Using discrete-return airborne laser scanning to quantify number of canopy strata across diverse forest types

Phil Wilkes*, Simon D. Jones, Lola Suarez, Andrew Haywood, Andrew Mellor, William Woodgate, Mariela Soto-Berelov, Andrew K. Skidmore

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


1 The vertical arrangement of forest canopies is a key descriptor of canopy structure, a driver of ecosystem function and indicative of forest successional stage. Yet techniques to attribute for canopy vertical structure across large and potentially heterogeneously forested areas remain elusive.

2 This study introduces a new technique to estimate the Number of Strata (NoS) that comprise a canopy profile, using discrete-return Airborne Laser Scanning (ALS) data. Vertically resolved gap probability (Pgap) aggregated over a plot is generalized with a nonparametric cubic spline regression (Ps). Subsequently a count of the positive zero-crossings of second derivative of 1 − Ps is used to estimate NoS.

3 Comparison with inventory derived estimates at 24 plots across three diverse study areas shows a good agreement between the two techniques (RMSE = 0·41 strata). Furthermore, this is achieved without altering model parameters, indicating the transferability of the technique across diverse forest types. NoS values ranged from 0 to 4 at a further 239 plots, emphasizing the need for a method to quantify canopy vertical structure across forested landscapes. Comparison of NoS with other commonly derived ALS descriptors of canopy structure (canopy height, canopy cover and return height coefficient of determination) returned only a moderate correlation (r2 < 0·4).

4 It is proposed the presented method provides a primary descriptor of canopy structure to complement canopy height and cover, as well as a candidate Ecological Biodiversity Variable for characterizing habitat structure.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)700-712
Number of pages13
JournalMethods in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • airborne laser scanning
  • canopy stratification
  • forest structure
  • large-area attribution
  • nonparametric regression


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