GIS and Biodiversity

Published: May 22nd, 2017

Category: Uncategorized

By Musa Jundi

The study of conservation biology and biodiversity has recently been transformed by the growing available technologies in genome sequencing, databasing, and computation. Data has never been so easily accessible, and with this surge of new available information, more techniques can be used to investigate issues in conservation and ecology. One such technique is the application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in studying the relationships between the many variables in an ecosystem.

In a recent article in Landscaping and Urban Planning, scientists utilize GIS of land cover to develop a framework for biodiversity conservation by which government planning agencies can minimize the negative impact of developing and construction on biodiversity.[1] Since it has been documented that land cover (e.g. pavement, roads, land development, etc.) is directly responsible for most global terrestrial biodiversity loss, it is imperative that we improve the ways we approach land development and expansion.[1,2] Another example of the application of GIS is provided by a project at Alabama A&M University. They use satellite image data and GIS to investigate the causes of the deforestation in Digya National Park in Ghana (see Figures 2 and 3). The data reveals that the largest contributor to deforestation in the park is the expanding Lake Volta, accounting for two-thirds of all deforestation factors.[3] The lake is the largest man-made lake in the world by surface area, and it formed as a result of flooding in the Volta River Basin due to the Akosombo Dam (a.k.a. the Volta Dam). The study outlines policy recommendations for the Wildlife Department, including the need for them to coordinate protection efforts with the departments that have authority over the Volta Dam.

These two examples illustrate the potential for very useful research, leading to direct and possibly immediate intervention in areas where biodiversity is being severely threatened. Roger Tomlinson first coined the concept of GIS in 1968. Although GIS have been used for decades, there have been several bottlenecks that prevented progress in conservation biology, namely the lack of proper catalogs and databases with geographical and temporal data for archived specimens, and the lack of computers that could crunch the numbers on such highly intensive computations in a reasonable amount of time.[4]

Computing power grew substantially since the concept of GIS was introduced, eventually leading to the advent of supercomputers, which has opened up numerous possibilities in virtually all fields of science. Scientists now have many tools and methods available to them for accessing the computer power they need. However, in the case of conservation, much of that power remains untapped due to the lack of available formatted data to work with. Recent global efforts to address this issue may give both academics and citizen scientists the ability to expand on previous projects and uncover trends in biodiversity that went unnoticed without the aid of computational methods.[5] Many of those efforts include the careful maintenance of geographical data, which will be of significant use in the analysis of ecological phenomena, and in the modeling of ecosystems with complex GIS using multidimensional data. 

For more information on GIS and conservation biology, visit


  1. S. A. Gagné, et al., “A simple landscape designs framework for biodiversity conservation”, Landscape and Urban Planning, vol. 136, pp. 13-27, 2015.
  2. T. Newbold, et al., “Global effects of land use on local terrestrial biodiversity”, Nature, vol. 520, pp. 45-50, 2016.
  3. Y. A. Twumasi, T. L. Coleman, and A. Manu, “Biodiversity Management Using Remotely Sensed Data and GIS Technologies: The Case of Digya National Park, Ghana”, In Proceedings of the 31st International Symposium on Remote Sensing of Environment, 2015.
  4. “The 50th Anniversary of GIS”, ESRI, 2012.
  5. iDigBio.



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