Assessing species habitat using google street view: a case study of cliff-nesting vultures.
The assessment of a species' habitat is a crucial issue in ecology and conservation. While the collection of habitat data has been boosted by the availability of remote sensing technologies, certain habitat types have yet to be collected through costly, on-ground surveys, limiting study over large areas. Cliffs are ecosystems that provide habitat for a rich biodiversity, especially raptors. Because of their principally vertical structure, however, cliffs are not easy to study by remote sensing technologies, posing a challenge for many researches and managers working with cliff-related biodiversity. We explore the feasibility of Google Street View, a freely available on-line tool, to remotely identify and assess the nesting habitat of two cliff-nesting vultures (the griffon vulture and the globally endangered Egyptian vulture) in northwestern Spain. Two main usefulness of Google Street View to ecologists and conservation biologists were evaluated: i) remotely identifying a species' potential habitat and ii) extracting fine-scale habitat information. Google Street View imagery covered 49% (1,907 km) of the roads of our study area (7,000 km(2)). The potential visibility covered by on-ground surveys was significantly greater (mean: 97.4%) than that of Google Street View (48.1%). However, incorporating Google Street View to the vulture's habitat survey would save, on average, 36% in time and 49.5% in funds with respect to the on-ground survey only. The ability of Google Street View to identify cliffs (overall accuracy = 100%) outperformed the classification maps derived from digital elevation models (DEMs) (62-95%). Nonetheless, high-performance DEM maps may be useful to compensate Google Street View coverage limitations. Through Google Street View we could examine 66% of the vultures' nesting-cliffs existing in the study area (n = 148): 64% from griffon vultures and 65% from Egyptian vultures. It also allowed us the extraction of fine-scale features of cliffs. This World Wide Web-based methodology may be a useful, complementary tool to remotely map and assess the potential habitat of cliff-dependent biodiversity over large geographic areas, saving survey-related costs.