The value of using landsat 8 indices to describe large herbivore distribution

Mordecai, Kim Morag
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Satellite imagery and remote sensing techniques provide a way to collect data over large temporal and spatial scales, and build indices that gauge ecological variables. These indices can explain the distribution of animals in their environment. In this study I compare the ability of various indices derived from Landsat 8, to reliably predict locations of different large herbivore species across diverse habitats. The study was undertaken in the Kgaswane Mountain Reserve, North West Province, South Africa. Daily locations of two herds of sable antelope (Hippotragus niger) and one herd of eland (Tragelaphus oryx) were used. One sable antelope herd (vlei herd) occupied a grassland plateau with a wetland and the other sable antelope herd (woodland herd), shared the wooded area at the base of the mountains with the eland herd. I described vegetation communities, burnt areas, geology and soil templates at animal locations during foraging bouts in the dry season; coinciding with the times of the Landsat images. The overall aim of this study was to see whether an index or a combination of indices could better describe animal locations than the normally used NDVI. I calculated a number of indices, and compared their predictive ability to define areas used by the study animals. Specifically, I compared the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) to Soil Adjusted Vegetation Index (SAVI), Visible Atmospherically Resistant Index (VARIgreen), Green Atmospherically Resistant Index (GARI), Normalised Difference Water Index (NDWI), a proxy for soil moisture; and mineral composite indices assessing clay minerals, ferrous minerals and iron oxide. I chose these indices as they describe the basic characteristics of an ecologically functioning unit. The locations of one of the sable antelope herds, located in grassland areas underlined by quartzite, were best described by NDVI, SAVI and VARIgreen. The locations of the other sable antelope herd, occurring in an open wooded area with shallow sandy soils on norite and quartzite, were best described by clay minerals and GARI. Eland locations, found in woodland areas characterised by deep norite soils, were best described by a combination of iron oxide, NDVI and SAVI. Therefore, NDVI proved to be an adequate indicator in open grassland areas, where it could be interchanged with SAVI, and improved by VARIgreen. In closed woodlands NDVI, SAVI and NDWI could all be used to describe browser locations. NDVI was not a suitable index when it came to describe locations of a grazer in a woodland/grassland matrix. However, it is important to keep in mind that my results pertain only to one dry season and two herbivore species, and therefore further studies would be needed to be able to generalise the results further.
A thesis submitted to the Faculty of Science, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Masters in Science.