High-resolution images and drone-based LiDAR reveal striking patterns of vegetation gaps in a wooded spinifex grassland of Western Australia

Stephan Getzin, Christian Löns, Hezi Yizhaq, Todd E. Erickson, Miriam Muñoz-Rojas, Andreas Huth, Kerstin Wiegand

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Context: Vegetation patterns in hummock grasslands of Australia’s arid interior can be very complex. Additionally, the grasslands are interspersed with variable amounts of trees and shrubs. Objectives: To better understand the spatial arrangement of this vegetation structure, and in particular the unvegetated bare-soil gaps, we analyzed the scale-dependent patterns of gaps, trees, and shrubs. Methods: We focused on two size categories of grassland gaps, large gaps ≥ 4 m2 known as fairy circles (FCs) and small gaps 1 to < 4 m2, and on trees and shrubs. We mapped four 200 m × 200 m study plots located east of the town of Newman in Western Australia, using drone-based aerial images and LiDAR. The RGB images were converted into binary images and the gaps and woody plants were automatically segmented. The spatial patterns of the four vegetation components were analyzed, as well as the shape properties of the vegetation gaps. Results: The most striking result was that small gaps appeared consistently at about 5 m distance away from the FCs, which are known as the most water-depleted locations in the grassland. The FCs were also rounder than the small gaps and this symmetry underlines their function as an extra source of water for the surrounding matrix vegetation. Trees and shrubs had spatial patterns that were unrelated to FCs, which likely results from their water uptake in deeper sub-soil layers. Conclusions: The consistent distance of small gaps to FCs is further support that the Australian fairy circles are a self-organized vegetation pattern that results from ecohydrological feedbacks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)829-845
Number of pages17
JournalLandscape Ecology
Issue number3
Early online date3 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2022


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