When it comes to using GIS in biological research, there are many possible choices of software. However, at the current time, the two most widely used packages are QGIS and ESRI’s ArcGIS software, and you can find a video comparing these to software packages from the GIS In Ecology YouTube Channel below.
In terms of learning how to use GIS in biologial research, the main differences between these two packages are that ArcGIS is a commercial software which requires the purchase of a licence to run it, while QGIS is a freely available, open source GIS software package. At the level of the basic analyses that most biologists will do on a routine basis, there is little difference between the capabilities of these two packages, and it is only when you get into the most complex and specialist data processing that differences become apparent.
As a general rule, for novice biological GIS users, we recommend that you start with QGIS. There are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, QGIS is free. This means that anyone can use it regardless of whether they have the resources to pay for commercial GIS software licences or not. Secondly, many biologists will use computers running a Mac OS operating system rather than Windows, and QGIS is Mac OS compatible, while ESRI’s ArcGIS software is not. This means it is much easier to install and run QGIS on Mac OS computers. Thirdly, it is much easier to integrate QGIS with other software packages that biologists use on a regular basis. In particular, QGIS has a specific module that allows you to seamlessly integrate data analyses in QGIS and R (a widely used statistical and data analysis software) through a single user interface. Fourthly, QGIS is increasingly becoming the standard GIS software amongst biological users, especially in universities, governmental organisations and smaller environmental consultancies. This means that a knowledge of QGIS is becoming an important skill which many employers are now looking for.
There is also one final reason why we recommend QGIS. QGIS provides easy access to specific versions of the software. This means that you can always access older versions of the software if you need to re-run a specific analysis at a later date. In addition, this means that you will never be forced to upgrade to a newer, less familiar version at a time which is inconvenient for you, and you can run multiple versions of QGIS on the same computer, giving you greater flexibility to explore newer versions while retaining older ones that you might still need for specific projects. In terms of the provision of training, this means that our course materials are not vulnerable to software updates as you can specify which specific version of QGIS should be used. This is a critical element for those who provide GIS training in universities and other institutions of learning as it means that you do not need to constantly update your teaching materials. In our case, all our training is based around QGIS 2.8.3 (which we recommend you download from the link you will find here), and it is this version of QGIS which should be installed and used for it. However, our training is provided in a manner that is relatively software-independent. This means that it is easy to transfer to more recent versions of QGIS. Similarly, you’ll find that is it also easy to transfer the skills you learn from our training to other GIS software, such as ESRI’s ArcGIS package. In particular, the book that we use as the basis for our practical exercises (GIS For Biologists: A Practical Introduction For Undergraduates) provides instructions for both QGIS and ArcGIS, meaning that you can see how the same actions can be completed in each of these software packages, making it very easy to transfer the knowledge and skills gained using one of these packages to the other.