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Researchers Harness Space-Age Tool for Ecosystem Studies

"It's just created such a new way of working, both technically and in terms of how we can combine data sets in new and useful ways," Graumlich commented.

Spotted Knapweed Already seen as commonplace by some younger scientists, GPS is helping researchers do more than collect data, Graumlich said. It has promoted links between natural sciences and social sciences, creating a new breed of geospatial scientists. It's become another tool for resource managers. It's helping scientists track changes that range in scale from the very small to the entire Great Yellowstone ecosystem and letting them use the measurements in more complex ways than ever before.

Elizabeth Roberts
Elizabeth Roberts uses global positioning equipment to help map spotted knapweed (shown above) on the peaks overlooking Virginia City.

In her work, Graumlich said, "GPS allows us to relate what we see on the ground in a very exact way to the remotely sensed images. More importantly, we have a number of sites where we can go back to after a decade or two to see how the forests have changed. They allow us to very precisely remap these forests that are changing as a result of climate change."

Mark Taper, associate professor of quantitative ecology, Chris Jerde and Mary Meagher plan to use GPS to see how bison in Yellowstone National Park form and separate from groups. After examining 30 years of information gathered by Meagher from airplanes, Taper wants to fill in the gaps with digital time lapse photography. The photos will be taken from hillside locations georeferenced using GPS. Photo-interpretation technology will allow them to correct for the photographic angle and approximately geolocate all animals in each photograph.

The photos should give him a real-time handle on how bison use their Yellowstone habitat. It's an environmental question that scientists have never been able to address so fully, Taper said.

"GPS is not the exciting thing," he commented. "The exciting thing is spatial ecology. That's the hot new topic now. As interest in spatial ecology grows, so does the need to know where organisms are in space. Hence, the rise in GPS."
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