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Software Tools for Conservation Biologists

Given the popularity of certain prescriptive posts on ConservationBytes.com, I thought it prudent to compile a list of software that my lab and I have found particularly useful over the years. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it will give you a taste for what’s out there. I don’t list the plethora of conservation genetics software that is available (generally given my lack of experience with it), but if this is your chosen area, I’d suggest starting with Dick Frankham‘s excellent book, An Introduction to Conservation Genetics.

  1. R: If you haven’t yet loaded the open-source R programming language on your machine, do it now. It is the single-most-useful bit of statistical and programming software available to anyone anywhere in the sciences. Don’t worry if you’re not a fully fledged programmer – there are now enough people using and developing sophisticated ‘libraries’ (packages of functions) that there’s pretty much an application for everything these days. We tend to use R to the exclusion of almost any other statistical software because it makes you learn the technique rather than just blindly pressing the ‘go’ button. You could also stop right here – with R, you can do pretty much everything else that the software listed below does; however, you have to be an exceedingly clever programmer and have a lot of spare time. R can also sometimes get bogged down with too much filled RAM, in which case other, compiled languages such as PYTHON and C# are useful.
  2. VORTEX/OUTBREAK/META-MODEL MANAGER, etc.: This suite of individual-based projection software was designed by Bob Lacy & Phil Miller initially to determine the viability of small (usually captive) populations. The original VORTEX has grown into a multi-purpose, powerful and sophisticated population viability analysis package that now links to its cousin applications like OUTBREAK (the only off-the-shelf epidemiological software in existence) via the ‘command centre’ META-MODEL MANAGER (see an examples here and here from our lab). There are other add-ons that make almost any population projection and hindcasting application possible. And it’s all free! (warning: currently unavailable for Mac, although I’ve been pestering Bob to do a Mac version).
  3. RAMAS: RAMAS is the go-to application for spatial population modelling. Developed by the extremely clever Resit Akçakaya, this is one of the only tools that incorporates spatial meta-population aspects with formal, cohort-based demographic models. It’s also very useful in a climate-change context when you have projections of changing habitat suitability as the base layer onto which meta-population dynamics can be modelled. It’s not free, but it’s worth purchasing.
  4. MARXAN: No list of conservation software tools would be complete without MARXAN (and the Huge Possum would be more than a little perturbed if I didn’t include it here). If conservation planning and reserve design are your interests, look no further than this clever bit of software, with full GIS capability.
  5. InVEST: This is a family of tools to map and value the goods and services from nature, enabling decision-makers to assess the tradeoffs associated with alternative choices and to identify areas where investment in natural capital can enhance human development and conservation.
  6. ARC/GIS: Speaking of things spatial, if you need good GIS capability, you’ll probably need to splash out for the (rather heftily priced) ARC/GIS package. I’m not a big fan of the corporate aspects of this monster, but it’s arguably the most powerful GIS around. I have yet to find a decent open-source GIS package for PC or Mac.
  7. BIOMOD: While we tend to do species distribution modelling from scratch in packages like R, those with less experience will probably need something like open-source BIOMOD. The software is specifically designed for ensemble forecasting of species distributions (combining outputs from many different models), and is implemented in R.
  8. MAGICC/SCENGEN: This, the ‘Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse-gas-Induced Climate Change/A Regional Climate SCENario GENerator’ is a powerful global circulation model (GCM) emulator developed by Tom Wigley (now part of our lab). If you’re doing any regional climate change projections, you’ll need this.
  9. ECOPATH with ECOSIM: This powerful trio (it includes ECOSPACE) of applications models trophic linkages and than simulates how perturbations cascade through communities. With ECOSPACE, you can even simulate the effects of virtual reserves on the dynamics of community composition.
  10. WINBUGS: If Bayesian inference is your thing, than WINBUGS is useful. A powerful (and free) Bayesian statistical software, you can also call it from R using R2WINBUGS.
  11. MARK: I wouldn’t have got very far without this software – the bee’s knees of capture-mark-recapture parameter estimation. Developed by Gary White and Ken Burnham years ago, it has every possible mark-recapture model variant under the sun now included. If you need to estimate survival, capture, emigration, immigration, etc. with marked individuals, you need to master MARK.

Like I said, this list is not complete. I’m sure many of you have your favourite packages, so if you have other suggestions for this list, please add them below and include an URL for software download.

This article by Corey Bradshaw, Director, Ecological Modelling (Professor) at the Environment Institute and School of Earth & Environmental SciencesUniversity of Adelaide,  Australia,  first appeared on his blog ConservationBytes.com, a website dedicated to highlighting, discussing, and critiquing the science of conservation that has demonstrated measurable, positive effects for global biodiversity.


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