Skip to main content

GIS in Ecology, Ethology and Evolution

GIS is not just for geographers! The 45th annual Ontario Ecology, Ethology and Evolution Colloquium was held at York University in May, and Esri Canada was one of the sponsors. Find out what this colloquium is all about and how GIS is used in these diverse fields.

The Ontario Ecology, Ethology and Evolution Colloquium (OE3C) is the largest graduate-student-focused conference in Ontario. Hosted at a different university every year, it provides a platform for both students and faculty in conservation, evolution, behaviour, environmental science, genetics and psychology to share their work. The 45th annual colloquium was held at York University May 13-15, 2015 and organized by graduate students in the Department of Biology and the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Although these are fields that you may not traditionally associate with GIS and ArcGIS software, many of the conference participants believe GIS skills are important for researchers in their field. As Samantha Stefanoff, one of the co-chairs of OE3C 2015 and an MSc student in Ecology and Evolution, explains, "ArcGIS is an essential part of my research, as it provides an easy-to-use interface to map out sample sites and perform spatial analyses. ArcGIS is important… in ecological studies as it can be used to visualize large sampling areas, such as lakes." Samantha's research in part involves conducting spatial analysis on land use and water quality to determine their influence on the production of algae along the shores of Lake Huron.

OE3C2015 Organizing Committee

The organizing committee for OE3C 2015. Front row from left: Lisa Rosenberger, Lianna Lopez, Miranda Chen,  Samantha Stefanoff, Sean Chin. Back row from left: Ally Ruttan, Cassandra Debets, Thomas Van Zuiden,  Katrina Gaibisels. Missing from the photo: Amanda Liczner, Alessandro Filazzola, Brock Harpur and Cassandra Silverio.

The OE3C 2015 program contained a mix of plenary speakers and oral and poster presentations on topics ranging from aquatic ecology, to avian behaviour, to invasion biology. Among the invited speakers were Dr. Frank Davis, head of the Biogeography Lab at the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California, Santa Barbara; Dr. Irena Creed, Canada Research Chair in Watershed Sciences and leader of the Catchment Research Facility at Western University; and Dr. Christopher Lortie, an integrative scientist and Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolution (Biology) at York University.

After the conference, several members of the organizing committee shared their thoughts on the importance of ArcGIS in their research.

"ArcGIS has really helped me to analyze complex networks and interactions. In particular, I have been using ArcGIS to map how the facilitation effect of a shrub can change along a regional scale based on world climatic data. This allows me to create niche suitability models and predict not only the frequency of occurrence for a species, but the intensity of interaction with neighbours."

Alessandro Filazzola, PhD student

Alessandro studies plant interactions in desert ecosystems, where shrubs act as keystone species that positively affect nearby plants and animals. The figure below shows the strong effect positive interactions with dominant shrubs could have on the occurrence of a native desert forb.

Examples of Alessandro Filazzola's research predicting the occurrence of a native desert forb in southern California with and without positive interactions from dominant shrubs.

"Mapping and using the spatial tools available in ArcGIS has been absolutely integral to my research as a graduate student. I examined how climate change may impact future cisco populations in Ontario... using the spatial analyst tool... to develop Probability of Occurrence maps to spatially depict where cisco are likely (or unlikely) to be in the mid- to late century."

Miranda Chen, MSc student

Miranda studies a very different species from Alessandro: the Coregonus artedii, also known as a cisco or lake herring. In one of her research projects, she looked at the likely future distribution of these fish in Ontario. She is currently examining changes in fish mercury levels in Ontario since the 1970s.

"ArcGIS has helped me analyze data in ways that I would never have considered possible. I am now able to easily detect both large and small scale trends in the distribution of birds, which can make a real difference in understanding them. The many ways I can analyze my data in ArcGIS never cease to amaze me."

Lisa Rosenberger, MSc student

Lisa's research focuses on current trends exhibited by two species of bird, the double-crested cormorant and the black-crowned night heron. She uses GIS to analyze the nesting behaviours of the two species to determine if and how proximity of cormorants affects herons.

"I designed the project after learning about the capabilities, uses and spatial analyses available in ArcGIS... I have begun using ArcGIS to map out my study area, and to design a systematic sampling protocol to survey environmental variables and blunt-nosed leopard lizard activity... I think ArcGIS is an extremely valuable tool for ecologists. I only wish I learned how to use it earlier.”

Amanda Liczner, MSc student

Amanda has developed a project that aims to help the blunt-nosed leopard lizard through mapping and analysis of the lizard's habitat and eventual improvement and expansion of that habitat.

Do you know of other examples where GIS is being used in ecology, ethology or evolution? Share them with us. We’d love to see how you or people you know are applying GIS to learn more about the world around us and the creatures we share it with.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Developer and Analyst in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. Her responsibilities include developing resources for use by students and faculty at colleges and universities, focusing particularly on LiDAR, JavaScript and Android app development; collaborating on projects with researchers at select universities; and coordinating the Esri Canada scholarship programs. She has a PhD in Geomatics Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and also holds the Esri ArcGIS Desktop Associate Certification.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins