Differentiating Plant Functional Types Using Reflectance: Which Traits Make the Difference?


Abiotic ecosystem properties together with plant species interaction create differences in structural and physiological traits among plant species. Certain plant traits cause a spatial and temporal variation in canopy reflectance that enables the differentiation of plant functional types, using earth observation data. However, it often remains unclear which traits drive the differences in reflectance between plant functional types, since the spectral regions in which electromagnetic radiation is influenced by certain plant traits are often overlapping. The present study aims to assess the relative (statistical) contributions of plant traits to the separability of plant functional groups using their reflectance. We apply the radiative transfer model PROSAIL to simulate optical canopy reflectance of 38 herbaceous plant species based on field-measured traits such as leaf area index, leaf inclination distribution, chlorophyll content, carotenoid content, water and dry matter content. These traits of the selected grassland species were measured in an outdoor plant experiment. The 38 species differed in growth form and strategy types according to Grime’s CSR model and hence represented a broad range of plant functioning. We determined the relative (statistical) contribution of each plant trait for separating plant functional groups via reflectance. Therein we used a separation into growth forms, that is graminoids and herbs, and into CSR strategy types. Our results show that the relative contribution of plant traits to differentiate between the examined plant functional types (PFT) groups using canopy reflectance depends on the PFT scheme applied. Plant traits describing the canopy structure were more important in this regard than leaf traits. Accordingly, leaf area index (LAI) and leaf inclination showed consistently high importance for separating the examined PFT groups. This indicates that the role of canopy structure for spectrally differentiating PFT might have been underestimated.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation