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Satellite surface reflectance improves habitat distribution mapping: a case study on heath and shrub formations in the Cantabrian Mountains (NW Spain)


Correspondence: Alejandra Morán-Ordóñez, Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas y Ambientales (Área de Ecología), Campus de Vegazana s/n, University of León, 24071, León, Spain.


Aim  We aim to map the distribution of four heath and shrub formations constituting habitats of high conservation priority in Europe, whose occurrence is strongly dependent on human activities. Specifically, we assess whether the use of LANDSAT data in habitat distribution modelling may account for land use management, allowing accurate mapping of real distribution patterns. In particular, we explore whether reflectance values may be a better alternative to other remote sensing data traditionally used in modelling approaches (i.e. spectral vegetation indices and classified land cover maps). Finally, we test whether modelling performance is affected by the ecological traits of the dominant species of the target formations.

Location  Cantabrian Mountains (NW Spain).

Methods  We generated maps for the four formations (two specialists vs. two generalists) using MaxEnt. First, we ran the models with environmental predictors only (topography, climate, lithology and human disturbances). Then, we compared the advantages of including, in turn, different data derived from LANDSAT imagery: reflectance values (corresponding to different wavelength channels of the multispectral image), a spectral index and a land cover map. We assessed changes in explanatory power and also in the formation’s predicted distribution patterns.

Results  Formations dominated by specialist species were accurately mapped on a base of environmental variables only, whereas those dominated by generalists were overpredicted. Average mean temperature, southness and distance to urban areas were the variables contributing most in predictions of environmental models. LANDSAT channels increased the accuracy of all models, but mainly those for formations dominated by generalist species. They showed advantages against other remote sensing data traditionally used in modelling approaches.

Main conclusions  Habitat distribution models allowed accurate mapping of heath and shrub formations. The use of reflectance values as predictors improved the accuracy of the models, particularly for formations dominated by generalist species, supplying environmental information that was otherwise unavailable.