Using Very-High-Resolution Multispectral Classification to Estimate Savanna Fractional Vegetation Components
Characterizing compositional and structural aspects of vegetation is critical to effectively assessing land function. When priorities are placed on ecological integrity, remotely sensed estimates of fractional vegetation components (FVCs) are useful for measuring landscape-level habitat structure and function. In this study, we address whether FVC estimates, stratified by dominant vegetation type, vary with different classification approaches applied to very-high-resolution small unoccupied aerial system (UAS)-derived imagery. Using Parrot Sequoia imagery, flown on a DJI Mavic Pro microquadcopter, we compare pixel- and segment-based random forest classifiers alongside a vegetation height-threshold model for characterizing the FVC in a southern African dryland savanna. Results show differences in agreement between each classification method, with the most disagreement in shrub-dominated sites. When compared to vegetation classes chosen by visual identification, the pixel-based random forest classifier had the highest overall agreement and was the only classifier not to differ significantly from the hand-delineated FVC estimation. However, when separating out woody biomass components of tree and shrub, the vegetation height-threshold performed better than both random-forest approaches. These findings underscore the utility and challenges represented by very-high-resolution multispectral UAS-derived data (~10 cm ground resolution) and their uses to estimate FVC. Semi-automated approaches statistically differ from by-hand estimation in most cases; however, we present insights for approaches that are applicable across varying vegetation types and structural conditions. Importantly, characterization of savanna land function cannot rely only on a “greenness” measure but also requires a structural vegetation component. Underscoring these insights is that the spatial heterogeneity of vegetation structure on the landscape broadly informs land management, from land allocation, wildlife habitat use, natural resource collection, and as an indicator of overall ecosystem function.