February 2020

The Biodiversity Zoetrope

This project explores tools and practices that may enable us and the public to capture, understand, and communicate the complexity of biodiversity in Morecambe Bay. We wanted to build a machine that helps people make sense of data that is hard to see directly. The project sought to develop ways for visualising the interconnections of stories of biodiversity in Morecambe Bay.

Morecambe Bay has been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) because of its unique environmental characteristics. It has the largest continuous area of inter-tidal mudflats and sandflats in the UK and is the site of four large river estuaries. These characteristics contribute to habitats of very diverse biological communities, living in mud flats, inter-tidal seagrasses, sands, skears, as well as along the coast. Most of these communities are highly influenced by tides.

The first phase of the project culminated in the building of a functioning prototype of a visualisation machine that shows how different creatures (human and non-human animals) live in and interact with the tidal and seasonal flows of the bay. The prototype draws inspiration from traditional zoetropes, that used layers of easily replaceable picture strips fixed within a turning drum to give an illusion of motion. In our design the user moves through time by turning the outer wheel. Changing the outer wheel can shift the perspective between seasonal and tidal. Moving the wheel controls animations that tell stories of human and non-human actors in the Bay, drawing from a selection of relevant data-sets. The user can select between the perspectives of different creatures but regardless of perspective the stories interconnect. The system is designed to allow the creation of new sets of interwoven biodiversity stories, potentially by various stakeholders in Morecambe Bay.

Zoetrope overview
Close up of the zoetrope

As the zoetrope machine is able by its nature to only show data from a “macro” perspective, we proposed the need to develop and prototype a complementary toolkit for the collection and visualisation of experiential, first-person, “micro” data derived from direct engagement with the place, its rhythms, and its creatures. We are exploring ways in which these data can be integrated with the stories of entanglements and complexity that the Biodiversity Zoetrope displays.

Diagram of macro versus micro
Macro versus Micro – Courtesy of Serena Pollastri


Author: Liz Edwards


This first phase of the project was part of Ensemble’s seed-funding for biodiversity and digital technology projects. The work of Ensemble and subsequent grants has been funded by the UK EPSRC as part of the Senior Fellowship in the Role of Digital Technology in Understanding, Mitigating and Adapting to Environmental Change grant no: EP/P002285/1. The second phase of the project has been funded through the Economic and Social Research Council’s Impact Acceleration Account.