Estimating food resource availability in arid environments with Sentinel 2 satellite imagery

Caterina Funghi*, René H. J. Heim, Wiebke Schuett, Simon C. Griffith, Jens Oldeland

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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Background: In arid environments, plant primary productivity is generally low and highly variable both spatially and temporally. Resources are not evenly distributed in space and time (e.g., soil nutrients, water), and depend on global (El Niño/ Southern Oscillation) and local climate parameters. The launch of the Sentinel2-satellite, part of the European Copernicus program, has led to the provision of freely available data with a high spatial resolution (10 m per pixel). Here, we aimed to test whether Sentinel2-imagery can be used to quantify the spatial variability of a minor tussock grass (Enneapogon spp.) in an Australian arid area and whether we can identify different vegetation cover (e.g., grass from shrubs) along different temporal scenarios. Although short-lasting, the Enneapogon grassland has been identified as a key primary food source to animals in the arid environment. If we are able to identify and monitor the productivity of this species remotely, it will provide an important new tool for examining food resource dynamics and subsequent animal responses to them in arid habitat. 

Methods: We combined field vegetation surveys and Sentinel2-imagery to test if satellite spectral data can predict the spatial variability of Enneapogon over time, through GLMMs. Additionally, a cluster analysis ('gower' distance, 'complete' method), based on Enneapogon seed-productivity, and total vegetation cover in October 2016, identified three clusters: bare ground, grass dominated and shrub dominated. We compared the vegetation indices between these different clusters from October 2016 to January 2017. 

Results: We found that MSAVI2 and NDVI correlated with the proportion of Enneapogon with seeds across the landscape and this relationship changed over time. Both vegetation indices (MSAVI2 and NDVI) were higher in patches with high seed-productivity of Enneapogon than in bare soil, but only in October, a climatically-favorable period during which this dominant grass reached peak seed-productivity. 

Discussion: MSAVI2 and NDVI provided reliable estimates of the heterogeneity of vegetation type across the landscape only when measured in the Austral spring. This means that grass cover is related to seed-productivity and it is possible to remotely and reliably predict food resource availability in arid habitat, but only in certain conditions. The lack of significant differences between clusters in the summer was likely driven by the short-lasting nature of the vegetation in the study and the sparseness of the grass-dominated vegetation, in contrast to the shrub vegetation cluster that was particularly well measured by the NDVI. 

Conclusions: Overall, our study highlights the potential for Sentinel2-imagery to estimate and monitor the change in grass seed availability remotely in arid environments. However, heterogeneity in grassland cover is not as reliably measured as other types of vegetation and may only be well detected during periods of peak productivity (e.g., October 2016).

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere9209
Pages (from-to)1-19
Number of pages19
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2020

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Arid environment
  • Behavioral ecology
  • Remote sensing
  • Sentinel 2
  • Vegetation survey

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