Is what you see what you get? Visual vs. measured assessments of vegetation condition


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1. An important step in the conservation of biodiversity is to identify what exists, its quantity and its quality (i.e. condition). This can be a daunting task at the landscape-scale, so vegetation communities are often used as surrogates for biodiversity. Satellite imagery has improved our ability to rapidly measure vegetation parameters but the need for calibration still requires rapid and cost-effective on-ground condition assessment. Some management agencies address this need by using visual condition assessments, with unknown consequences for the different purposes of condition data. It is therefore vital to examine the comparability of visual and systematic condition assessment methods to guide their use in conservation decision making.

2. We compared visual assessments of vegetation condition with more systematic and higher resolution on-ground assessments, using a method where both assessments were made for the same quadrats. We determined both the condition parameters observers respond to when making visual assessments of condition, and the consequences of any differences for the application of these data.

3. We found that visual assessment of vegetation condition broadly represented measured assessments of the same vegetation, but that observers simplify their assessments by responding to only some of the measured condition parameters. No consistent trends were found in the parameters observers responded to across the different vegetation types sampled.

4.Synthesis and applications. We conclude that visual estimates of vegetation condition are only of sufficient resolution to replace more expensive, high-resolution assessments at a landscape-scale, when condition results are combined over multiple areas and vegetation types. Visual assessment methods potentially can provide an efficient measure of overall condition for conservation management agencies where practitioners can make assessments of condition in the course of their daily management activities – an important step forward. At smaller scales, idiosyncratic effects render visual estimates highly variable when compared with systematic condition assessments. This variability, especially among vegetation types, suggests that more systematic assessments are necessary when management decisions require higher-resolution estimates of changes in individual condition parameters, such as when measuring the success of individual management actions. These findings provide a valuable guide for selecting the most appropriate approach for the different objectives of condition assessments for biodiversity conservation.