Integration of remote sensing with ground-based observation to investigate plant diversity

Lead Research Organisation: University of St Andrews
Department Name: Biology


This project addresses Global Challenges related to Environment (bioinformatics, tropical forests, monitoring). Meeting these Global Challenges will enable more effective management practices to promote resilience of plant biodiversity, which in turn underpins almost every aspect of human well-being from ecosystem services (water purification, C cycles, etc) to food security.

Biodiversity management is undergoing a phase change in scale of implementation. Goals set by international bodies such as the UN require a global response, but investigations of biodiversity and constituent species are often currently conducted at a very local scale. This project will develop, demonstrate and test an approach that will make it possible to connect Earth Observation at global scale to ground-based observation at local scales. In so doing, we will establish a new link between STFC technical expertise at RAL-Space with plant population biology and international databases on georeferenced plant collection bioinformatics.

Advances in remote sensing capacity and technology provide new opportunities for monitoring plant populations across a range of species and spatial scales. This is potentially important in terms of topical issues like ecosystem level capacity for C sequestration, determining effects of climate and other disturbances on agricultural productivity, epidemiology of plant diseases at landscape-scale, etc. Indeed, there is a broad range of potential applications of remote sensing technology to plants which would have significant impacts on human wellbeing. Multiple databases of satellite images that represent global coverage and a multi-decade timescale are now available. Moreover, advances in UAV technology have made it feasible to complement satellite-based observation with much more detailed local imagery so that satellite-based observation can be extensively 'ground-truthed'. This is particularly relevant to plant species distributions where satellite images provide potentially useful but untested information.

We propose to test a multifaceted remote-sensing approach to analyse distributions of plant species and ultimately spatial distribution of biodiversity. Our overall objective is to refine methods for plant species range analysis in order to enhance large-scale conservation assessment in order to facilitate scientific input into STFC Global Challenges related to Environment and other broad social challenges such as the Millennium Development Goals. We will be applying this approach in a demonstration project analysing spatial distributions of legumes in Madagascar. Legumes are a very species-rich plant family, and their patterns of biodiversity have been demonstrated to mirror broader patterns of plant biodiversity in biogeography and ecology. The legumes of Madagascar have been extensively investigated over more than 20 years by scientists at RBG Kew, and as such an extensive database of their distribution, based on georeferenced collection data validated by scientific experts, exists.

The anticipated output of this project would be a validated novel application of remote sensing data to range modelling that could be applied for plant species distribution and conservation assessment at a large (global) scale. Moreover, the methods developed and refined over the course of this project will enhance other applications for monitoring plant populations, such as remote sensing applications to monitoring plant disease and agricultural productivity.

The Global Challenges funding will enable a new collaborative link between STFC RAL-Space, scientific expertise in plant population biology (St Andrews), and expertise in plant taxonomy and distributions (RBG Kew). Thus, STFC research capacity will be linked to a new application that has potential impact on global biodiversity management, and in so doing can demonstrate applicability to other global challenges.

Planned Impact

We anticipate impacts arising from this project both in terms of application and public outreach. The various members of this collaboration have a demonstrated track record in generating impacts. Through tailored, user-oriented summaries and publications, as well as formal and informal presentations to users, we will employ our expertise and highly relevant networks to connect this STFC research as well to policy, practice and the public.
The outputs of this project will have relevance to government policy related to conservation as well as UK negotiations with regard to international conservation efforts. These potential impacts will be facilitated through connections to DEFRA (Meagher, Nic Lughadha). Meagher has served on a number of UK working groups (including the recent Tree Disease and Plant Biosecurity Expert Taskforce and current Scottish Government role as Trustee of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh) and has a network of professional connections with which he will facilitate awareness of project outputs and their policy implications through UK DEFRA and Scottish RERAD. Moreover, RBG Kew is embedded within DEFRA and thus is a conduit to user engagement through DEFRA.

There is also substantial potential for direct uptake in practice and organisational policies by conservation NGOs, which will be facilitated through connections to BGCI (Rivers) and RBG Kew (Nic Lughadha). Malin Rivers, as Red list Manager at BGCI, is in frequent contact with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is in a position to make key policy setters in the IUCN aware of this project and its outputs. Nic Lughadha at RBG Kew is very well connected to international conservation NGOs and foundations and will facilitate communication of outputs into international conservation initiatives. Finally, RBG Kew itself is an end user as it is directly engaged in conservation practice.
Importantly, potential engagement with CATAPULT will allow our findings to feed into Earth observation, potential services and applications, extending beyond our particular focus here. Finally, other PI networks can act as conduits to impact, specifically Meagher's role as Chair of the Advisory & Implementation Group for the NERC Thematic Programme on Omics & Informatics, which has strong connections to private sector companies such as AstraZeneca.

The combination of plants, global challenges and intriguing new technology makes this project a likely candidate for public outreach illustrating STFC and partner research. At STFC, Mortimer has been heavily involved in outreach, and indeed has served as a public spokesperson for STFC science. Meagher is also Chair of the Society for the Study of Evolution Education & Outreach Committee, which provides a direct outreach channel to educators. (For example, Meagher will be able to showcase project results at key international outreach events such as teacher workshops at the annual SSE conference and the biennial Life Discovery conference as well as directly to the public through the USA Science & Engineering Festival.


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Description Key findings and outcomes of this project are reported in detail in my response for ST/P003281/1, closely related follow-onn funding.
Exploitation Route There is considerable activity taking outcomes from this project reported underST/P003281/1 .
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description There has been considerable followon in this topic area, outlined in detail in my response to ST/P003281/1, which is a subsequent closely related award.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Global Futures Programme
Amount £61,580 (GBP)
Funding ID ST/P003281/1 and ST/P003265/1, joint submission 
Organisation Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2017 
End 12/2017
Description NERC Field Spectroscropy
Amount £70,000 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2017 
End 01/2018
Description 2-4 May 2017, project workshop "Amazonia at St Andrews" 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact The purpose of this workshop was to assemble an inclusive group of collaborators on this project to develop plans for field research to take place later in the calendar year and also to explore and develop project concepts for further funding applications, including GCRF. There were 6 Brazilian and 10 UK participants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description 7-9 March 2018, presentation to CNPq wokshop on "CENTRO DE SÍNTESE EM BIODIVERSIDADE E SERVIÇOS ECOSSISTÊMICOS" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presentation on "Perspectives on communication strategy and stakeholder dialogue". This talk included findings from fieldwork that took place in October 2017. The talk was designed to inform development of an upcoming call for proposals from CNPq for a programme with potential for collaborative UK Newton Fund collaboration.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018