The GIS Laboratory

Adding an Additional Dimension

Most people have heard the terms GPS and GIS. But many may not realize how these technologies work—or just how much they can do.

  • GPS (Global Positioning System) uses signals from satellites to record the current location of a person, plant, or other object.
  • GIS (Geographic Information System) not only precisely maps GPS points, but uses special software to layer and analyze many types of location-based data. This allows all kinds of questions to be answered.

The GIS Lab at the Chicago Botanic Garden integrates an additional dimension of spatial and geographic context into scientists' ongoing conservation research through GIS and GPS technology, database and computing solutions, and spatial analysis techniques for the conservation and monitoring of plants and ecosystems.

PHOTO: GIS labHow the GIS laboratory Benefits You—and the World

GIS Lab equipment streamlines research efforts, helping Garden scientists, collaborators, students, and interns advance plant conservation science and the understanding of topics as diverse as the global and regional distribution of plants and associated soil organisms, the spatial genetics of fragmented populations, species range shifts under climate change, dispersal of invasive species, and the climatic and habitat requirements for reintroduced species.

For example, the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank and the Plants of Concern Program benefit from improved field data collection on hand-held GPS devices, seamless flow of data between field and lab, and more efficient data management and sharing.

The GIS Lab is dedicated to becoming a regional center for spatial analysis and cartographic production promoting collaboration with regional partners in spatial analysis, research, teaching, and training in support of plant conservation and restoration ecology.

Case Studies

Map of plant distributionPati Vitt, Ph. D., and Emily Yates are developing GIS mapping and decision support tools for targeted seed banking. These technological tools can be used to prioritize seed collecting schemes to conserve the broadest possible range of genetic diversity within and among populations of plant species important for restoration. Widespread geographic area, numerous target species and sites, and limited resources demand effective prioritization of seed collection efforts. Spatially explicit decision support systems using GIS provide a framework to integrate a variety of spatial data, evaluate potential sites and species, and prioritize collecting efforts across a regional scale. GIS can optimize collecting strategies for multiple populations across a species range and aid in conservation decision making and planning.

PHOTO: GIS equipment in the fieldPati Vitt and Emily Yates also use GIS and GPS technology to map and quantify shifts in geographic distributions of rare plants in response to climate change. Knowledge of species’ distributions is fundamental for conservation planning. The scientists use Diva-GIS and Maxent software and future climate-change scenarios integrated into a GIS environment to explore how species distributions may change with a changing climate. Given that range shifts occur with changing climate and rare plants are likely to have difficulty migrating under climate change, ex situ conservation efforts, such as seed banking, may provide the propagules necessary for restoration of habitats in the future.

This material is based on work suported by the National Science Foundation.

take action:
What can you do?

PHOTO: seeds

Change your actions:
Support scientific and technological literacy in your families and schools, so that all citizens are equipped to understand and make informed decisions regarding contemporary challenges such as
climate change.

PHOTO: cleaning seeds

Change your community:
Volunteer as a citizen scientist to help collect and enter plant data. Every observation adds a point in the GIS database. Even with advanced technologies, person power is still our most valuable

In the Laboratory

Researchers take GPS units into the field to record precise locations of individual plants or plant populations. Then, using GIS, they overlay other types of data—soil types, amount of rainfall, presence ofother plant species, and similar—to answer questions or make predictions.

Staff Scientists

Pati Vitt, Ph.D.
Conservation Scientist, Plant Demography
Manager, Seeds of Success

Emily Yates, M.S.
GIS Lab Manager
Seed Bank Coordinator, Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank