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Can we predict butterfly diversity along an elevation gradient from space?


  • Oded Levanoni,

  • Noam Levin,

  • Guy Pe'er,

  • Anne Turbé,

  • Salit Kark

O. Levanoni, G. Pe'er, A. Turbé and S. Kark (, The Biodiversity Research Group, Dept of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, The Silberman Inst. of Life Science, The Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem, IL-91904 Jerusalem, Israel. Present address of GP: Dept of Conservation Biology, UFZ – Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Permoserstr. 15, DE-04318 Leipzig, Germany. – N. Levin, Dept of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences, The Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, IL-91905 Jerusalem, Israel.


An important challenge in ecology is to predict patterns of biodiversity across eco-geographical gradients. This is particularly relevant in areas that are inaccessible, but are of high research and conservation value, such as mountains. Potentially, remotely-sensed vegetation indices derived from satellite images can help in predicting species diversity in vast and remote areas via their relationship with two of the major factors that are known to affect biodiversity: productivity and spatial heterogeneity in productivity. Here, we examined whether the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) can be used effectively to predict changes in butterfly richness, range size rarity and beta diversity along an elevation gradient. We examined the relationship between butterfly diversity and both the mean NDVI within elevation belts (a surrogate of productivity) and the variability in NDVI within and among elevation belts (surrogates for spatial heterogeneity in productivity). We calculated NDVI at three spatial extents, using a high spatial resolution QuickBird satellite image. We obtained data on butterfly richness, rarity and beta diversity by field sampling 100 m quadrats and transects between 500 and 2200 m in Mt Hermon, Israel. We found that the variability in NDVI, as measured both within and among adjacent elevation belts, was strongly and significantly correlated with butterfly richness. Butterfly range size rarity was strongly correlated with the mean and the standard deviation of NDVI within belts. In our system it appears that it is spatial heterogeneity in productivity rather than productivity per se that explained butterfly richness. These results suggest that remotely-sensed data can provide a useful tool for assessing spatial patterns of butterfly richness in inaccessible areas. The results further indicate the importance of considering spatial heterogeneity in productivity along elevation gradients, which has no lesser importance than productivity in shaping richness and rarity, especially at the local scale.