Geographic Information Systems: What is it? And how does it help biologists?

Geographic Information Systems or GIS as it is commonly referred to as, belongs to the discipline of Spatial Information Science (SIS). GIS allows the visualization, analysis, interpretation and study of relationships and trends of various levels of data1. In a recent seminar by Dr Michael Chang and Dr Alana Grech from Macquarie University’s Department of Environment and Geography, they explain how GIS is far more than a Google maps program and plays a vital role in the study of biological sciences.

GIS has a range of applications allowing it to be used in a number of fields and agencies including; Government, business, utilities, communications, social science, marine and climate science as well as wildlife management1. Speakers both outlined a number of examples where GIS analysis has assisted in the investigation of biological processes and regions. A large portion of Dr Grech’s work being focused on marine systems; especially the Great Barrier Reef.

Dugong Habitat Protection

The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (GBRWHA) covers a vast area along the Queensland coast and is home to a diverse array of marine life including the Dugong. The Dugong is a vulnerable species listed under a number of conservation protocols including the Australian Government’s Biodiversity and Conservation Act 19992. Dugongs are specialist feeders on seagrass and therefore are highly correlated to the availability of their food resource. Increasing anthropogenic (human) pressures on these seagrass meadows have threatened Queensland’s population of dugongs suggesting a need for greater management of conservation efforts; this is where GIS comes into play.

The study by Grech & Marsh (2007) used aerial surveys as a method of collecting data on dugong abundance and distribution along the Queensland coast. Using various GIS programs this data was overlaid with areas where seagrass is present to generate zones of conservation value [Figure 1].


Figure 1: Areas of Dugong density and areas of conservation value off the coast of QLD, generated by GIS software1.

The capabilities of GIS are furthermore on show in the study by Grech et al (2011) where again the seagrass habitats of Dugongs along the Queensland coast is assessed. This study is comprises of a broad scale overview of the threats facing these seagrass habitats by generating a cumulative threat score, signifying areas at the highest risk along the coast. Threats include agricultural run-off, boat damage, dredging, netting, shipping accidents, trawling and the impact of urban infrastructure3. Studies such as this allows threat ‘hot spots’, where multiple threats occur at the same locality; to be deciphered by conservation planners and in turn allow for a greater protection plan of these zones.

Cumulative Threat Mapping

One of GIS’ greatest strengths for conservation planning is its ability to rank and overlay threating processes, whether they are manmade or natural; to generate cumulative threat maps. Dr Grech explains cumulative threat maps as those that incorporate all types of habitats including sea grasses, reef assemblages and barrens allowing for a greater ecosystem perspective on the vulnerability of each habitat type. These also measure the irreplaceability of a particular site; meaning the GIS program analyses the site in regards to sites importance in regards to sustaining viable populations that may or may not be solely dependent on that site.

Studies from the Mediterranean and Black Sea provide a firsthand example of how GIS and cumulative threat mapping can assist in the learning and conservation planning of threat ‘hot spots’. Over the years Mediterranean and Black Sea has suffered from intensive anthropogenic practices such as commercial fishing, pollution and shipping damages4. The Micheli et al (2013) study highlights the role of GIS in cumulative threat mapping, portraying areas undergoing low to high levels of threatening processes [Figure 2].

map 2

Figure 2: Culumative threat map of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, zoning areas under a threat category seen in the legend4.

In a perfect world, all ecosystems under threat receive adequate funding and protection means in order to maintain and protect biodiversity, but unfortunately this is rarely the case. GIS arms conservational biologists with a greater set of tools to tackle the difficult task of protecting and managing biodiversity into the future in the most effective and cost efficient manner. GIS gives biologists so much now, but what will it bring us in the future?
References and additional readings:

  1. NOAA. Geographic Information Systems. Assessed 26/4/14.

2. Grech, A. & Marsh, H. 2007. Prioritising areas for dugong conservation in a marine protected ares using spatially explicit population model. Applied GIS, 3(2): 1-14.

3. Grech, A., Coles, R. & Marsh. 2011. A broad-scale assessment of the risk to coastal seagrass from cumulative threats. Marine Policy, 35: 560-567.

4. Micheli, F., Halpern, B.S., Walbridge, S., Ciriaco, S., Ferretti, F., Fraschetti, S., Lewison, R., Nykjaer, L. Rosenberg, A.A. 2013. Cumulative Human Impacts on Mediterranean and Black Sea marine ecosystems: assessing current pressures and opportunities. PLOS ONE 8(12): e79889.

Grech, A., Marsh, H. & Coles, R. 2008.  A spatial assessment of the risk to a mobile marine mammal from bycatch. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, 18(7): 1127-1139.


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