Questions: Does fuzzy clustering provide an appropriate numerical framework to manage vegetation classifications? What is the best fuzzy clustering method to achieve this?
Material: We used 531 relevés from Catalonia (Spain), belonging to two syntaxonomic alliances of mesophytic and xerophytic montane pastures, and originally classified by experts into nine and 13 associations, respectively.
Methods: We compared the performance of fuzzy C-means (FCM), noise clustering (NC) and possibilistic C-means (PCM) on four different management tasks: (1) assigning new relevé data to existing types; (2) updating types incorporating new data; (3) defining new types with unclassified relevés; and (4) reviewing traditional vegetation classifications.
Results: As fuzzy classifiers, FCM fails to indicate when a given relevé does not belong to any of the existing types; NC might leave too many relevés unclassified; and PCM membership values cannot be compared. As unsupervised clustering methods, FCM is more sensitive than NC to transitional relevés and therefore produces fuzzier classifications. PCM looks for dense regions in the space of species composition, but these are scarce when vegetation data contain many transitional relevés.
Conclusions: All three models have advantages and disadvantages, although the NC model may be a good compromise between the restricted FCM model and the robust but impractical PCM model. In our opinion, fuzzy clustering might provide a suitable framework to manage vegetation classifications using a consistent operational definition of vegetation type. Regardless of the framework chosen, national/regional vegetation classification panels should promote methodological standards for classification practices with numerical tools.