Spatial ecology is the study of how animals and plants interact with their environment through space and time. Spatial ecology is now the fastest growing field in ecology because rapid advances in technology and techniques for capturing and analyzing spatial data drive it.
For example, Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking devices have gotten small enough for us to safely deploy on a wide range of endangered wildlife such as California condors and desert tortoises. Biologists in the field can use handheld GPS computers to accurately map out the location and distribution of landscape features such as plants, rivers, and roads. Satellites can acquire detailed images of threatened ecosystems at the scale of entire landscapes. These new technologies are providing researchers with so much high quality spatial data that sometimes we become so overwhelmed with information that we literally cannot see the forest for the trees!
Data and Digital Maps
Fortunately, advances in spatial analytical techniques are keeping pace with spatial data collection technologies so that we can effectively capitalize on these rich ecological datasets. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are an example of a spatial analytical tool that is becoming increasingly valuable for ecologists. These sophisticated digital maps enable us to visualize, model and summarize large and complex spatial information in a way that can be easily interpreted and communicated.
Esri, the largest GIS software company in the world, hosts the annual GIS Users Conference in San Diego. This year, the event drew more than 12,000 attendees, which demonstrates the increasing popularity of GIS. The GIS software can be used to create, manage and share geographic data that can inform conservation efforts. For example, we can use GIS to create digital maps of the distribution of endangered species and habitats and gauge the effectiveness of existing and proposed conservation zoning with appropriate scientific rigor.
San Diego Zoo Global (SDZG) maintains its international leadership role in conservation research by staying at the forefront of developing technologies. Recognizing the increasing power and value of spatial techniques and technologies for conservation research, SDZG has recently made a huge expansion in its GIS capacity. Thanks to a generous donation from the Ellen Browning Scripps Foundation, our Institute now has a dedicated Spatial Ecology Lab for conducting cutting-edge spatial research. Ongoing support from Esri enables our spatial lab to run the latest GIS programs.
An exciting new development in Esri GIS software are GIS map applications and content that can be accessed through any Internet capable device such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone. I have created an online GIS map of our Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. This amazing online resource enables our researchers and collaborators to access and contribute spatial ecology data anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. Users can change the content and settings to customize their own digital maps of Cocha Cashu and conduct some spatial analyses. Map layers can be switched on or off and many have pop-ups containing additional information and web links. We are just getting started with online mapping, so expect lots more cool data and layers to be added in the near future! In the meantime, I invite you to go online and take a trip to our Amazon field station.
James Sheppard, Ph.D., Senior Researcher, Spatial Ecology, San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.