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The famous drawing of Mount Chimborazo, Mont Blanc and Mount Sulitjema by Alexander von Humboldt probably shows the first scientific attempt of physiognomic zonation related to elevation, clearly distinguishing between forests, shrubland and montane savannah. In 1955, Beard described the plant communities in the vegetation systems for the tropics on the basis of their structure and growth form and identified a number of units he called formations. These are further subdivided into associations or communities according to floristic composition and can occur in more than one vegetation system. By the end of the 1960s, early 1970s applications ranging from forestry exploitation, land-use analysis to nature conservation, all needed descriptions and spatial delineation of vegetation structures. The detailed Zürich-Montpellier (Braun Blanquet 1928) method commonly used in Europe, was too slow and required too much taxonomic knowledge from its applicants to work under conditions of high species richness. Several renowned scientists experienced in the application of the Zürich-Montpellier method used their experience in vegetation analysis to design a species-independent method that could be universally applied. A variety of physiognomic classification systems have been developed, usually in combination with other modifiers.


The most broadly accepted system has become the “Tentative Physiognomic-Ecological Classification of Plant Formations of the Earth”, developed under the auspices of the UNESCO. It is a hierarchical classification system designed to compare ecological “habitat”. The system combines physiognomic and ecological modifiers to characterise and classify vegetation units (Muellerr-Dombois & Ellenberg 1974). The authors never seem to have had in mind to provide an exhaustive list of possibilities, but rather provide a framework approach, that allows customisation to the broad variability of nature. Instead, the often-repeated instruction “Subdivisions possible”, makes it an extremely flexible and intuitive system, suitable for all terrestrial conditions. That the system has a sound foundation may be concluded from the fact that several later systems have been spun off from the system, most notably the USNVC system in 1998 and the Land Cover Classification System, LCCS of FAO/UNEP in 2000 (Di Gregorio & Jansen 2000).


Analysis of physiognomic vegetation classification from LANDSAT images (detail of 30 X 30 m pixels for the visible and near-infra-red bands) is possible, but it is largely deductive, as one cannot actually observe the physiognomic structures such as trees and shrubs or their absence. The level of detail of what can be deducted directly from deflexion of light radiation alone is rather limited, but through combination of indirect information, such as elevation levels, terrain patters, seasonal leave-shedding, etc., one may deduct further detail. Experienced field biologists may further enhance the level of detail from field reconnaissance and prior knowledge, such as dominant species of structural classes in certain regions of a country. Hence, detailed analysis depends on substantial field knowledge of the analyst.

As considerable as these limitations may seem, satellite images have great advantages, such as1:

·         Each image covers a large area;

·         The per hectare cost of LANDSAT image has always been lower than that of aerial photographs; since the launching of LANDSAT 7 in 2001, “raw” (Un-processed) satellite images have become very cost effective2, as they now cost a mere US $600 each ( 2003 pricing);

·         A new series of images of the entire earth is taken every 16 days;

·         National military institutions can’t block out the analysis of regions by prohibition of the distribution of imagery;

·         Digital format facilitates frequent change of scale;

·         Classification is rapid and digital mapping can be done directly by computer3, thus speeding up the process and reducing costs.


In areas with homogeneous vegetation structures, physiognomic classification systems show rather little detail, while there is no good knowledge to indicate whether or not more detailed spatial differentiation of species assemblages occur. To partially compensate for this low level of detail, biogeographical criteria should be applied whenever reasonable assumptions for such divisions may be made. In applying such criteria, one must use reason and logic. Rare ecosystems, which would need to be fully included in a protected areas system, may not need further splitting, unless biogeographical regionalisation is clearly present. It would primarily be relevant for the more common and what shall later be defined as “typically large terrestrial ecosystems”.

1 This list is not meant to be exhaustive but illustrative.

2 A set of 37 images for Central America would now only cost $17.575 and regionally purchased could serve all 7 countries of the region.

3 This is also possible for aerial photographs, but the process is far more elaborate since each photograph must be converted to digitised format, rectified and processed individually.

  This page  is part of our web-book on Biodiversity Conservation. For organized reading go to our on-line Table of Content, or download our book in pdf format.



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