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Landscape history confounds the ability of the NDVI to detect fine-scale variation in grassland communities

  • Oskar Löfgren
  • Honor C. Prentice
  • Thomas Moeckel
  • Barbara C. Schmid
  • Karin Hall
Publishing year: 2018-09-01
Language: English
Pages: 2009-2018
Publication/Series: Methods in Ecology and Evolution
Volume: 9
Issue: 9
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: British Ecology Society / John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Abstract english

The NDVI is a remotely sensed vegetation index that is frequently used in ecological studies. There is, however, a lack of studies that evaluate the ability of the NDVI to detect fine-scale variation in grassland plant community composition and species richness. Ellenberg indicators characterize the environmental preferences of plant species—and community-mean Ellenberg values have been used to explore the environmental drivers of community assembly. We used variation partitioning to test the ability of satellite-based NDVI to explain community-mean Ellenberg nutrient (mN) and moisture (mF) indices, and the richness of habitat-specialist species in dry grasslands of different ages. The grasslands represent a gradient of decreasing soil nutrient status. If community composition is determined by the responses of individual species to the underlying environmental conditions and if, at the same time, community composition determines the optical characteristics of the vegetation canopy, then positive relationships between the NDVI and mN and mF are expected. Many grassland specialists are intolerant of nutrient-rich soils. If specialist richness is negatively related to soil-nutrient levels, then a negative association between the NDVI and specialist richness is expected. However, because grassland community composition is not only influenced by abiotic variables but also by other spatial and temporal drivers, we included spatial variables and grassland age in the statistical analyses. The NDVI explained the majority of the variation in mF, and also contributed to a substantial proportion of the variation in mN. However, variation in specialist richness and the lowest values of mN were explained by grassland age and spatial variables—but were poorly explained by the NDVI. Synthesis and applications. The NDVI showed a good ability to detect variation in plant community composition, and should provide a valuable tool for assessing fine-scale environmental variation in grasslands or for monitoring changes in grassland habitat properties. However, because the concentration of grassland specialists not only depends on environmental variables but also on the age and spatial context of the grasslands, the NDVI is unlikely to allow the identification of grasslands with high numbers of specialist species.


  • Physical Geography
  • Ecology
  • Ellenberg indicator values
  • grassland specialists
  • Moran's eigenvector maps
  • plant species richness
  • remote sensing
  • semi-natural grasslands


  • ISSN: 2041-210X
E-mail: oskar [dot] lofgren [at] nateko [dot] lu [dot] se

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