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Calculating and Comparing Biodiversity Materials Across Sites Using NEON Herbaceous Vegetation Data - a Tutorial

By Diane M. Styers1, Jennifer L. Schafer2, Mary Beth Kolozsvary3, Kristen M. Brubaker4, Sara E. Scanga5, Laurel J. Anderson6, Jessica J. Mitchell7, David Barnett8

1. Western Carolina University 2. Winthrop University 3. Siena College 4. Hobart and William Smith Colleges 5. Utica College 6. Ohio Wesleyan University 7. University of Montana, Spatial Analysis Lab 8. National Ecological Observatory Network, Battelle Memorial Institute

These materials are intended for use at the undergraduate level. They employ R and Excel software.

Listed in Teaching Materials

Version 1.0 - published on 26 Feb 2021 doi:10.25334/DKBX-8394 - cite this

Licensed under CC Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International according to these terms


This teaching module is intended to help students learn to recognize, describe, and interpret patterns of biodiversity across various spatial scales and understand their relationships to ecological processes and human influences.  

We formed an interdisciplinary team to design a learning activity that calculates plant biodiversity metrics from the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) Terrestrial Observation System (TOS) in combination with geospatial tools that visually explore macroscale concepts related to biodiversity.

This activity provides some experience working with large ecological datasets at three levels of entry:

  • Point 1: Explore NEON data on the web portal, download NEON data, stack NEON data (short R script), and then calculate and compare biodiversity indices for one or more NEON sites with Excel Spreadsheets or R.
  • Point 2: Explore NEON data using pre-stacked NEON data to calculate and compare biodiversity indices for one or more NEON sites with Excel Spreadsheets or R.
  • Point 3: Explore NEON data and then use pre-calculated biodiversity indices to explore biodiversity at different scales at one or more NEON sites.

Student Learning Objectives

Learning objectives are additive (all Entry Point 3 objectives are achieved when starting at Entry Point 1).

Ecological Concepts

Entry Points 3, 2, and 1:

  • Differentiate alpha, beta, and gamma diversity.
  • Recall the strengths and weaknesses of diversity metrics.
  • Describe the concept of multiple spatial scales in ecology.
  • Describe how ecological data collected at one scale can be “scaled up” or “scaled down” to describe ecological patterns.
  • Recognize the benefits of analyzing diversity metrics at multiple spatial scales.
  • Describe macroscale, differentiating it from other scales of inquiry.
  • Describe the nested plot sampling method for generating species-area curves.
  • Summarize how the objectives of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) support macroscale science. 

Data Skills

Entry Point 3:

  • Data skills not emphasized.

Entry Point 2:

  • Calculate plant field diversity metrics (alpha, beta, gamma diversity) for NEON plots/sites.
  • Plot and interpret species area curves.
  • Gain experience running Excel or R.

Entry Point 1:

  • Same as Entry Point 2, plus gain experience downloading data and stacking data.

The module has been tested in six courses enrolling a total of 109 students, ranging from mid-level ecology and GIS/remote sensing courses, to upper-level conservation biology (Styers et al., in press).

After downloading the tutorial bundle, please look first at the InstructorNotes_CalculateBiodiversityIndices-Spreadsheets document (within the folder Instructor Instructions, Student Excel Version).

The creation and testing of this teaching module are outlined in: Styers, D. M., Schafer, J. L., Kolozsvary, M. B., Brubaker, K. M., Scanga, S. E., Anderson, L. J., Mitchell, J, J., and Barnett, D. 2021. Developing a flexible learning activity on biodiversity and spatial scale concepts using open-access vegetation datasets from the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON). Ecology and Evolution, in press.


Contents ( Show bundle contents ) Bundle

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