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A practical method for creating a digital topographic surface for ecological plots using ground-based measurements


Buettel, JC and Ondei, S and Brook, BW, A practical method for creating a digital topographic surface for ecological plots using ground-based measurements, Landscape Ecology, 33, (1) pp. 9-18. ISSN 0921-2973 (2019) [Refereed Article]

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Copyright Statement

Copyright Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

DOI: doi:10.1007/s10980-017-0598-4



Digital elevation models (DEMs) are widely used in landscape ecology to link topographic features with biotic and abiotic factors. However, to date, high-resolution, affordable, and easy to process elevation data are not available for many regions.


Here we propose a field-based method for efficiently and inexpensively collecting or analysing already existing slope data. We compare the field approach to two commonly used remote sensing techniques to test the similarly of the DEMs using different methods.


To provide an ecological example of the method, we selected four 1-ha forest plots and compared the DEM generated by using our field method with those derived from: (i) coarse (~ 30 m pixel) data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and (ii) high-resolution (~ 1 m) data from Light Detection and Ranging devices (LiDAR).


Field- and LiDAR-based DEMs showed strong concordance in two of the four sites. The sites where field-based and LiDAR DEMs substantially differed, suffered from relatively few LiDAR sampling points. Diagnostic tests suggested that the field–LiDAR discrepancy was due to dense over-storey vegetation, which reduced LiDAR’s accuracy due to a failure to penetrate the forest canopy adequately in some areas.


Our method has the advantage of being quick and cheap to collect yet able to produce small-scale (plot-scale) DEMs of high quality. By using the R-code we have provided, ecologists will be able to use slope data (collected using any means) to generate a DEM without the need of specific skills in spatial sciences.

Item Details

Item Type:Refereed Article
Keywords:digital elevation model, forests, remote sensing, LiDAR, DEM, topography, plots, SRTM, algorithm
Research Division:Environmental Sciences
Research Group:Ecological applications
Research Field:Landscape ecology
Objective Division:Environmental Management
Objective Group:Fresh, ground and surface water systems and management
Objective Field:Assessment and management of freshwater ecosystems
UTAS Author:Buettel, JC (Dr Jessie Buettel)
UTAS Author:Ondei, S (Dr Stefania Ondei)
UTAS Author:Brook, BW (Professor Barry Brook)
ID Code:136330
Year Published:2019 (online first 2018)
Deposited By:Plant Science
Deposited On:2019-12-16
Last Modified:2020-02-28
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