff Fischer (Clouded Sulphur adult), Moni Hayne (Viceroy caterpillar), Lynne Kirton (European Common Blue adult), Charles S. Lewallen of www.biosurvey.ou.edu/okwild/ (Clouded Sulphur caterpillar), Ed McAskill (Canadian Tiger Swallowtail adult), Albert Meek of www.pbase.com/auk (Cabbage White adult), Tom Murray (Canadian Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, European Skipper caterpillar, Eyed Brown caterpillar, Harvester adult, Bog Copper adult), Hannah Nendick-Mason (Harvester caterpillar), Gary M. Phillips (Monarch adult), Bryan Reynolds of www.botwf.org/ (Cabbage White caterpillar), Todd Stout of www.raisingbutterflies.org (Dun Skipper caterpillar, Bog Copper caterpillar), and Thom Wilson (Dun Skipper adult).  Most of all, I thank Macoun Club members for being awesome.


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Jay M. Fitzsimmons (jayfitzsimmons@gmail.com) was a Lab Coordinator in the Department of Biology at Carleton University, 1125 Colonel By Drive, Ottawa, Ontario, K1S 5B6, Canada, and is presently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biology at the University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, K1N 6N5, Canada.

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