Robotic ecological mapping: Habitats and the search for life in the Atacama Desert

Kim Warren-Rhodes, S. Weinstein, J. L. Piatek, J. Dohm, A. Hock, E. Minkley, D. Pane, L. A. Ernst, G. Fisher, S. Emani, A. S. Waggoner, N. A. Cabrol, D. S. Wettergreen, E. Grin, P. Coppin, Chong Diaz, J. Moersch, G. G. Oril, T. Smith, K. StubbsG. Thomas, M. Wagner, M. Wyatt, L. Ng Boyle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


As part of the three-year 'Life in the Atacama' (LITA) project, plant and microbial abundance were mapped within three sites in the Atacama Desert, Chile, using an automated robotic rover. On-board fluorescence imaging of six biological signatures (e.g., chlorophyll, DNA, proteins) was used to assess abundance, based on a percent positive sample rating system and standardized robotic ecological transects. The percent positive rating system scored each sample based on the measured signal strength (0 for no signal to 2 for strong signal) for each biological signature relative to the total rating possible. The 2005 field experiment results show that percent positive ratings varied significantly across Site D (coastal site with fog), with patchy zones of high abundance correlated with orbital and microscale habitat types (heaved surface crust and gravel bars); alluvial fan habitats generally had lower abundance. Non-random multi-scale biological patchiness also characterized interior desert Sites E and F, with relatively high abundance associated with (paleo)aqueous habitats such as playas. Localized variables, including topography, played an important, albeit complex, role in microbial spatial distribution. Site D biosignature trends correlated with culturable soil bacteria, with MPN ranging from 10-1000 CFU/g-soil, and chlorophyll ratings accurately mapped lichen/ moss abundance (Site D) and higher plant (Site F) distributions. Climate also affected biological patchiness, with significant correlation shown between abundance and (rover) air relative humidity, while lichen patterns were linked to the presence of fog. Rover biological mapping results across sites parallel longitudinal W-E wet/dry/wet Atacama climate trends. Overall, the study highlights the success of targeting of aqueous-associated habitats identifiable from orbital geology and mineralogy. The LITA experience also suggests the terrestrial study of life and its distribution, particularly the fields of landscape ecology and ecohydrology, hold critical lessons for the search for life on other planets. Their applications to robotic sampling strategies on Mars should be further exploited.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberG04S06
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 28 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Polymers and Plastics
  • Materials Chemistry


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