How valuable is Spatial Information Science in species and ecosystem management?

Spatial information science (SIS) is a tool we all use in our everyday lives. Have you ever found a landmark on Google Maps or determined your location using a GPS? These are both elements of SIS. It doesn’t stop there – SIS can also be used to inform the management of various species and ecosystems. In their seminar at Macquarie University, Dr Michael Chang and Dr Alana Grech (both from Macquarie University) described the multiple uses of SIS in species and ecosystem conservation, from terrestrial vegetation mapping to informing the management of marine ecosystems.

Mapping African Olive distribution

The core of Dr Chang’s research is the use of remote sensing data for vegetation mapping1. Remote sensing data is derived from satellites, and can be used to map, monitor and manage vegetation at regional scales2. Satellite images can determine the reflectance of different plant species, and can therefore be used to map distributions of various invasive species, such as woody weeds2.

Cuneo, Jacobson & Leishman (2009) found remote sensing a useful technique for mapping the distribution of the invasive African Olive (Olea europaea ssp. cuspidata) in Cumberland Plain Woodland, an endangered ecological community (EEC) in western Sydney (see images below). Cuneo et al. (2009) used remote sensing data to determine that African Olive infestations occupy 8.5% or 837ha of Cumberland Plain Woodland. Understanding this extent and distribution of African Olives in western Sydney could allow for appropriate management plans to be implemented.

ImageInfestation of African Olive. Image retrieved from:


ImageAfrican Olive distribution in a region of Cumberland Plain Woodland. Source: Cuneo et al. (2009, p. 151)

Protected area design

SIS is also a useful tool to evaluate protected area designs4 – those areas that are set aside for the conservation of biodiversity. For example, spatial software was used to inform the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2004 by determining the various activities occurring in the reef, such as commercial uses (trawling areas) and non-commercial uses (recreational fishing)3. Before the rezoning, the protection zones were unevenly skewed towards remote areas, where trawling and other activities were not taking place3,4. According to Dr Grech, this led to a false sense of security, as these areas were not threatened in the first place! The rezoning of the reef in 2004 rectified this – at least 20% of each bioregion (zones with similar ecological features – a total of 70 within the marine park) was listed as a protected area3. This was seen worldwide as a major achievement in the conservation of marine ecosystems3.

Spatial risk assessment

SIS has been used to evaluate the exposure of threatening processes on various marine species and communities through spatial risk assessments4. These risk assessments analyse the distribution of species or communities against the distribution of threatening processes5. As explained by Dr Grech, spatial risk assessments have been used to inform the management of Dugongs (Dugong dugon) and tropical coastal seagrass meadows.


In the Torres Strait Region in northern Australia, there are significant Dugong populations which are of cultural significance to the local Indigenous Australians4,5. Spatial risk assessments have led to the development of management plans4 and enhanced management decisions5, such as the removal of commercial netting, preventing poor quality terrestrial runoff, and consulting with traditional owners about a moratorium on Dugong hunting5.

Tropical coastal seagrass meadows

Spatial risk assessments have been used to determine the cumulative impacts of stresses on tropical coastal seagrass meadows4. This is achieved by mapping the distribution of seagrasses (see image below) against the distribution of key threatening processes such as agricultural runoff, boat damage, trawling, dredging and port developments6.

ImageDistribution of coastal seagrass habitat along the east coast of Australia. Source: Grech, A., Coles, R., & Marsh, H. (2011, p. 561)


The use of cumulative impact mapping alone may not however be sufficient to inform species or ecosystem management, as it depends on the significance of habitat being exposed to the threat4. This has led to the use of irreplaceability – a measure of the overall importance of a site4. Areas of high irreplaceability should be prioritised over those that are more replaceable4, such as prioritising an area containing a rare species compared to an area containing a widespread species. Therefore SIS can be used to prioritise management actions due to resource constraints6, leading to a “bang for your buck” approach4.

The overall value of SIS

It appears SIS is very useful in informing management decisions in species and ecosystem conservation in both terrestrial and marine systems. The integration of spatial information science and biological science are vital to ensuring the best possible approaches to species conservation. It would therefore be beneficial to see these two fields integrating further in the future.


  1. Chang, M. (2014, April 9). Adding value to research, learning and teaching in biology through spatial information science. BioSeminar. Conducted from Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW.
  1. Cuneo, P., Jacobson, C. R., & Leishman, M. R. (2009). Landscape‐scale detection and mapping of invasive African Olive (Olea europaea L. ssp. cuspidata Wall ex G. Don Ciferri) in SW Sydney, Australia using satellite remote sensing. Applied vegetation science, 12(2), 145-154. doi: 10.1111/j.1654-109X.2009.01010.x
  1. Devillers, R., Pressey, R. L., Grech, A., Kittinger, J. N., Edgar, G. J., Ward, T., & Watson, R. (2014). Reinventing residual reserves in the sea: are we favouring ease of establishment over need for protection?. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems. doi: 10.1002/aqc.2445
  1. Grech, A. (2014, April 9). Adding value to research, learning and teaching in biology through spatial information science. BioSeminar. Conducted from Macquarie University, North Ryde, NSW.
  1. Grech, A., & Marsh, H. (2008). Rapid assessment of risks to a mobile marine mammal in an ecosystem‐scale marine protected area. Conservation Biology, 22(3), 711-720. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00923.x
  1. Grech, A., Coles, R., & Marsh, H. (2011). A broad-scale assessment of the risk to coastal seagrasses from cumulative threats. Marine Policy, 35(5), 560-567. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2011.03.003