Modeling Rare Plant Distributions Using ArcGIS

Elizabeth Derse Crook, University of California-Irvine, Department of Earth System Science

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In this activity, students work with rare plant occurrence data from the Nature Reserve of Orange County, California to create species distribution maps in ArcGIS. Students are given shapefiles of species occurrence data, are asked to query the data for a species of interest, and then determine the likely habitat range of that species along the coast of California. Using kernel density maps, students identify likely hotspots for the current range of the rare species and calculate total habitable area for that species. Finally, students are asked to predict how the range of the species may be impacted by shifting climate patterns in the future.
The activity is designed to take ArcGIS students through the entire process of data management to future predictions based on the available data, and to suggest management strategies for future conservation of a particular species.
The activity was designed for an introductory ArcGIS environmental science class to practice important mapping skills like data query and raster calculation. Basic knowledge of the program is necessary to complete this activity, like how to unzip and load files into ArcGIS. However, two versions of the activity are provided: one for beginners and one for slightly more advanced students. The activity for beginners could also be completed by an ArcGIS novice (perhaps as an activity in an environmental science course that does not specifically teach GIS).

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This activity has been used as a laboratory/homework assignment in an introductory ArcGIS course for Earth/Environmental Science majors. Students are typically upper division students, and therefore are comfortable with important concepts like climate change and shifting climate patterns before they complete this activity. Students typically have little prior mapping experience, but they are familiar with basic ArcGIS program commands and query language (the activity takes place during week 4-5 of a 10 week academic quarter). The activity is designed to practice/reinforce how to query data, organize geodatabases, create shapefiles, and use raster analysis tools in ArcGIS. The activity works best for reinforcing skills learned in Arc with an emphasis on students who are looking for ways in which ArcGIS can be applicable to Earth Science majors and future land managers. Two versions of the activity are provided: one for beginners and one for slightly more advanced students.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students who have basic knowledge of ArcGIS mapping will find this activity the most useful. Some rudimentary prior knowledge of the program and its language are necessary to complete the activity. For students who are not familiar with the ArcGIS toolbox, this activity should follow a tutorial on how to upload a shapefile into ArcGIS and how to write a basic query.

How the activity is situated in the course

The activity is a standalone assignment designed to pull together many skills learned in a GIS course, and often occurs in week 4 or 5 of a 10 week introductory course. Students are given a background lecture on writing queries and searching for tools in the ArcToolbox. The step-by-step worksheet (beginners worksheet) is provided for those with very little ArcGIS background (which can be done either in week one of an introductory GIS course, or in a climate related course that does not focus on GIS specifically).


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students should be able to:

  • Research a rare plant species of Southern California and determine the importance of that species to the ecosystem.
  • Create species occurrence maps for their chosen rare plant species
  • Create Kernal Density maps to define the overall likely range of a given species
  • Use raster calculators to determine habitable area of a species.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Students should be able to determine the total area occupied by a rare plant species along the coast of California and describe the regions that are likely (current) hotspots for the plant. They must also predict likely (future) refuges based on their knowledge of shifting climate patterns. Therefore, students must apply fundamental mapping skills in ArcGIS to a conservation/land management plan for future conservation of the species and habitat restoration.

Other skills goals for this activity

As this activity is based on GIS mapping skills, content goals are tied to skill goals.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students are first asked to read the introduction to the worksheet and then download all appropriate data (given to them on a course website). Students are given either the beginner or advanced worksheet, depending on their skill level in ArcGIS and the purpose of the activity in the given course. Both advanced and beginner worksheets are provided here, as well as a teacher version complete with answers.

When completed, students should have a document of their completed worksheet, including the background information on their chosen plant, any screen captures of the maps they created, and the answers to the critical thinking questions. Students then report back to the class on their target species, including the species range and any management considerations that should be made based on current and projected habitable area for their species.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This activity should be done independently and could take anywhere from 2-4 hours to complete, depending on student skill level and speed. Students should be encouraged to read the directions thoroughly before beginning, including the tips for importing and naming documents in ArcGIS. If students are less familiar with the program, it might be helpful to model importing data and query selection with one particular species (see teacher manual for instructions), and then letting them try it out with a different species on their own.


Assessment is based on the final map PDFs provided by the student and the numbers they have calculated based on their specific raster models. Students are also graded on their performance on the worksheet and the background information/overall importance provided on their target species. Depending on the course in which this activity is situated, a grade can also be given for an oral presentation in which students discuss the greater implications of the future habitable range of their species.

References and Resources

Please note: all data contained in the following files was originally obtained from the CalFlora database ( All data was altered from its original version, so does not bear relation to actual plant occurrences or the people who collected it, and is meant to serve as a teaching aid rather than an official plant database.

Student Worksheet (Advanced) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 23kB Jun17 20)

Student Worksheet (Beginner) (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 30kB Jun17 20)

Rare Plants Data Files (Zip Archive 475kB Jun17 20)