The Land of Maps and Charts: Geospatial Ecology

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

I love maps. I love charts. As a random bit of trivia, there is a difference between a map and a chart. A map is a visual representation of land that may include details like topology, whereas a chart refers to nautical information such as water depth, shoreline, tides, and obstructions.

Map of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: San Diego Metropolitan Transit System)
Chart of San Diego, CA, USA. (Source: NOAA)

I have an intense affinity for visually displaying information. As a child, my dad traveled constantly, from Barrow, Alaska to Istanbul, Turkey. Immediately upon his return, I would grab our standing globe from the dining room and our stack of atlases from the coffee table. I would sit at the kitchen table, enthralled at the stories of his travels. Yet, a story was only great when I could picture it for myself. (I should remind you, this was the early 1990s, GoogleMaps wasn’t a thing.) Our kitchen table transformed into a scene from Master and Commander—except, instead of nautical charts and compasses, we had an atlas the size of an overgrown toddler and salt and pepper shakers to pinpoint locations. I now had the world at my fingertips. My dad would show me the paths he took from our home to his various destinations and tell me about the topography, the demographics, the population, the terrain type—all attribute features that could be included in common-day geographic information systems (GIS).

Uncle Brian showing Alexa where they were on a map of Maui, Hawaii, USA. (Photo: Susan K. circa 1995)

As I got older, the kitchen table slowly began to resemble what I imagine the set from Master and Commander actually looked like; nautical charts, tide tables, and wind predictions were piled high and the salt and pepper shakers were replaced with pencil marks indicating potential routes for us to travel via sailboat. The two of us were in our element. Surrounded by visual and graphical representations of geographic and spatial information: maps. To put my map-attraction this in even more context, this is a scientist who grew up playing “Take-Off”, a board game that was “designed to teach geography” and involved flying your fleet of planes across a Mercator projection-style mapboard. Now, it’s no wonder that I’m a graduate student in a lab that focuses on the geospatial aspects of ecology.

A precocious 3-year-old Alexa, sitting with the airplane pilot asking him a long list of travel-related questions (and taking his captain’s hat). Photo: Susan K.

So why and how did geospatial ecology became a field—and a predominant one at that? It wasn’t that one day a lightbulb went off and a statistician decided to draw out the results. It was a progression, built upon for thousands of years. There are maps dating back to 2300 B.C. on Babylonian clay tablets (The British Museum), and yet, some of the maps we make today require highly sophisticated technology. Geospatial analysis is dynamic. It’s evolving. Today I’m using ArcGIS software to interpolate mass amounts of publicly-available sea surface temperature satellite data from 1981-2015, which I will overlay with a layer of bottlenose dolphin sightings during the same time period for comparison. Tomorrow, there might be a new version of software that allows me to animate these data. Heck, it might already exist and I’m not aware of it. This growth is the beauty of this field. Geospatial ecology is made for us cartophiles (map-lovers) who study the interdependency of biological systems where location and distance between things matters.

Alexa’s grandmother showing Alexa (a very young cartographer) how to color in the lines. Source: Susan K. circa 1994

In a broader context, geospatial ecology communicates our science to all of you. If I posted a bunch of statistical outputs in text or even table form, your eyes might glaze over…and so might mine. But, if I displayed that same underlying data and results on a beautiful map with color-coded symbology, a legend, a compass rose, and a scale bar, you might have this great “ah-ha!” moment. That is my goal. That is what geospatial ecology is to me. It’s a way to SHOW my science, rather than TELL it.

Would you like to see this over and over again…?

A VERY small glimpse into the enormous amount of data that went into this map. This screenshot gave me one point of temperature data for a single location for a single day…Source: Alexa K.

Or see this once…?

Map made in ArcGIS of Coastal common bottlenose dolphin sightings between 1981-1989 with a layer of average sea surface temperatures interpolated across those same years. A picture really is worth a thousand words…or at least a thousand data points…Source: Alexa K.

For many, maps are visually easy to interpret, allowing quick message communication. Yet, there are many different learning styles. From my personal story, I think it’s relatively obvious that I’m, at least partially, a visual learner. When I was in primary school, I would read the directions thoroughly, but only truly absorb the material once the teacher showed me an example. Set up an experiment? Sure, I’ll read the lab report, but I’m going to refer to the diagrams of the set-up constantly. To this day, I always ask for an example. Teach me a new game? Let’s play the first round and then I’ll pick it up. It’s how I learned to sail. My dad described every part of the sailboat in detail and all I heard was words. Then, my dad showed me how to sail, and it came naturally. It’s only as an adult that I know what “that blue line thingy” is called. Geospatial ecology is how I SEE my research. It makes sense to me. And, hopefully, it makes sense to some of you!

Alexa’s dad teaching her how to sail. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa’s first solo sailboat race in Coronado, San Diego, CA. Notice: Alexa’s dad pushing the bow off the dock and the look on Alexa’s face. (Source: Susan K. circa 2000)
Alexa mapping data using ArcGIS in the Oregon State University Library. (Source: Alexa K circa a few minutes prior to posting).

I strongly believe a meaningful career allows you to highlight your passions and personal strengths. For me, that means photography, all things nautical, the great outdoors, wildlife conservation, and maps/charts.  If I converted that into an equation, I think this is a likely result:

Photography + Nautical + Outdoors + Wildlife Conservation + Maps/Charts = Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna

Or, better yet:

📸 + ⚓ + 🏞 + 🐋 + 🗺 =  GEMM Lab

This lab was my solution all along. As part of my research on common bottlenose dolphins, I work on a small inflatable boat off the coast of California (nautical ✅, outdoors ✅), photograph their dorsal fin (photography ✅), and communicate my data using informative maps that will hopefully bring positive change to the marine environment (maps/charts ✅, wildlife conservation✅). Geospatial ecology allows me to participate in research that I deeply enjoy and hopefully, will make the world a little bit of a better place. Oh, and make maps.

Alexa in the field, putting all those years of sailing and chart-reading to use! (Source: Leila L.)


How Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, aka “drones”) are being applied in conservation research

By Leila Lemos, Ph.D. Student, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, OSU


Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known as “drones”, have been increasingly used in many diverse areas. Concerning field research, the use of drones has brought about reduced errors, increased safety and survey efforts, among other benefits, as described in a previous blog post of mine.

Several study groups around the world have been applying this new technology to a great variety of research applications, aiding in the conservation of certain areas and their respective fauna and flora. Examples of these studies include forest monitoring and tree cover analyses, .

Using drones for forest monitoring and tree cover analyses allows for many applications, such as biodiversity and tree height monitoring, forest classification and inventory, and plant disease and detection. The Ugalla Primate Project, for example, performed an interesting study on tree coverage mapping in western Tanzania (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Tree coverage analyses in Tanzania.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2016.


The access to this data (not possible before from the ground) and the acquired knowledge on tree density and structure were important to better understand how wild primates exploit a mosaic landscape. Here is a video about this project:


Forest restoration activities can also be monitored by drones. Rainforests around the world have been depleted through deforestation, partly to open up space for agriculture. To meet conservation goals, large areas are being restored to rainforests today (Elsevier 2015). It is important to monitor the success of the forest regeneration and to ensure that the inspected area is being replenished with the right vegetation. Since inspection events can be costly, labor intensive and time consuming, drones can facilitate these procedures, making the monitoring process more feasible.

Zahawi et al. (2015) conducted an interesting study in Costa Rica, being able to keep up with the success of the forest regeneration. They were also able to spot many fruit-eating birds important for forest regeneration (eg. mountain thrush, black guan and sooty-capped bush tanager). Researchers concluded that the automation of the process lead to equally accurate results.

Drones can also be used to inspect areas for illegal logging and habitat destruction. Conservationists have struggled to identify illegal activities, and the use of drones can accelerate the identification process of these activities and help to monitor their spread and ensure that they do not intersect with protected areas.

The Amazon Basin Conservation Association Los Amigos conservancy concession (LACC) has been monitoring 145,000 hectars of the local conservation area. Illegal gold mining and logging activities were identified (Figure 2) and drones have aided in tracking the spread of these activities and the progress of reforestation efforts.

Figure 2: Identification of illegal activities in the Amazon Basin.
Source: NPR, 2015.


Another remarkable project was held in Mexico, in one of the most important sites for monarch butterflies in the country: the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Around 10 hectars of vital trees were cut down in the reserve during 2013-2015, and a great decrease of the monarch population was perceived. The reserve did not allow researchers to enter in the area for inspection due to safety concerns. Therefore, drones were used and were able to reveal the illegal logging activity (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Identification of illegal logging at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico.
Source: Take Part, 2016.


Regarding the use of drones for mapping vulnerable areas, this new technology can be used to map potential exposed areas to avoid catastrophes. Concerning responses to fires or other natural disasters, drones can fly immediately, while planes and helicopters require a certain time. The drone material also allows for operating successfully under challenging conditions such as rain, snow and high temperatures, as in the case of fires. Data can be assessed in real time, with no need to have firefighters or other personnel at a dangerous location anymore. Drones can now fulfill this role. Examples of drone applications in this regard are the detection, monitoring and support for catastrophes such as landslides, tsunamis, ship collisions, volcanic eruptions, nuclear accidents, fire scenes, flooding, storms and hurricanes, and rescue of people and wildlife at risk. In addition, the use of a thermal image camera can better assist in rescue operations.

Researchers from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) are developing a system to detect forest fires by using a color index (Cruz et al. 2016). This index is based on vegetation classification techniques that have been adapted to detect different tonalities for flames and smoke (Figure 4). This new technique would result in more cost-effective outcomes than conventional systems (eg. helicopters, satellites) and in reaching inaccessible locations.

Figure 4: Fire detection with Forest Fire Detection Index (FFDI) in different scenes.
Source: UPM, 2016.


Marine debris detection by drones is another great functionality. The right localization and the extent of the problem can be detected through drone footage, and action plans for clean-ups can be developed.

A research conducted by the Duke University Marine Lab has been detecting marine debris on beaches around the world. They indicate that marine debris impacts water quality, and harms wildlife (eg. whales, sea birds, seals and sea turtles) that might confuse floating plastic with food. You can read a bit more about their research and its importance for conservation ends here.

Drones are also being extensively used for wildlife monitoring. Through drone footage, researchers around the world have been able to detect and map wildlife and habitat use, estimate densities and evaluate population status, detect rare behaviors, combat poaching, among others. One of the main benefits of using a drone instead of using helicopters or airplanes, or having researchers in the area, is the lower disturbance it may cause on wildlife.

A research team from Monash University is using drones for seabird monitoring in remote islands in northwestern Australia (Figure 5). After some tests, researchers were able to detect which altitude (~75 meters) the drone would not cause any disturbances to the birds. Results achieved by projects like this should be used in the future for approaching the species safely.

Figure 5: Photograph taken by a drone of a crested tern colony on a remote island in Australia.
Source: Conservation Drones, 2014.


Drones are also being used to combat elephant and rhino poaching in Africa. They are being implemented to predict, trace, track and catch suspects of poaching. The aim is to reduce the number of animals being killed for the detusking and dehorning practices and the illegal trade. You can read more about this theme here. The drone application on combating one of these illegal practices is also shown here in this video.

As if the innovation of this device alone was not enough, drones are also being used to load other tools. A good example is the collection of whale breath samples by attaching Petri dishes or sterile sponges in the basal part of the drones.

The collection of lung samples allows many health-monitoring applications, such as the analysis of virus and bacteria loads, DNA, hormones, and the detection of environmental toxins in their organisms. This non-invasive physiological tool, known as “Snotbot”, allows sampling collection without approaching closely the individuals and with minimal or no disturbance of the animals. The following video better describes about this amazing project:

It is inspiring to look at all of these wonderful applications of drones in conservation research. Our GEMM Lab team is already applying this great tool in the field and is hoping to support the conservation of wildlife.




Conservation Drones. 2014. Conservation Drones for Seabird Monitoring. Available at:

Conservation Drones. 2016. Tree cover analyses in Tanzania in collaboration with Envirodrone. Available at:

Cruz H, Eckert M, Meneses J and Martínez JF. 2016. Efficient Forest Fire Detection Index for Application in Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). Sensors 16(893):1-16.

Elsevier. 2015. Drones Could Make Forest Conservation Monitoring Significantly Cheaper: new study published in the Biological Conservation wins Elsevier’s Atlas award for September 2015. Available at: significantly-cheaper

NPR. 2015. Eyes In The Sky: Foam Drones Keep Watch On Rain Forest Trees. Available at:

Take Part. 2016. Drones Uncover Illegal Logging in Critical Monarch Butterfly Reserve. Available at:

UPM. 2016. New automatic forest fire detection system by using surveillance drones. Available at:

Zahawi RA, Dandois JP, Holl KD, Nadwodny D, Reid JL and Ellis EC. 2015. Using lightweight unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor tropical forest recovery. Biological Conservation 186:287–295.