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How many species are there? Determining species richness

One of the simplest questions an ecologist can ask about a site is how many species live there. The answer is important for basic researchers and managers alike, but can be deceptively hard to obtain. This exercise introduces students to the issues surrounding the estimation of species richness, and can be completed in a single three-hour lab session. Students will learn to collect data in the field, obtain their own estimates of species richness, and evaluate the underlying assumptions and validity of these estimates. The exercise is written for estimating the species richness of trees in forests but could easily be adapted for other plant or animal communities. TIEE
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Primary or BEN resource type
Secondary resource type
General Biology Core Concepts
Discipline Specific Core Concepts
Life science discipline (subject)
Keywords Species diversity, species richness, biodiversity, community ecology, plant ecology, forest ecology, scale, sample, estimate, TIEE
Intended End User Role
Educational Language
Pedagogical Use Description In the field, students will learn to identify common trees. Afterwards, they will produce a short report that shows their calculations and resulting estimates of species richness, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of these estimates based on general principles and their own field observations.


This lab was originally designed for estimating species richness of eastern deciduous forest trees, during the growing season. It can be adapted easily to other taxa or environments, with appropriate changes to sampling methods and materials.


This experiment has been used successfully in an upper-level undergraduate and graduate ecology lab course. A simplified version of this lab could also be utilized in lower level biology, ecology, or conservation courses. We typically have four to six lab sections of 10-14 students each, with each section split into teams of three or four students. Data collected during the field portion of the exercise are pooled across all teams by the instructor, and shared with the entire class through email or the class website. Each student must analyze both the data collected by his or her own team and by the entire lab section, estimate species richness from a smaller and larger data set, and compare their values.
Primary Author Controlled Name
Primary Author Affiliation Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee
Primary Author email
Secondary Author Name(s) David W. Tonkyn
Secondary Author Affiliation(s) Department of Biological Sciences, Clemson University
Submitter Name Teresa Mourad
Submitter Email
Rights Authors hold copyright
Date Of Record Submission 2015-01-21

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