Using GIS to Study Plant Behavior

Mark Altaweel


The application of plant biology with GIS has potentially important implications for the study of plant behavior affecting important factors such as the Earth’s climate and agricultural supplies.

One area of research has been using leaf water, an element that regulates global climate and isotopic ratios. Isoscape models have been produced for leaf water using ArcGIS by integrating traditional static biophysical models so that spatial explicit behavior can be integrated across global cells, helping to show where climatic change and vegetation change are likely to be more or less dramatic in different time scales based on leaf water indices.[1]

Modeling invasive plant species is also important for determining not only areas affected by potentially foreign and ecologically destructive plants but also spatially explicit modeling can be used to determine where invasive species may grow by integrating environmental constraints and factors such as climate. Spatial regression has shown a strong relationship between invasive plant species and environmental factors across given spaces.[2] Plants that copy their traits from other plants, or clonal plants, are also seen to modify their traits in response to not only the plant in which they clone from but also because of environmental factors affecting surrounding plants and competition from other plants in a spatial relationship.[3] In this case, genetic influences are strong in plants, but spatial analysis has shown that spatial relationships also have an important impact as to how clonal plants evolve to a given place’s environment and neighborhood of surrounding plants and their traits.

Geography also has a large role in plant biology, where functional diversity within regional-scale tropical assemblages is high. GIS published results suggest that differential filtering of plant traits in relation to local gradients for given communities may explain how different plant species are distributed.[4]  The utility of spatial analysis and GIS in understanding plant ecology and its larger relevance to the environment is now increasingly demonstrated by more scholarly works in this area.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

Global mean annual average leaf water δ18O and δ2H isoscapes for the sites of evaporation within leaves. Figure: West, Sobek, & Ehleringer, 2008.
Global mean annual average leaf water δ18O and δ2H isoscapes for the sites of evaporation within leaves. Figure: West, Sobek, & Ehleringer, 2008.


[1] For more on the use of biophysical models to generate isoscapes of leaf water, see:  West, J. B., Sobek, A., & Ehleringer, J. R. (2008). A Simplified GIS Approach to Modeling Global Leaf Water Isoscapes. PLoS ONE, 3(6), e2447.

[2] For more on invasive plants and environmental conditions, see:  Campos, J. A., García-Baquero, G., Caño, L., Biurrun, I., García-Mijangos, I., Loidi, J., & Herrera, M. (2016). Climate and Human Pressure Constraints Co-Explain Regional Plant Invasion at Different Spatial Scales. PLOS ONE, 11(10), e0164629.

[3] For more on clonal plants and their relationship to spatial relationships, see:  Bittebiere, A.-K., & Mony, C. (2015). Plant traits respond to the competitive neighbourhood at different spatial and temporal scales. Annals of Botany, 115(1), 117–126.

[4] For more on local gradients that influence plant species distribution, see:  Swenson, N. G., Enquist, B. J., Pither, J., Kerkhoff, A. J., Boyle, B., Weiser, M. D., … Nolting, K. M. (2012). The biogeography and filtering of woody plant functional diversity in North and South America: Functional trait biogeography. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 21(8), 798–808.


Photo of author
About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.