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  • Writer's pictureJolene Pappas

Summary of simulations (2019)

Updated: Oct 27, 2019

Biology Simulations was and up and running throughout the 2018-2019 school year, starting with just a few options and expanding as the year went on. This post describes all of the simulations available going into the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.

Evolution Simulations

Arms Race: This simulation presents an evolutionary arms race scenario between a predator and prey. The simulation focuses on analyzing the cost/benefit to the predator of resistance to a toxin produced by the prey. There are two parts that produce data for students analysis. In Part I, students run a randomly selected predator through a speed test. Several trials are run and the predator is exposed to an increased amount of toxin for each trial. Students analyze the impact the toxin has on predator speed and compare this to the starting speed of the predator. While running the virtual lab is pretty easy, fully understanding the analysis portion is challenging for students.

In Part II, students test how the percentage of the toxic prey in the predator's diet affects the speed of predators. Part I can be run independently, but students will get the most out of Part II if they already understand their analysis of Part I.

Bottleneck Event: This one is really simple. Students just click along with a scenario. There are random components, so there is variation between each run, but students do not make any decisions. This is most useful as an introduction to genetic drift, either replacing or accompanying lecture/discussion.

Founder Effect: Like the bottleneck event simulation, this is a simple option for introducing a specific example of genetic drift. The available worksheet is aimed at honors freshmen (for me this means they typically have a strong algebra I background), but could be adjusted to accommodate for students who aren't as comfortable with the math components.

Natural Selection: This was the most used simulation on the site during the 2018-2019 school year. It's quick, intuitive, and fun. Students play the role of a predator and eat prey by clicking on them, while the prey move around in the environment. The prey come in two color variations (brown and gray) and there are three different environments available (sand, rocks, and grass). The starting frequency of prey color is random (but will be close to 50/50), and the final frequency is determined by the those that avoided being eaten.

Population Genetics: This was one of the first simulations available on the site and has the most potential options for use. Teachers can use it to walk students through a variety of scenarios (genetic drift, natural selection, heterozygote advantage...) or it can be used for relatively open ended student inquiry. It is appropriate for both students just starting to learn about evolution and for AP Biology students doing more intricate analysis (Hardy-Weinberg equations) of population genetics.

Sexual Selection: This simulation lets students study the interaction between natural selection and sexual selection. In the scenario presented, bright males are more likely to reproduce, but are also more likely to be eaten by predators. Like the arms race simulation, the sexual selection simulation explores evolutionary costs and benefits. For the virtual lab, students can control the predation pressure on the species to study how increased predation affects the coloration of males in the population.

Ecology Simulations

Biodiversity: This simulation is very simple to run but can be used for a variety of quantifying virtual labs. Younger students may use it for a simple count to estimate species richness, while students with a more established math background can use it for biodiversity index calculations. There are currently three virtual labs available in the resources. One asks students to count the different species in the ecosystem. Another uses Margalef's Richness Index, and the final one uses Simpson's Diversity Index. While different quantification methods are used, each of the labs asks students to run the simulation twice, representing two different time periods. Students compare the diversity (or richness) and propose an explanation for what may have occurred over time to lead to changes or similarities.

Competition: Students use this to test the competitive exclusion principle. It can also be used to simply introduce competition and niches. The scenario features two herbivore organisms that depend on the same food source. Students can control the starting populations for each species and the starting amount of plants (food) in the ecosystem.

Population Dynamics: This simulation gives students a significant inquiry opportunity with control over seven different variables in addition to the time frame. This virtual lab can be a good starting place for exploring the complexities of populations withing ecosystems.

Cell Energy

Cell Energy: This simulation can test photosynthesis, respiration, or both at once. If examining both, students can explore primary productivity to combine a knowledge of cellular processes with ecology. In addition, the simulation can also demonstration how the amount of dissolved oxygen is impacted by temperature. Students can control the number of plants and fish, light color and intensity, and temperature. Teachers can direct student learning with specific parameter requirements, or students can use inquiry skills to design their own investigations.


There are four heredity simulations available, each with different combinations of traits. Heredity I tests two autosomal traits with basic dominant/recessive inheritance patterns. Heredity II tests a single X-linked trait. Heredity III can be used to study epistasis and incomplete dominance. Finally, Heredity IV can be used to study two linked traits.

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