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Digital Atlas of Idaho: A GIS Approach to
Teaching Natural History

STEPHEN BURTON AND CHARLES R. PETERSON
Idaho State University, Pocatello

Several products from the Gap Analysis Program are being used in
a new education project called the Digital Atlas of Idaho. The pri-
mary goal of the Digital Atlas of Idaho is to integrate data from
geology and biology to help Idaho students and educators learn
about natural history using information specific to Idaho. This
project was funded by an Idaho State Board of Education (SBOE)
Technology Incentive Grant and is a joint venture between Idaho
State University (ISU), Boise State University, the Idaho Geologi-
cal Survey, the Idaho Museum of Natural History, and the U.S. For-
est Service. In this document, we describe the Digital Atlas of Idaho
and how Gap Analysis products have been used in its development.

The Digital Atlas of Idaho makes large amounts of spatial and natural
history information about Idaho readily available in a Web-based

form. Students and teachers will have access to the atlas through
Web browsers such as Netscape Communicator and Internet Ex-
plorer, making the atlas compatible with Windows, Mac, and UNIX
operating systems. A beta version of the Digital Atlas of Idaho is
already viewable at http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas. We are also
providing the atlas on a CD-ROM to teachers, free of charge, so
they can use the atlas in the classroom without an Internet connec-
tion.

Containing information about geology, biology, hydrology, clima-
tology, and historical geography, this teaching resource is probably
the single most comprehensive guide to Idaho’s natural history. In
the biology section of the atlas (Figure 1), species accounts are pro-
vided for over 400 species of animals in Idaho, including butter-
flies, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Each account con-
tains information about a species’range, predicted distribution, habi-
tat, diet, ecology, reproduction, and conservation status.

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Figure 1. The biology section of the Digital Atlas of Idaho.

The vertebrate information used in the biology section of the Digi-
tal Atlas of Idaho is based on the
Atlas of Idaho’s Wildlife (Groves
et al. 1997), a compilation of species accounts for the breeding fauna
of Idaho that integrates Idaho Gap Analysis and Natural Heritage
Program information. For the amphibian, reptile, and bird species
accounts, we have added descriptive information and multimedia
features, such as colored pictures and sounds (Figure 2). The pre-
dicted distributions for all of the vertebrates are currently taken from
the first generation of Gap Analysis maps. In the future, we will
include the second-generation predicted distribution maps from Gap
Analysis. In addition, we have included the
Atlas of Idaho’s Wild-
life
(Groves et al. 1997) as an Adobe Portable Document File (PDF).


Figure 2. An example of a species account in the Digital Atlas of
Idaho.

The Digital Atlas of Idaho greatly benefitted from Idaho and Na-
tional Gap Analysis Program grants to the ISU Herpetology Labo-
ratory to test and refine the Idaho Gap Analysis models for amphib-
ians and reptiles. This funding supported the compilation of both

museum specimens and observational databases used in creating
the second-generation GAP models for amphibians and reptiles.
Furthermore, these databases have made it possible for us to add
dot-distribution maps to the predicted distribution maps in the at-
las.

The Digital Atlas of Idaho also integrates spatial data, so students
and educators can understand the spatial relationships between geo-
logical and biological phenomena. Much of the spatial data used in
the biology section of the Digital Atlas of Idaho have been obtained
from the Idaho Gap Analysis Project. Spatial data sets integrated in
the atlas include cover type, ownership, and predicted species dis-
tributions. These GIS data sets, as well as others dealing with ge-
ography, surface and subsurface geology, seismic activity, and hy-
drology, will be linked using teaching exercises and software re-
sources such as CADViewer, ArcExplorer, and ArcView.

The teaching exercises found on the Digital Atlas of Idaho are de-
signed to be flexible to fit the needs of educators and to be useful
for students at various levels. Students can access the spatial infor-
mation by two different routes. The first route is through teaching
exercises using a CADViewer plug-in that provides basic GIS func-
tions, such as zooming, panning, and turning data layers on and off.
The combination of teaching exercises using CADViewer and a GIS
primer module introduces students to the fundamentals of GIS. The
second route is through teaching modules that allow students to use
actual GIS software such as ArcExplorer or ArcView.

The teaching exercises for the biology section of the Digital Atlas
of Idaho are designed to direct students to explore questions about
the spatial arrangement and ecological relationships of species in
Idaho. The basis for most of these activities is the Gap Analysis
predictive distribution maps for vertebrates. We have included ac-
tivities such as listing potential species occurring in a given area,
compiling habitat matrices for selected species, and examining fac-
tors affecting species distributions. We envision the number of ex-
ercises growing as teachers begin using them in the classroom and
create activities of their own.

In 1999, we received a second SBOE Technology Incentive Grant
to expand the contents of the Digital Atlas of Idaho. For the biol-
ogy section, we will be using this funding to update species ac-
counts for mammals by adding images and descriptions. We will
also add species accounts for dragonflies, damselflies, and fish.
Finally, we intend to include the cover-type map developed for the
Idaho Gap Analysis Project and species accounts for the dominant
plant species.

Many people have collaborated in developing the vertebrate biol-
ogy portion of the Digital Atlas of Idaho, including John Cossel,
Jr., Ean Harker, Jason Karl, and Mike Legler. Nancy Wright and
Mike Scott helped by providing data from the Idaho Gap Analysis
Project.

For further information, please visit the Digital Atlas of Idaho Web
site (http://imnh.isu.edu/digitalatlas) or contact Stephen Burton at
burtstep@isu.edu or Chuck Peterson at petechar@isu.edu.

Literature Cited
Groves, C.R., B. Butterfield, A. Lippincott, B. Csuti, and J.M. Scott.
1997. Atlas of Idaho’s wildlife: Integrating Gap Analysis and
Natural Heritage information. Idaho Department of Fish and
Game, Nongame Endangered Wildlife Program. 372 pp.

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