Case Studies

On this page you will find examples of a range of ecological and marine biological studies where GIS has formed an integral part of the research. They are divided into two sections.

The first section contains case studies that are based on a variety of projects that Dr. Colin MacLeod of GIS In Ecology has been involved in over the last decade and demonstrates a few of the many areas of ecological research that can benefit from the use of GIS. They range from producing simple maps of species distribution to complex habitat modelling and predicting the effects of climate change on species distribution. The PDFs for these case studies are hosted on this website.

The second section contains case studies taken from the wider literature which have been chosen to represent as wide a range as possible of examples of things that GIS can be used for in ecological research.  While links are provided to the articles on which they are based, these articles are not hosted on this website and we cannot provide copies of them if these links do not work, or if you do not have access to the sites which host the articles.

Case Studies From Projects That Dr. Colin D. MacLeod of GIS In Ecology Has Been Involved In:

Investigating the effects of forest management on bats in Poland: Forest management often involves the removal of old, diseased or dying trees which are used by bats for roosting. This project used GIS to assess whether bats use forest areas differently depending on whether they were left untouched or whether they are actively managed. GIS was used to assess the habitat around each bat roost and compare it to a random sample of habitats from the same general areas to see if bats were preferentially selecting roosting sites with specific habitat criteria and whether this differed between the managed and primordial forest areas. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating the cetacean community around the island of St. Helena: This project used GIS to map the occurrence of cetacean species around the island of St. Helena in the eastern tropical Atlantic to help provide information for local conservation and management. While this did not involve any complex GIS analysis, it is typical of the type of project than many people initially want to use GIS for. That is, to plot their data and create maps for use in publications, reports and presentations. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Assessing the connectivity between potential habitat patches for Lynx in Scotland: The lynx has been extinct in Scotland for hundreds of years. However, it is a potential candidate for re-introduction. This project used GIS to assess the level of connectivity between potential habitat patches for lynx in Scotland, and therefore to assess whether Scotland could support a viable population of lynx if they were to be re-introduced. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating the global distribution of beaked whales (family Ziphiidae): The beaked whales are the least well known family of large mammals, and in 2006 as part of an international team, I helped provide the most up-to-date understanding of the distributions of each of the 21 currently-recognised species. This project used GIS to plot the individual records of each species and then create maps of both the known and inferred distributions which could be included in the final manuscript. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Comparing the predictive ability of different habitat modelling techniques: This project used GIS to create and process data which would be used in a variety of different habitat modelling techniques. The results of these models were then imported back into the GIS and the predicted distributions compared. This allowed us to test whether different habitat modelling techniques would result in similar predicted distributions for a specific data set. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Assessing the representativeness of survey data for use in habitat analyses: When using data for habitat analyses and modelling, it is essential to know whether these data are representative of all available habitat combinations within your study area. This project used GIS to develop a Habitat Representativeness Score (HRS), which allows the objective assessment of this for any planned or past surveys. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating how and why a North Pacific grey whale ended up in the Mediterranean: This project used GIS to work out possible routes which this animal could have taken through ice-free passages in the Arctic Ocean (resulting for warming of the oceans due to climate change) to get from its usual feeding and breeding areas in the North Pacific to where it was seen in the Mediterranean. It also used GIS to work out the distances, times of passage and swimming speeds required to make this journey. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating temporal and spatial patterns of beaked whale strandings around UK and Ireland: This project used GIS to map the locations of strandings of beaked whales around the UK and Ireland over the last century, or so, and then used it to divide the data into regional and temporal groupings. This allowed us to identify spatial and temporal patterns in the distributions of each species, and allowed us to hypothesise that there is spatial and temporal segregation between some species in these waters but not others. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating habitat preferences of cetacean species: This project used GIS to link the distribution of marine mammals in western Scotland to environmental variables, such as seabed topography and water temperature. These data were then analysed to investigate and compare the habitat preferences of different species. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating abundance-occupancy relationships in cetaceans: Abundance-occupancy relationships are one of the most widespread relationships in ecology. This project used GIS to calculate the abundance and occupancy of four species of cetaceans in western Scotland. These values could then be compared to assess whether abundance-occupancy relationships also exist in cetaceans. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating community structure in cetaceans in the northern Bahamas: This study used GIS to help investigate the structure and composition of a tropical cetacean community. This was done by plotting the spatial and temporal occurrence of each cetacean species and then comparing them in terms of the habitats they used, and their frequency of occurrence within the study area. Click here to download a PDF of the finished paper.

Investigating the effects of climate change on cetacean species ranges: This is part of a long term area of research which I have been developing since the early 2000s. It started off as a relatively basic analysis of changes in the occurrence of cetaceans in northwest Scotland over the last 50 years (see MacLeod et al. 2005) as local waters have warmed, and developed into a study investigating the effect of water temperature on the distribution and spatial segregation of two dolphin species throughout UK and Irish waters and its implications for climate change (see MacLeod et al. 2006). More recently, this knowledge has been used to make predictions about how cetacean species ranges are likely to be affected by climate change throughout the world and what this is likely to mean for their conservation status. This first involved a qualitative analysis (see MacLeod 2009), and more recently has expanded to include the development of a quantitative modelling framework to predict how climate change will affect the range of cetaceans, and other marine organisms (see Lambert et al. In Press). GIS has been integral both to conducting this work, and in developing the ideas and the knowledge of how climate change is likely to affect the ranges of marine species such as cetaceans.

Case Studies From The Wider Literatures (Contains Links To The External Sites On Which The Relevant Arctles Are Hosted):

Investigating the movements of crabs in salt marshes:  This study used GIS to look at the spatial and temporal movements of crabs within a salt marsh and related these movements to the quality of the habitat.  This shows that GIS can be just as useful for looking at study areas that cover relatively small areas (in this case only 2500m2) as well as whole oceans (as was the case many of the examples in the first section of case studies).  It also shows how GIS can be used to look at the movements of tagged animals within and between habitats. Click here to read the full study.

Assessing the abundance of parrots in The Bahamas:  The Bahama parrot is notable as containing a ground-nesting population at the northern end of its range in the Abacos.  This makes it very vulnerable to introduced predators and other types of disturbance.  This study used GIS to help plan sampling locations during a study to estimate the abundance this species both in the northern Bahamas and at the southern end of its range.  It shows how GIS can play an important role during survey planning, even when the actual survey methods and analysis might not rely on GIS itself. Click here to read the full study.

Estimating the species richness of insects: Estimating biodiversity is very important in conservation, but can prove extremely difficult to do in practice, especially for invertebrates.  This study compared estimates made from an analysis of museum specimens and from geographic-based analyses.  It was in making these geographic-based analyses that GIS was important and it was used to estimate the range of individual species using a niche-based approach which compared species distribution data to habitat maps, and information about the historical dispersal limits of a specie to prevent over-fitting of the resulting predicted distribution.  This shows how GIS can be used to look at studies involving multiple species to produce composite indices of biodiversity, such as species richness.  It also demonstrates that GIS can be applied to research on small as well as large creatures. Click here to read the full study.

Investigating raptor movements to help minimise the risk of bird strikes on aircraft:  Due to their large size, raptors, such as turkey vultures, can be a hazard to fast-flying aircraft.  They can also be difficult to spot from an aircraft while it is in flight.  This study used GIS to help develop a bird avoidance model based on the seasonal movements of raptors.  This study shows how GIS can be used in applied research aimed at solving a specific problem as well as for other areas of ecological research. Click here to read the full study.

Investigating The Evolution Of Anolis Lizards:  Anolis lizards are one of the best-studied examples for evolution in action.  This study combined the power of phylogenetic analysis with GIS to investigate how the niches occupied by individual species is related to the evolutionary relationships, and to assess whether more closely related species occupy more similar niches than more distantly related species.  This study shows how GIS can be combined with other more established approaches, such as phylogenetic analysis or genetics, to enhance the  capabilities of such techniques.  Thus, GIS is not something that should be considered on it own, but as one of a suite of tools that are available to ecologists to investigate, and hopefully answer, their research questions. Click here to read the full study.