Biogeography in the Age of Big Data

Journal of Biogeography, 47:1 Special Issue

Between 10-13th April, 2018, the annual meeting of the Specialist Group for Macroecology of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria and Switzerland convened in Zurich, Switzerland around the topic of “Macroecology in the age of big data”. The outcomes of that meeting are now featured in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Biogeography.  All articles in the special section are free to download from the journal website until the end of 2021.

The “Specialist Group on Macroecology of the Ecological Society of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland” is one of the leading scientific platforms for macroecological topics in central Europe. The primary goal of the annual meeting was to support the development of macroecological research in central Europe and beyond. The special issue papers are a reflection of the macroecological community’s excitement, hopes, and concerns about the emerging power of ‘big data’ to reshape ecological research.

Fifteen papers provide a variety of perspectives on, and examples of, modern macroecological research using big data.  According to the overview article by Wüest et al. (2019), several main patterns fall out.  Notably, major new sources of macroecological data have become available in recent years, reducing three major gaps: across spatial scales (the “scale shortfall”), in the biomes covered (the “Wallacean shortfall”) and in the number of taxa covered (the “Linnean shorfall”).  Particularly, advances in airborne and satellite imagery have rapidly increased the volume and variety of data linking multiple spatial scales, increasingly using synchronous or near-synchronous measurements.  Advances in bulk collections and databases are making more clear the locations of discrepancies between predicted and measured biodiversity, which can guide both new collections and assessment of error.  As additional approaches such as eDNA and advances in drone technology accelerate in the coming years, and new satellite programs such as NASA’s Surface Biology and Geology come online, we can expect to see continued rapid growth in data, knowledge, and understanding.

Landmarks in the growth of big data in macroecology and how it has shaped a variety of disciplines, including biology, biogeography and ecology. From Wüest et al. (2019).

Nonetheless, further progress must be made to standardize data collection, data integration, method development and process integration. Particularly, as more data becomes more accessible, and analyses of large datasets become easier, it will become ever more important to be vigilant about the basics of raw data quality, reproducibility of data compilation and analytical methods, and the communication of uncertainties.

The Journal of Biogeography has, for some time now, been listening to the community on these issues and has recognized their emerging importance.  In 2019, we completed implementing our commitment to replicability of studies we publish.  As a condition for publication, Journal of Biogeography requires that data supporting the results in the paper be archived in an appropriate permanent public repository and strongly encourages that the scripts and other artefacts used to generate the analyses presented in the paper should similarly be permanently publicly archived. We hope this will go some way to supporting the community’s efforts to build better biogeographic and macroecological understanding during this period of rapid global change.

We are, thus, delighted to bring this survey of the state of the discipline to you in the pages of the Journal of Biogeography. Particularly we thank the team of editors (Holger Kreft, Wilfried Thuiller, Damaris Zurell), reviewers, and the many authors who provided such a cogent summary and many thought-provoking examples of what is and can be possible.  All articles in the special issue are free access for two years. We hope you enjoy reading them!


Wüest, RO, Zimmermann, NE, Zurell, D, et al. 2020. Macroecology in the age of Big Data – Where to go from here? J Biogeogr. 47: 1– 12.

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