Satellites Help Researchers Find New Habitats For Endangered Wildlife

Published: December 17 1996

Category:Engineering, Environment, Florida, Research

GAINESVILLE —With species extinction on the rise and biological diversity on the decline, researchers are using satellite imagery in a search for possible new habitats for endangered wildlife.

Researchers at the University of Florida are collecting data on vertebrate and vegetation distribution throughout the state. After producing digital images, researchers use geographic information systems technology to overlay land management patterns on biological patterns.

Florida is one of 33 states taking part in the National Biological Service’s Gap Analysis Program (GAP) to help guide large-scale conservation. Underlying GAP is the assumption that if plants and vertebrates are well represented in an area, the rest of the elements will be well protected.

Researchers hope the program will give planners a method to anticipate problems and resolve issues using data rather than perception.

Scot Smith, a UF civil engineering professor, is one of those trying to develop a “smooth, seamless mosaic” of the state’s vegetation. He works with satellite images of 185-square-kilometer areas. That large swath is broken down into smaller pixels measuring 30 meters on each side. Row by row, researchers have been working from the southern tip of the state, in the only tropical environment in the United States, northward to more temperate climes. The individual scenes then are put together into “one seamless map for the entire state.” So far, they’ve made it as far north as Orlando.

“Although we did it in sections,” Smith said, “it has to look as if it was done at one point in time over the entire state.”

Once Smith and the others finish mapping an area, researchers with expertise in wildlife ecology, botany and zoology “tie that information with the ways wildlife actually behave to see if it actually works,” he said.

Because of clouds and Florida’s unique weather, producing satellite images is a little more difficult than it would be in more arid places.

“One of the problems with satellite imagery is you have lots of atmospheric interference that requires you to do a lot of pre-processing of the imagery to make it clean,” Smith said.

One of the project’s goals is to identify potential habitat for species. Laura Brandt, a doctoral student in wildlife ecology and conservation, said the information will be very useful for regional planning. All counties must make comprehensive plans in which they consider natural resources and future development. She sees it as a tool to look at the “big picture instead of looking at things in a piecemeal fashion.”

“It will also give you information on what species could potentially be in different areas, ” she said. “So by combining that information you can look at where there are areas that are high in species diversity and richness, and areas that might have endangered and threatened species. These are areas that you might want to protect, so you can base your development around those and fit that into the whole scheme of things.”

Leonard Pearlstine, project leader and a UF professor of wildlife ecology and conservation, said the project will affect state-level resource management. “You’re able to put everything into context and to have a common unit that covers the entire breadth of the state,” said Pearlstine, co-principal investigator on the project with Smith.

The key to survival of species in Florida, Brandt said, is will be to look at species from “a landscape perspective,” which the GAP analysis provides.

“We really can’t do any of the development as it has occurred in the past and expect to be able to maintain the integrity of the ecosystems because everything’s so interconnected,” she said. “And now that we have these tools where we can look at the big picture, we need to take advantage of that.”


James Hellegaard

Category:Engineering, Environment, Florida, Research