PS 4-45 - Taking the plunge without a wetsuit: Using 3-D visualization models of underwater landscapes to educate broad audiences about the impact of invasive macrophytes on aquatic communities

Monday, August 8, 2011
Exhibit Hall 3, Austin Convention Center
Rachel E. Schultz1, Eric Dibble1, Philip Amburn2 and Derek Irby2, (1)Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS, (2)Geosystems Research Institute, Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS

Three-dimensional (3-D) models represent the next generation of tools for educating the public about the effects of invasive species on ecosystems. These models have numerous advantages over traditional 1 and 2-D representations of ecological phenomena because they depict data in a way that is easy to interpret, enhance interactivity, and add an entertainment factor. Creating a virtual model of aquatic systems has immense educational potential because it enables students to experience ecological dynamics that are typically only observable with special equipment and training. However, due to the lack of detailed imagery of aquatic systems, 3-D models of underwater environments have been limited to bathymetry mapping and engineering projects. Consequently, they lack biological realism. To address this educational opportunity, the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture and the Geosystems Research Institute at Mississippi State University partnered to build a 3-D underwater environment (hereafter ‘waterscape’) specifically to address the impact of invasive macrophytes on aquatic communities. Our preliminary objectives were to 1) review the relevant literature and collect data (i.e., pictures and video) to inform waterscape parameters, 2) create and evaluate first generation models displayed in a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) theater, and 3) explore avenues for education.


Thus far we have developed a first-generation model of a reservoir waterscape (194 ha), which portrays a diverse assemblage of native plants being infested with hydrilla, an invasive macrophyte, over time. We created this model by photographing plant species typical of southern reservoirs and entering them into the waterscape as texture maps along with fishes (i.e., bluegills and bass). Generating aquatic plant communities based on published data has been more difficult than expected. This is mostly due to the lack of published data on plant species distributions in reservoirs in the southern U.S. Therefore we focused our efforts on evaluating the 3-D model in a demo setting, which has facilitated communication between the ecologists and the visualization experts. We are working towards using the 3-D visualization to educate lawmakers about how invasive species change aquatic systems and the efficacy of restoration efforts. Furthermore, we plan to bring the 3-D model into college classrooms to simulate ecological dynamics and to test hypotheses about the impacts of macrophyte invasions on aquatic systems. We expect that immersion in this virtual waterscape will capture the interest and backing of lawmakers and spark curiosity and inquiry in the next generation of ecologists.

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Banner photo by Flickr user greg westfall.