The term ecology was coined by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel in the middle of the nineteenth century to describe the study of the relationships between living organisms and their environment. The term environment is derived from the French word “environner” meaning “to encircle” or “to surround”. In simple terms, the environment is the total set of everything surrounding the organism; the complex of physical, chemical, and biological factors where a living organism exists.
Throughout the centuries, people have observed relationships between species and the environment. Paintings depicting vegetation distribution on the slopes of mountains by Alexander Humboldt two hundred years ago can be considered one of the earliest models of species-environment relationships. The deep interest in the spatial distribution of species and ecological processes grew in the twentieth century and, particularly, in the last few decades when development has been fueled by the progress in available tools, modeling techniques, and software, as well as by the growing availability of high-quality data from a variety of sources.
In the 21st century, we have literally unlimited access to data and technology that can describe the environment and all its physical, chemical, and biological factors from the scale of a single plant to the global extent of the entire Earth. The advent of geographic information systems (GIS) allowed to store and analyze environmental data while remote sensing systems record information about the environment and produce a steadily growing stream of data that fills the spatial databases. Data acquired by remote sensing systems have become a critical part of the research of species-environment relationships across terrestrial, marine, and aquatic realms. As a result, joint efforts by ecology and remote sensing practitioners have become essential for ensuring a robust and valid use of available data. Accordingly, our courses aim to provide guidelines for a use of spatial data in ecology (but also in other disciplines).