Remotely sensed environmental data as ecological proxies for ground-dwelling ant diversity along a subtropical forest succession gradient

R. Ho LEE*, Ivan H. Y. KWONG, Toby P. N. TSANG, Mark K. L. WONG, Benoit GUÉNARD

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


1. Early naturalists such as Humboldt observed that changes in topography and anthropogenic disturbances influenced vegetation structure and the composition of animal communities. This holistic view of community assembly continues to shape conservation and restoration strategies in an era of landscape degradation and biodiversity loss. Today, remote sensing affords ecologists the tools for obtaining rapid and precise measures of topography, disturbance history and vegetation structure. Nonetheless, the capacity of such measures to predict the structure of diverse and functionally important insect communities has not been fully explored.

2. We sampled ground-dwelling ant assemblages with pitfall traps along a successional gradient (15 grasslands, 21 shrublands and 44 forests) in subtropical Asia, and measured the taxonomic (TD) and functional diversity (FD). We used airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and aerial photography—to measure topography, anthropogenic-fire history and vegetation structure at each site. Using structural equation models, we tested the hypothesis that vegetation structure mediated the effects of topography and anthropogenic-fire history on ant assemblage TD and FD, with stronger effects on the latter.

3. We found that low elevation and anthropogenic-fire history promoted ant TD, and by mediating vegetation structure, these factors further controlled ant FD. Specifically, assemblages of ant species occupying more similar niches—as indicated by their lower FD—were found in secondary forests that had more structurally homogeneous vegetation. These sites also had low insolation and high water moisture content, and were not recently burned as revealed by LiDAR-derived metrics and aerial images. Furthermore, remotely sensed vegetation structures were closely associated with individual ant traits, such as body size and eye length, which reflect species' preferences for habitat structure.

4. Synthesis. Our study uncovers the interactive effects of topography, disturbance history and vegetation structure in determining the TD and FD of ant assemblages in subtropical landscapes. Moreover, it demonstrates that remote sensed data can be leveraged to efficiently elucidate the complex effects of environmental change and disturbances on vegetation structure and consequently insect biodiversity, representing ecological proxies to refine ground investigation plans and support appropriate conservation and restoration measures for degraded landscapes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1428-1442
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number7
Early online date6 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

We are grateful for the persistent support by Ying Luo, Yuet Yin Ling, Curtis Huang and Roy Cheung in the field and laboratory. Thanks to Maria Lo who provided technical assistance. We also thank two anonymous referees for providing constructive comments on the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 The Authors. Journal of Ecology © 2023 British Ecological Society.


  • Asia
  • Formicidae
  • aerial photography
  • airborne LiDAR
  • anthropogenic fire
  • degraded landscape
  • functional diversity


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