Ecology Vegetation Mapping
D.A. Tierney, M.J. Powell, C.E. Eriksson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 November 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0176


Vegetation maps are critical for understanding biodiversity patterns through space and time and underpin biodiversity management and planning from local to global scales. Maps are based on two essential elements; a classification of vegetation and a spatial attribution of that classification. Miguel de Cáceres covers “Vegetation Classification” in his Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology article; therefore, this article focuses on the spatial attribution of vegetation patterns. Mapping of vegetation has progressed from the earliest geographical approaches to the development of systematic methods based on a “naturalists’” understanding of observable patterns to highly technical modeling approaches. The trade-off of increased efficiency in data processing and rapidity of mapping over large scales for a potential lower point accuracy and loss of an intimate understanding of vegetation patterns is an unresolved issue. How vegetation is mapped today is therefore a critical issue, and mapping is undertaken using a huge diversity of approaches and for a diversity of purposes. Standardized mapping approaches are thus often advocated, but standardization also brings with it a potential bias in accuracy among differing vegetation types. However, in general, the wise use of emerging technologies and thoughtful standardization of mapping approaches holds significant promise for the management of vegetation and ecosystems into the future.

General Overviews

Vegetation mapping requires a number of steps/processes, and readers new to the area should first read documents that provide a general overview of the mapping process. A broad overview of vegetation mapping using traditional Air Photo Interpretation (API) is provided in Avery and Berlin 1992, while Lillesand, et al. 2015 and Xie, et al. 2008 provide a sound understanding of more recent techniques used in image interpretation (see Satellite Imagery for more details). However, to understand the mapping process it is important to read published examples. Examples of major mapping projects or the requirements specified for these are therefore provided that give a perspective on approaches and standards in different parts of the world (Nelson, et al. 2015 and A Manual of California Vegetation for the United States; European Environment Agency 2014 for Europe; Mucina and Rutherford 2011 for southern Africa; Roy, et al. 2015 for India).

  • Avery, T. A., and G. L. Berlin. 1992. Fundamentals of remote sensing and Airphoto interpretation. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    This book provides a broad overview of mapping based on traditional air photo interpretation, the approach that dominated mapping through most of the 20th century.

  • European Environment Agency. 2014 Terrestrial habitat mapping in Europe: An overview. European Environment Agency, Technical report 1/2014. Luxembourg: Publications Office.

    Outlines the history, approaches, and status of vegetation mapping in Europe and how it is used to develop habitat maps. Clearly written, nontechnical, and an excellent introduction to vegetation mapping with a specific emphasis on European methods.

  • Lillesand, T. M., R. W. Kiefer, and J. W. Chipman. 2015. Remote sensing and image interpretation. 7th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    This book has a number of sections that specifically outline how imagery is used in vegetation mapping.

  • A Manual of California Vegetation. California Native Plant Society.

    This web page provides a user friendly introduction to vegetation mapping that is nontechnical and easy to read. It refers to traditional mapping techniques using air photo interpretation (API); thus, readers wanting to know only about satellite imagery will not find this useful.

  • Mucina, L., and M. C. Rutherford, eds. 2011. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. Pretoria, South Africa: South African National Biodiversity Institute.

    Mapping methods are described in chapter 2 of this book, which includes the use of a range of techniques (aerial photography, satellite imagery, and modeling). The book is the product of the South African National Biodiversity Institute and thus reflects mapping approaches from South Africa, but it also provides a good overview of the mapping process. Readers wanting to immerse themselves in vegetation patterns and what drives/explains them will find this a great book. An overview of the mapping methods used can also be read online.

  • Nelson, M. L., C. K. Brewer, and S. J. Solem, eds. 2015. Existing vegetation classification, mapping, and inventory technical guide, version 2.0. Washington, DC: Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

    A guide to vegetation classification and mapping as recommended by the responsible US department. It is written in a nontechnical manner and clearly explains the major requirements for mapping in general and specifically for the United States. An excellent overview of the mapping process.

  • Roy, P. S., M. D. Behera, M. S. R. Murthy, et al. 2015. New vegetation type map of India prepared using satellite remote sensing: Comparison with global vegetation maps and utilities. International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation 39:142–159.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jag.2015.03.003

    This map produced over a fifteen-year period is a significant contribution to the mapping of the Asian region and provides a good example of large-scale vegetation mapping and the techniques used in such projects.

  • Xie, Y., Z. Sha, and M. Yu 2008. Remote sensing imagery in vegetation mapping: A review. Journal of Plant Ecology 1.1: 9–23.

    DOI: 10.1093/jpe/rtm005

    Provides a useful overview of how to use remote sensing imagery to classify and map vegetation cover.

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