Lesson: Habitat Mapping

Contributed by: Engineering K-PhD Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University

A cut-away drawing shows the technology (via satellites, ships, underwater devices and subs) used to map the seafloor by the New Jersey Shelf Observing Sytem, 2001-future.
An example of marine habitat mapping.
Copyright © http://marine.rutgers.edu/cool/


How do we study what we cannot see or touch? Students learn about technologies used for underwater mapping, such as benthic habitat images produced by GIS. They participate in a class discussion on why habitat mapping is useful and how current technology works to make bathymetry mapping possible. Through inquiry-based questions, students brainstorm about the importance of bathymetry mapping to help us explore and map the seafloor, marine habitats and the water column. They examine collected data and draw conclusions. Students learn how remote sensing and underwater vehicles designed by engineers give scientists more data to be able to better map marine habitats.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Many engineers design tools and equipment to enable us to investigate places unfriendly to humans or where traditional exploration approaches don't work. For example, the deep marine environment is unique and difficult to explore. With little available light, creative technologies designed by engineers use underwater sound and acoustical systems to gather information to characterize the seafloor, animal locations and habitat. Engineers also design remote sensing technologies and underwater vehicles. Geographic information systems (GIS) are computer applications that store, view and analyze geographic information, such as maps.

Pre-Req Knowledge

Ability to use data to create simple line graphs and measure accurately in inches.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Explain current technologies employed to map resources.
  • Draw conclusions from a set of collected data.

More Curriculum Like This

Map That Habitat

Student teams replicate the creation of seafloor bathymetry by taking a simplified form of soundings of an unseen seafloor model inside a shoebox and translating their collected data into a visualization of the topography, enabling them to better understand and appreciate modern remote sensing.

Middle School Activity
What Is GIS?

In this lesson, students learn the value of maps, how to use maps, and the basic components of a GIS. They are also introduced to numerous GIS applications.

Middle School Lesson
Marine Animal Tracking

Students are introduced to the ideas and implications of animal tracking, which is useful within scientific and commercial industries. Students are engaged in an activity to monitor animal foraging behavior on a spatial scale by working in groups to track each others' movements as they travel a pre...

Middle School Lesson
Robots on Ice

Students learn about humankind’s search for life in outer space and how it connects to robotics and engineering. This lesson provides students with intriguing information about far off (distance and time!) space missions and field robotics, and also sets up two associated robotics and arts integrati...

Middle School Lesson

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Obtain and combine information about ways individual communities use science ideas to protect the Earth's resources and environment. (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • New products and systems can be developed to solve problems or to help do things that could not be done without the help of technology. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • A product, system, or environment developed for one setting may be applied to another setting. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The use of technology affects humans in various ways, including their safety, comfort, choices, and attitudes about technology's development and use. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Explain the structure of the hydrosphere including:
    • Water distribution on earth
    • Local river basins and water availability
    (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Understand the hydrosphere and the impact of humans on local systems and the effects of the hydrosphere on humans. (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Summarize evidence that Earth's oceans are a reservoir of nutrients, minerals, dissolved gases, and life forms:
    • Estuaries
    • Marine ecosystems
    • Upwelling
    • Behavior of gases in the marine environment
    • Deep ocean technology and understandings gained
    (Grade 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above


How do we study what we cannot see or touch? How would you make a map of the seafloor? What is the seafloor terrain like? What plants and animals live in the depths of the ocean? (Listen to student ideas.)

Research in marine science is more complex than terrestrial research. Limitations of humans to explore underwater have made it difficult to study animals, habitats and their interactions. Current technological innovations by engineers enable scientists to further understand and apply information about animal locations and habitat. Remote sensing and exploration with underwater vehicles give scientists tools to map and understand the seafloor, and in some cases, the water column. Geographic information systems (GIS) help us to manage and view spatial relationships/mapping.

Let's take a look at what technology has been able to uncover. (Show students GIS images of the ocean bathymetry and possibly GIS-animated clips, or flythroughs, to engage and familiarize them to the subject. This helps students to learn how GIS works as well as the importance and application of habitat mapping.)

Lesson Background and Concepts for Teachers

Habitat Mapping Technologies

A drawing shows a ship on the ocean surface mapping the underwater seafloor in two ways, one vertically down from the ship, one horizontally through the water from a device it is pulling through the water.
Hull-mounted multibeam sonar (left) and towed side scan sonar (right).
Copyright © NOAA http://chartmaker.ncd.noaa.gov/HSD/wrecks.html


Many technologies have been devised to study ocean floor geology and habitats. Information learned from using these tools helps scientists understand seafloor topography, the geological processes that shape the planet, and habitats that support marine organisms. Understanding the underwater terrain advances our knowledge of the ocean. Making discoveries in the unique marine environment requires technologies that use sound to gather information since little light is present underwater. The seafloor is characterized using underwater sound and acoustical systems, which are usually mounted or towed behind large survey vessels.

Bathymetric Data

Bathymetry surveys are one a common method used to characterize the seafloor. Bathymetry refers to water depth in relation to sea level. Echosounders determine the ocean's depths, or bathymetric data. The echosounder emits sound into the ocean, which travels from the vessel to the seafloor and is reflected back to the vessel. The sound is received and recorded. Seafloor depth is calculated using the travel time of sound and the speed of sound in water. The equation used to determine depth: distance = speed x (time/2).

Echosounders can release multiple sound beams at one time, multibeam, which provide depths for a swath of the ocean's bottom. This technique gathers a lot of information at one time. With this data, oceanographers make maps of the seafloor. Data gathered also helps to identify bottom features such as ridges and shipwrecks, as well as provide important information to boat navigators and fishermen.

Photo shows what looks like a four-foot long missle painted to look like a yellow shark.
Towed sonar array used by the NOAA ship Rude to perform side scan sonar measurements on the sea floor.
Copyright © U.S. Geological Survey http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2004/1003/htmldocs/figures/towfish.htm

Side Scan Sonar

Side scan sonar also uses sound to interpret the topography and bathymetry of the seafloor. The side scan sonar instrument, known as the "fish," releases a sound that is reflected from the seafloor and returns to the fish. The multibeam echosounder uses time to calculate depth. Side scan sonar uses the strength of the returning sound, or acoustical signal, to create an image of the seafloor. The strength of the acoustical signal depends on the shape and texture of the seafloor. For example, hard rock returns a stronger acoustical signal than soft sand. The strength of the signal transmits a light or dark shade onto an image. Oceanographers are able to interpret these images as underground structures, such as volcanoes, canyons and seamounts.

Remote Sensing

Remote = distance, away from source.

Sensing = the process of sensing data and sending the data to a processor, which records the data and interprets the information.

What do you need for remote sensing?

  • sensor
  • processor
  • radiation, light, sound... something to measure

What do we use to measure?

  • cameras
  • lasers
  • radio frequency receivers
  • radar systems
  • Sonar

An example of remote sensing is provided below; it is an excerpt from, "How Does Satellite Remote Sensing Work?" an article by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations:

"On board Landsat 5 is a sensor called a thematic mapper. The Earth's rotation below the satellite allows this sensor to scan a new area of the planet's surface with each consecutive pass. The width of the area scanned, called the swath, is 185 km. A full scene is defined as 185 km x 185 km, an area of approximately 34 000 km2, or roughly twice the size of Kuwait.

The thematic mapper detects the solar energy reflected off the Earth's features as well as the Earth's own thermal energy on seven well-defined portions (bands) of the electromagnetic spectrum. For the bands sensing reflected light, the sensor can distinguish spatial features at a resolution of 30 m; meaning features 30 m in size are identifiable. The thematic mapper's thermal channel, however, identifies features at the much lower resolution of 120 m. The energy detected by the sensor is recorded electronically, not on photographic film. The images produced by remote sensing are not photographs.

Because various features on the Earth's surface interact with and reflect solar energy differently in the various bands, the thematic mapper can be used to identify clearly a broad range of elements of land cover. For example, healthy green leaves are excellent reflectors of near-infrared wavelengths. The thematic mapper's fourth band detects reflected energy in this range, so it is particularly useful for identifying and mapping vegetation in a given area.

Data from the thematic mapper are transmitted to stations on the ground. By international agreements, this information must be made available to anyone who requests it."

Three computer-generated maps showing various terrain and colors.
Data from the thematic mapper collected by Landsat 5.
Copyright © 1999 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations http://www.fao.org/english/newsroom/highlights/1999/9911rs-e.htm

Exploring the Ocean Floor with Satellite Altimeter Data:

  • Geosat satellite was launched by the U.S. Navy in 1985 and orbits the earth 14.3 times per day.
  • Tiny bumps and dips in the ocean basin can be measured using a very accurate radar mounted on a satellite.
  • The satellite-derived measurements can be compared and combined with measurements made by ships.
  1. Confirmation of the theory of plate tectonics.
  2. Spreading ridges are characterized by a pattern of ridges and transform faults.
  3. Calilbration by depth soundings.
  • Other application of remote sensing:

People other than oceanographers find sea surface temperature maps useful. Swimmers can use these maps to decide which beach has water temperature that is "just right." The food that fish feed on tends to get trapped where warm and cold water meet, so fisherman use SST images to determine where to drop their nets. The U.S. Coast Guard uses these maps for search and rescue operations to determine how cold the water is where someone has gone missing so they cam estimate how long a person could survive before succumbing to hypothermia.

What else is bathymetry used for?

  • currents
  • tides
  • mixing and upwelling
  • seamounts


bathymetry: The measurement of the depth of bodies of water.

habitat: The area or environment where an organism or ecological community normally lives or occurs.

latitude: The angular distance north or south of the Earth's equator, measured in degrees along a meridian, as on a map or globe.

longitude: Angular distance on the Earth's surface, measured east or west from the prime meridian at Greenwich, England, to the meridian passing through a position, expressed in degrees (or hours), minutes and seconds.

remote sensing: The process of detecting and monitoring physical characteristics of an area by measuring its reflected and emitted radiation and without physically contacting the object.

satellite: A manufactured object or vehicle intended to orbit the earth, the moon, or another celestial body.

side scan sonar: Technique of sending a sound via an instrument in which the sound is reflected from a target object. The return time is used to calculate depth or distance to the target.

sonar: Technique of sending a sound wave through a space and recording how long it takes for the sound to bounce off as object and return again; used to determine distances or depths.

soundings: Measuring water depth using a weighted rope.

spatial location: Where an object or animal is located in space.

Associated Activities

  • Map That Habitat - Students are introduced to seafloor geography and bathymetry mapping.


  • Engage students in a discussion to gauge their knowledge of oceanographic data collection, bathymetry and mapping. Ask inquiry-based, open-ended questions about not only how we do this, but why?
  • Did students gain an understanding of the importance of remote sensing technologies and mapping?

Additional Multimedia Support

An example of seafloor topography at this NOAA website: http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/mggd.html

U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.usgs.gov/

More information on remote sensing using satellites: http://www.coolclassroom.org/whats_cool/remotesensingsat.html


Satellite Altimeter Data & Use. NOAA. Accessed July 9, 2004. http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/mgg/bathymetry/predicted/explore.HTML#sat_alt

Swath Bathymetry & Side Scan Sonar. U.S. Geological Survey. Accessed July 9, 2004. http://woodshole.er.usgs.gov/operations/sfmapping/swath.htm


Kimberly Goetz, Duke University Marine Lab; Jonelle Stovall, Pratt School of Engineering; Melissa Sanderson, Duke University Marine Lab; Heather Kerkering, Duke University Marine Lab


© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2004 Duke University

Supporting Program

Engineering K-PhD Program, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University


This content was developed by the MUSIC (Math Understanding through Science Integrated with Curriculum) Program in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University under National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no. DGE 0338262. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the NSF, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 22, 2017