Estimating tree species diversity from space in an alpine conifer forest: The Rao's Q diversity index meets the spectral variation hypothesis
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SubjectAlpine ecosystems; Biodiversity; Environmental heterogeneity; Spectral heterogeneity index; Remote sensing; Time series analysis
Forests cover about 30% of the Earth surface, they are among the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems and represent the bulk of many ecological processes and services. The assessment of biodiversity is an important and essential goal to achieve but it can results difficult, time consuming and expensive when based on field data. Remote sensing covers large areas and provides consistent quality and standardized data, which can be used to estimate species diversity. One method to estimate species diversity from remote sensing data is based on the Spectral Variation Hypothesis (SVH), which assumes that the higher the spectral variation of an image, the higher the environmental heterogeneity and the species diversity of the considered area. SVH has been tested using different spectral heterogeneity (SH) indices and measures, recently the Rao's Q index has been proposed as a new spectral variation measure to be applied to remote sensing data. In this paper, we tested the SVH in an alpine coniferous forest to estimate tree species diversity. We evaluated the performance of the Rao's Q index and compared it with another widely used SH index, the Coefficient of Variation (CV), validating them against values of Shannon's H (used as species diversity index) derived from in-situcollected data. A NDVI time-series (for 2016 and 2017) derived from the Sentinel-2A and 2B and Landsat 8 OLI satellites has been used to test the effect of the spatial grain of both the sensors and to understand the seasonality of the SVH. The results showed that the SVH is season and sensor dependent. For both years and satellites, the relation between Rao's Q and field data reached the highest R2 between June and July, decreasing towards winter and spring similarly to the NDVI time-series. This relationship could be given because, when NDVI reaches its highest values, it is able to capture small variation in reflectance of different leaf traits typical of specific trees. The relation between field and spectral diversity reached a value of R2 = 0.70 (2017) and R2 = 0.48 (2016) for Sentinel-2 and of R2 = 0.42 (2017) and R2 = 0.47 (2016) for Landsat 8. CV showed the same NDVI temporal tendency. However, the relation between field-derived Shannon's H and CV was on average lower than that we found for Rao's Q. This research underlined the goodness of the Rao's Q index, the relevance of the NDVI in the study of the SVH and the importance of the multi-temporal approach.
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