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The Polar Bear of the Salt Marsh?


Beth A. Lawrence
Natural Resources and the Environment
University of Connecticut
Christopher R. Field
National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)
University of Maryland


Polar bears are an iconic symbol of climate change, but regionally relevant examples of susceptible biota are needed to highlight how global forces impact local environments. In this interrupted case study, students follow a young naturalist as she explores why saltmarsh sparrows are increasingly rare in coastal wetlands of the northeastern United States. In small groups, students diagram how sea-level rise may alter saltmarsh sparrow habitat and analyze a graph to determine if there is evidence to support sea-level rise. The social implications of rising sea levels induced by climate change can also be explored with an optional jigsaw activity. Students who successfully complete this case study will integrate key concepts related to sea level rise, interpret scientific data and draw conclusions about environmental change, and evaluate alternative management decisions. Originally developed for an undergraduate ecology course, the case could easily be adapted by college or high school instructors for an introductory biology or an environmental science course.


  • Integrate key concepts related to rising sea levels on coastal wetlands including: plant adaptations, vegetation zonation, sea-level rise, marsh migration.
  • Interpret scientific data to draw conclusions about environmental change in salt marsh ecosystems.
  • Evaluate alternative management decisions and work on consensus-building skills in a jigsaw activity.


Coastal wetlands; Connecticut; management; northeast; sea-level rise; salt marsh;

Topical Areas

Policy issues

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division


PDF, PowerPoint

Type / Methods

Interrupted, Jig-Saw



Subject Headings

Ecology  |   Environmental Science  |   Natural Resource Management  |   Botany / Plant Science  |   Science (General)  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Supplemental Materials

Presentation of the case study in class alternates between displaying slides from the PowerPoint set below and working through the case study handout.

  saltmarsh_sparrow.pptx (~4MB)

Answer Key

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