Assessing the Risk of Invasive Species Using Community Science Data

Matthew Heard, Belmont University

Author Profile
Initial Publication Date: January 14, 2022 | Reviewed: August 4, 2022


This module introduces students who are already familiar with GIS to doing comparative analyses with large-scale community science (often called citizen science) data sets. Students will explore how we can use community science data to examine the spread and distribution of invasive species in different geographic locations. In the final step, students will identify different invasive species and determine if community science data accurately maps the threat these species pose.

Strengths of Module

This module asks a fundamental question in environmental science – how are invasive species distributed across geographic landscapes. In addition, it asks whether community science data from commonly used platforms like iNaturalist can be used to answer important biological management questions. Detailed instructions are provided for both QGIS and iNaturalist work and this module can be adapted to different courses, regions, or species relatively easily. Please note that this activity was designed for students who have experience in QGIS. However there are also instructions that could be incorporated into a Pre-Activity for how to get started working with QGIS and for how to make basic maps.

What does success look like

Successful students will produce a series of maps in QGIS representing different spreads and distributions of invasive species. They will then be able to compare these distribution patterns to expert rankings and make assessments about the usage of community science. Students will learn how to do this by working collectively on a common invader. Then they will get to test this approach with species of their own choosing. The final goal is for students to learn how to handle, manage, and analyze large scale data sets while also answering an important biological question.

Overall Learning Goals are for students to:

  • Spatial Analysis Learning Objectives
    • To understand how we can use spatial biodiversity and community science data to answer ecological questions
    • To utilize and download large-scale biodiversity data from online repositories including a community science database called iNaturalist
    • To learn to make maps that examine species distribution patterns and how they change depending on the species you are observing
  • Invasive Species Learning Objectives
    • To understand the threat invasive species pose to native species and ecosystems
    • To use spatial biodiversity data to assess the threat posed by invasive species in a given region
    • To determine if community science data is documenting the spread and occurrence of invasive species

Context for Use

This module was developed for an introduction to GIS course, where students have a lot of familiarity with GIS data sets and concepts like CSV files and basemaps. The class that the module was tested in is a 20-person course, where students downloaded and installed QGIS. The lecture portions of the course are 1 hour each, and this module was taught over two lecture periods plus the homework writing assignment.

The module could easily be adapted to another small class, if students were able to bring laptops. It could also be adapted to a conservation biology or ecology course as a relatively small quantitative component. To help with classes that are not explicitly using QGIS, there is an introductory guide to QGIS and instructions for how to make basic maps that could easily be utilized by faculty and students with limited GIS experience.

How Instructors Have Used This Module

This module was featured in a webinar, which is available in the references and resources section below. You can also browse My EDDIE Experience Instructor Stories from users, provided below.

Using Project EDDIE modules in GEOG 3316 Introduction to Geospatial Methods GEOG 3315 - Urban Geography
barbara maclennan, Fairmont State University
Barbara L. MacLennan, Fairmont State University About this Course GEOG 3316 Introduction to Geospatial Methods GEOG 3315 - Urban Geography Lecture and Lab Upper Level Undergraduate Majors and Non-Majors Geog 3316 ...

Using the Assessing the Risk of Invasive Species Using Community Science Data module in Introduction to GIS
Matthew Heard, Belmont University
This module helps student gain experience using community science data and GIS to examine the spread and distribution of invasive species. These are all important topics in the world of conservation biology and environmental science.

Description and Teaching Materials

Why this Matters:

Community science projects (also referred to as citizen science) provide novel data on species occurrence and can help scientists and land managers to understand where species are found. Community science data are also often both spatial and ecological and can be used to help students address a variety of different questions and give students exposure to novel skills including spatial data analysis and GIS. In this activity, students will examine geospatial data from a widely-used community science platform - iNaturalist - which can accurately predict the risks posed by invasive plant species. This is important because it exposes students to GIS tools and analyses through the program QGIS, helps students gain experience in data management and organization, and because it addresses an important applied ecological question.

Quick outline/overview of the activities in this module

  • Pre-Class Activity: Students will read pre-assigned paper on invasive species and create an account with iNaturalist
  • Activity A: Students will have a brief discussion on invasive species and community science (including a focus on iNaturalist as a tool for biodiversity data collection)
  • Activity B: Students will use data from iNaturalist and the open access mapping program QGIS to explore the spread and distribution of a common invasive plant
  • Activity C: Students will determine if community science data can accurately assess the threat posed by invasive species

Pre-Class Activity

  • Students will sign up for an account with the community science platform iNaturalist
  • Students will read the paper by Early et al. 2016 on threat invasive species pose
  • Students may complete optional activity that explores downloading QGIS, installing the program, and the basics of making maps.

Activity A

  • Students will participate in small group discussions about the invasive species reading.
  • Instructor will guide students through iNaturalist and discuss the types of data and species included. Students will also discuss:
    • The purpose of iNaturalist
    • Who collects data
    • How we can use these data to answer ecological questions

Activity B

  • Students will use iNaturalist to download species occurrence records for the common invasive plant - Lonicera japonica (Japanese honeysuckle) and map occurrence data in Tennessee using QGIS.
  • Students then evaluate if data from iNaturalist accurately predicts the threat posed by an invasive species according to the Tennessee Invasive Plant Council Ranking system.

Activity C

  • Students will work to download data on five invasive species of their choosing from the Tennessee Invasive Plant Council website and use iNaturalist distribution data to determine if their rankings for these species matches the category level from TN-IPC

Teaching Materials:

Teaching Notes and Tips

If time is limited, or if students are learning online, make sure they have installed QGIS and are familiar with it prior to this class.

Workflow of this module:

Overview of the Activities in this Module:

  1. Have students install QGIS on their laptops before class. This module was developed using QGIS 3.16, but we recommend downloading the version of QGIS identified as the long-term release as this will be the most stable platform to work with. Instructions are listed in instructor handout.
  2. Give students their assigned pre-class reading. Reference listed below.
  3. Instructor gives brief PowerPoint presentation on invasive species and why they are important to study. This presentation also includes information on geospatial data analysis and introduces QGIS, which is a free and commonly used geographic information software program. Instructions for how to use QGIS are included in Additional Materials link.
  4. After the presentation, the students divide into small groups and have a discussion (Activity A). This activity could also include selection of an invasive species and geographic region to explore.
  5. Students will examine the spread of a common invader using iNaturalist and QGIS (Activity B).
  6. Students will then work to download data on five invasive species of their choice and determine if the rankings for these species matches the category level from expert management groups (Activity C).
  7. Students complete a take home assignment or class discussion that compares their findings with expert findings and discusses their implication.

Notes on the student handout:

The student handout that is included in this module packet was generally designed for an introduction to GIS course and was to be used in combination with the PowerPoint presentation. We recommend that the instructor revise the handout and presentation as appropriate for their own classroom.

Measures of Student Success

Student success can be measured by considering the following:

  • Determining students understanding of scientific literature examining invasive species
  • Were students able to download and handle community science data?
  • Were students able to produce the maps with the community science invader data set when led by the instructor?
  • Were students able to produce maps on their own and compare their findings to expert invasive species rankings?

References and Resources