Max Planck Gesellschaft

Landscape Processes Group


Integrating remote sensing and GIS with ecology for process-based understanding and prediction at landscape to regional scales

Landscapes are mosaics of different patches and gradients, varying in size, shape, composition and spatial configuration at multiple scales. This spatio-temporal heterogeneity has often been ignored in ecology, which traditionally focused on similarities rather than differences in ecological systems. We explore the processes that create, maintain and modify landscape heterogeneity, and assess the consequences of heterogeneity for ecological functioning and biodiversity conservation in the context of global change.

We use remote sensing tools to explicitly quantify heterogeneity within landscapes and explore spatial and temporal dynamics. We make extensive use of LiDAR (laser altimetry) to map landscape and vegetation structures in three-dimensions (3-D) across a broad range of ecosystems including savannas, tropical forests, and temperate forests. We aim to improve understanding and modeling of ecosystem processes across scales and inform biodiversity conservation and land management.

Our primary study sites are located in South Africa, Australia, Brazil and Germany.


Group Leader Shaun Levick
Geospatial Analyst Marcus Guderle
PhD students Jenia Singh
Affiliated members Antje Ehrle (FSU), Joaquin Duque Lazo (Leipzig), Daniel Marra (Leipzig)

Research themes

Topo-edaphic controls on ecosystem processes

Ecological processes are seldom uniform or random in space, as landscapes contain spatial structures that mediate how energy, materials and organisms move through them. Underlying soil type and hillslope morphology are two primary controls that influence biogeochemical processes, but spatial heterogeneity of these factors is poorly accounted for in regional and global models. We aim to improve understanding of how ecological processes vary across landscapes and facilitate integration with predictive modeling efforts.

We are studying a range of hillslope catenas (topographically linked sequences of soil, water and vegetation) on different geologies across a rainfall gradient in South African savannas to better understand how climate and substrate influence biogeochemical processes (such as soil carbon storage and flux) at hillslope-scales. We are currently expanding this research to sites in Australia and South America to gain a global perspective on hillslope-scale processes in savanna systems.

Disturbance effects on ecosystem processes

The vegetation present at a given point in a landscape is a function not only of climate and environmental resources, but also of various disturbance agents acting across that landscape. In savannas, vegetation structure and biomass is often much lower than what we would expect from climate potential alone, as fire, herbivores, wind and human land-use disturbance reduce standing biomass and are major determinants of vegetation structure and dynamics. We aim to understand how disturbance effects vary spatially across landscapes, and how the relative importance of different disturbances varies with spatial and temporal context.

Fire effects on carbon storage in savannas represent significant uncertainty in global carbon budgets, driving disparities between potential and realized biomass. We are using a network of long-term fire experiments in the savannas of southern Africa, northern Australia, and South America to improve understanding of how fire influences vegetation structure and carbon storage. This research is closely connected with land managers in these systems, who are interested in the biodiversity and carbon management implications of different fire policies.

Land-management effects on carbon storage and biodiversity conservation

Vegetation structural diversity is a fundamental component of biodiversity. Diverse plant structures create broad arrays of habitat for other organisms to utilize, and increase the range of ecological functions that vegetation provides. In order to conserve biodiversity and ecological functioning under global change, we need to better understand how variation in climate and land-use influence ecosystem structure and dynamics. Growing appreciation of the importance of spatial scale, heterogeneity and context in ecological research has seen a rapid increase in the application of remote sensing in ecology to provide spatially continuous representations of ecosystems. Airborne LiDAR (light detection and ranging) has emerged as a valuable tool for the structural characterization of ecosystems in three-dimensions (3-D), at fine resolutions, and over large spatial extents. However, despite large advances in mapping canopy structure in high spatial resolution, we have seen limited direct application of LiDAR in biodiversity research. This disparity partly stems from the collection and analysis of LiDAR data remaining largely in the remote sensing, engineering and computer science fields, with poor integration into ecological and biodiversity science.

We aim to develop better insight into how biodiversity and ecological functioning might change under future climate and land-management conditions. I am using high resolution airborne LiDAR to explore the variability in tree architecture across gradients of land-use and climate in European temperate systems. The architecture of an adult tree is a reflection of current and historic growing conditions, as it integrates the environmental and disturbance factors that have shaped its structure from seedling to maturity. We can use this information embedded within the 3-D canopy structure of trees, at multiple spatial scales, to better understand how different drivers influence carbon storage and structural diversity.

Organisms as ecosystem engineers

“Ecosystem engineers” are organisms that directly or indirectly modulate the availability of resources to other species, by causing physical state changes in the abiotic or biotic environment. I am studying the ecosystem impacts of two such engineers in African savannas – termites and elephants.

Termite mounds represent nutrient and biodiversity hotspots within the broader landscape matrix. Termites build their mounds from clays and are a major source of particle and nutrient redistribution in savannas. I am using LiDAR data collected by the Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO,, in collaboration with Greg Asner, to map the spatial location of termite mounds and gain better understanding of the spatial distribution and density of mounds on different soil types and under different rainfall regimes. We are also conducting a range of field studies to assess the scale of termite mound influence as a forage resource for other organisms.

At the larger end of the organism spectrum, elephants modify the physical environment by breaking branches and pushing over trees. Large trees form islands of biogeochemical activity within the landscape matrix, but are disappearing in many savannas through the interaction of increasing elephant densities and fire. We are using satellite imagery and airborne LiDAR (from the CAO) to understand the rate and spatial distribution of elephant impacts on large trees across different substrate, hillslope and rainfall settings. This research is conducted in close collaboration with Carnegie and South African National Parks (SANParks) scientists to understand the ecological consequences of tree loss, and provide crucial information for the setting and evaluation of biodiversity conservation objectives.






Recent Publications

1Singh, J., Levick, S. R., Guderle, M., Schmullius, C. (2020). Moving from plot-based to hillslope-scale assessments of savanna vegetation structure with long-range terrestrial laser scanning (LR-TLS). International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 90: 102070. doi:10.1016/j.jag.2020.102070.
2Silvério, D. V., Brando, P. M., Bustamante, M. M. C., Putz, F. E., Marra, D. M., Levick, S. R., Trumbore, S. E. (2019). Fire, fragmentation, and windstorms: A recipe for tropical forest degradation. Journal of Ecology, 107(2), 656-667. doi:10.1111/1365-2745.13076.
3Bae, S., Levick, S. R., Heidrich, L., Magdon, P., Leutner, B. F., Wöllauer, S., Serebryanyk, A., Nauss, T., Krzystek, P., Gossner, M. M., Schall, P., Heibl, C., Bässler, C., Doerfler, I., Schulze, E. D., Krah, F.-S., Culmsee, H., Jung, K., Heurich, M., Fischer, M., Seibold, S., Thorn, S., Gerlach, T., Hothorn, T., Weisser, W. W., Müller, J. (2019). Radar vision in the mapping of forest biodiversity from space. Nature Communications, 10: 4757. doi:10.1038/s41467-019-12737-x.
4Levick, S. R., Richards, A. E., Cook, G. D., Schatz, J., Guderle, M., Williams, R. J., Subedi, P., Trumbore, S. E., Andersen, A. N. (2019). Rapid response of habitat structure and above-ground carbon storage to altered fire regimes in tropical savanna. Biogeosciences, 16(7), 1493-1503. doi:10.5194/bg-16-1493-2019.
5Brando, P. M., Silvério, D., Maracahipes-Santos, L., Oliveira-Santos, C., Levick, S. R., Coe, M. T., Migliavacca, M., Balch, J. K., Macedo, M. N., Nepstad, D. C., Maracahipes, L., Davidson, E., Asner, G., Kolle, O., Trumbore, S. E. (2019). Prolonged tropical forest degradation due to compounding disturbances: Implications for CO2 and H2O fluxes. Global Change Biology, 25(9), 2855-2868. doi:10.1111/gcb.14659.
6Goldbergs, G., Levick, S. R., Lawes, M., Edwards, A. (2018). Hierarchical integration of individual tree and area-based approaches for savanna biomass uncertainty estimation from airborne LiDAR. Remote Sensing of Environment, 205, 141-150. doi:10.1016/j.rse.2017.11.010.
7Singh, J., Levick, S. R., Guderle, M., Schmullius, C., Trumbore, S. E. (2018). Variability in fire-induced change to vegetation physiognomy and biomass in semi-arid savanna. Ecosphere, 9(12): e02514. doi:10.1002/ecs2.2514.
8Cobb, R. C., Ruthrof, K., Breshears, D., Llorett, F., Aakala, T., Adams, H. D., Anderegg, W. L., Ewers, B. E., Galiano, L., Grünzweig, J. M., Hartmann, H., Huang, C., Klein, T., Kunert, N., Kitzberger, T., Landhäusser, S. M., Levick, S. R., Preisler, Y., Suarez, M. L., Trotsiuk, V., Zeppel, M. (2017). Ecosystem dynamics and management after forest die-off: a global synthesis with conceptual state-and-transition models. Ecosphere, 8(12): e02034. doi:10.1002/ecs2.2034.
9O’Brien, M. J., Engelbrecht, B. M. J., Joswig, J., Pereyra, G., Schuldt, B., Jansen, S., Kattge, J., Landhäusser, S. M., Levick, S. R., Preisler, Y., Väänänen, P., Macinnis-Ng, C. (2017). A synthesis of tree functional traits related to drought-induced mortality in forests across climatic zones. Journal of Applied Ecology, 54(6), 1669-1686. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12874.
10Ehrle, A., Andersen, A. N., Levick, S. R., Schumacher, J., Trumbore, S. E., Michalzik, B. (2017). Yellow-meadow ant (Lasius flavus) mound development determines soil properties and growth responses of different plant functional types. European Journal of Soil Biology, 81, 83-93. doi:10.1016/j.ejsobi.2017.06.006.
11Davies, A. B., Levick, S. R., Robertson, M. P., van Rensburg, B. J., Asner, G. P., Parr, C. L. (2016). Termite mounds differ in their importance for herbivores across savanna types, seasons and spatial scales. Oikos, 125(5), 726-734. doi:10.1111/oik.02742.
12Rughoeft, S., Herrmann, M., Lazar, C. S., Cesarz, S., Levick, S. R., Trumbore, S. E., Kuesel, K. (2016). Community composition and abundance of bacterial, archaeal and nitrifying populations in savanna soils on contrasting bedrock material in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Frontiers in Microbiology, 7: 1638. doi:10.3389/fmicb.2016.01638.
13Levick, S. R., Hessenmöller, D., Schulze, E. D. (2016). Scaling wood volume estimates from inventory plots to landscapes with airborne LiDAR in temperate deciduous forest. Carbon Balance and Management, 11: 7. doi:10.1186/s13021-016-0048-7.
14Anderegg, W. R. L., Martinez-Vilalta, J., Cailleret, M., Camarero, J. J., Ewers, B. E., Galbraith, D., Gessler, A., Grote, R., Huang, C.-y., Levick, S. R., Powell, T. L., Rowland, L., Sánchez-Salguero, R., Trotsiuk, V. (2016). When a tree dies in the forest: Scaling climate-driven tree mortality to ecosystem water and carbon fluxes. Ecosystems, 19(6), 1133-1147. doi:10.1007/s10021-016-9982-1.
15Gossner, M. M., Wende, B., Levick, S. R., Schall, P., Floren, A., Linsenmair, K. E., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Schulze, E. D., Weisser, W. W. (2016). Deadwood enrichment in European forests – Which tree species should be used to promote saproxylic beetle diversity? Biological Conservation, 201, 92-102. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2016.06.032.
16Davies, A. B., van Rensburg, B. J., Robertson, M. P., Levick, S. R., Asner, G. P., Parr, C. L. (2016). Seasonal variation in the relative dominance of herbivore guilds in an African savanna. Ecology, 97(6), 1618-1624. doi:10.1890/15-1905.1.
17Schulze, E. D., Boch, S., Levick, S. R., Schumacher, J. (2016). Seltene und gefährdete Pflanzen wachsen im Laubwald überall. AFZ, der Wald, 13, 35-38.
18Asner, G. P., Vaughn, N., Smit, I. P. J., Levick, S. R. (2016). Ecosystem-scale effects of megafauna in African savannas. Ecography, 39(2), 240-252. doi:10.1111/ecog.01640.
19Urbazaev, M., Thiel, C., Mathieu, R., Naidoo, L., Levick, S. R., Smit, I., Asner, G., Schmullius, C. (2015). Assessment of the mapping of fractional woody cover in southern African savannas using multi-temporal and polarimetric ALOS PALSAR L-band images. Remote Sensing of Environment, 166, 138-153. doi:10.1016/j.rse.2015.06.013.
20Ratcliffe, S., Holzwarth, F., Nadrowski, K., Levick, S. R., Wirth, C. (2015). Tree neighbourhood matters – Tree species composition drives diversity–productivity patterns in a near-natural beech forest. Forest Ecology and Management, 335, 225-234. doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2014.09.032.
21Levick, S. R., Setterfield, S. A., Rossiter-Rachor, N. A., Hutley, L. B., MacMaster, D., Hacker, J. M. (2015). Monitoring the distribution and dynamics of an invasive grass in tropical savanna using airborne LiDAR. Remote Sensing, 7(5), 5117-5132. doi:10.3390/rs70505117.
22Levick, S. R., Baldeck, C. A., Asner, G. P. (2015). Demographic legacies of fire history in an African savanna. Functional Ecology, 29(1), 131-139. doi:10.1111/1365-2435.12306.
23Asner, G. P., Owen-Smith, N., Loarie, S. R., Davies, A. B., Le Roux, E., Levick, S. R. (2015). Habitat differences do not explain population declines of sable antelope in an African savanna. Journal of Zoology, 297(3), 225-234. doi:10.1111/jzo.12269.
24Schwabe, F., Göttert, T., Starik, N., Levick, S. R., Zeller, U. (2015). A study on the postrelease behaviour and habitat preferences of black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) reintroduced into a fenced reserve in Namibia. African Journal of Ecology, 53(4), 531-539. doi:10.1111/aje.12245.
25Joyce, K. E., Samsonov, S. V., Levick, S. R., Engelbrecht, J., Belliss, S. (2014). Mapping and monitoring geological hazards using optical, LiDAR, and synthetic aperture RADAR image data. Natural Hazards, 73(2), 137-163. doi:10.1007/s11069-014-1122-7.
26Baldeck, C. A., Colgan, M. S., Féret, J.-B., Levick, S. R., Martin, R. E., Asner, G. P. (2014). Landscape-scale variation in plant community composition of an African savanna from airborne species mapping. Ecological Applications, 24(1), 84-93. doi:10.1890/13-0307.1.
27Davies, A., Levick, S., Asner, G., Robertson, M., van Rensburg, B., Parr, C. (2014). Spatial variability and abiotic determinants of termite mounds throughout a savanna catchment. Ecography, 37, 001-011. doi:10.1111/ecog.00532.
28Davies, A. B., Robertson, M. P., Levick, S. R., Asner, G. P., van Rensburg, B. J., Parr, C. L. (2014). Variable effects of termite mounds on African savanna grass communities across a rainfall gradient. Journal of Vegetation Science, 25(6), 1405-1416. doi:10.1111/jvs.12200.
29Thurner, M., Beer, C., Santoro, M., Carvalhais, N., Wutzler, T., Schepaschenko, D., Shvidenko, A., Kompter, E., Ahrens, B., Levick, S., Schmullius, C. (2014). Carbon stock and density of northern boreal and temperate forests. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 23(3), 297-310. doi:10.1111/geb.12125.
30Levick, S. R., Asner, G. P. (2013). The rate and spatial pattern of treefall in a savanna landscape. Biological Conservation, 157, 121-127. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2012.07.009.
31Chadwick, O., Roering, J., Heimsath, A., Levick, S., Asner, G., Khomo, L. (2013). Shaping post-orogenic landscapes by climate and chemical weathering. Geology, 41(11), 1171-1174. doi:10.1130/G34721.1.
32Levick, S. R., Asner, G., Smit, I. P. J. (2012). Spatial patterns in the effects of fire on savanna vegetation three-dimensional structure. Ecological Applications, 22(8), 2110-2121. doi:10.1890/12-0178.1.
33Colgan, M. S., Asner, G. P., Levick, S. R., Martin, R. E., Chadwick, O. A. (2012). Topo-edaphic controls over woody plant biomass in South African savannas. Biogeosciences, 9, 1809-1821. doi:10.5194/bg-9-1809-2012.
34Asner, G., Levick, S. (2012). Landscape-scale effects of herbivores on treefall in African savanna. Ecology Letters, 15, 1211-1217. doi:10.1111/j.1461-0248.2012.01842.x.
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