Remote sensing of plant functional types

Susan L. Ustin, John A. Gamon

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

427 Scopus citations


Contents: Summary795I.Introduction796II.History of functional-type classifications of vegetation796III.History of remote sensing of vegetation 799IV.New sensors and perspectives802V.Measuring detailed canopy structure806VI.The emerging hypothesis of 'optical types'810VII.Conclusions811Acknowledgements811References811 Summary: Conceptually, plant functional types represent a classification scheme between species and broad vegetation types. Historically, these were based on physiological, structural and/or phenological properties, whereas recently, they have reflected plant responses to resources or environmental conditions. Often, an underlying assumption, based on an economic analogy, is that the functional role of vegetation can be identified by linked sets of morphological and physiological traits constrained by resources, based on the hypothesis of functional convergence. Using these concepts, ecologists have defined a variety of functional traits that are often context dependent, and the diversity of proposed traits demonstrates the lack of agreement on universal categories. Historically, remotely sensed data have been interpreted in ways that parallel these observations, often focused on the categorization of vegetation into discrete types, often dependent on the sampling scale. At the same time, current thinking in both ecology and remote sensing has moved towards viewing vegetation as a continuum rather than as discrete classes. The capabilities of new remote sensing instruments have led us to propose a new concept of optically distinguishable functional types ('optical types') as a unique way to address the scale dependence of this problem. This would ensure more direct relationships between ecological information and remote sensing observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)795-816
Number of pages22
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jun 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Continuous fields
  • Discrete and continuous ecological traits
  • Functional groups
  • Imaging spectroscopy
  • LiDAR (light detection and ranging)
  • Optical types
  • Plant functional types (PFT)
  • Remote sensing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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