Predictive mapping of tree species assemblages in an African montane rainforest

Babaasa, Dennis; Finn, John T.; Schweik, Charles M.; Fuller, Todd K.; Sheil, Douglas


Conservation of mountain ecosystems can benefit from knowledge of habitats and their distribution patterns. This benefit is particularly true for diverse ecosystems with high conservation values such as the “Afromontane” rainforests. We mapped the vegetation of one such forest: the rugged Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda—a World Heritage Site known for its many restricted-range plants and animal taxa including several iconic species. Given variation in elevation, terrain and human impacts across Bwindi, we hypothesised that these factors influence the composition and distribution of tree species. To test this, detailed surveys were carried out using stratified random sampling. We established 289 georeferenced sample sites (each with 15 trees ≥20 cm dbh) ranging from 1,320 to 2,467 m a.s.l. and measured 4,335 trees comprising 89 species that occurred in four or more sample sites. These data were analysed against twenty-one digitally mapped biophysical variables using various analytical techniques including non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) and random forests. We identified six tree species assemblages with distinct compositions. Among the biophysical variables, elevation had the strongest correlation with the ordination (r2=0.5; p<0.001). The “out-of-bag” (OOB) estimate of the error rate for the best final model was 50.7% meaning that nearly half of the variation was accounted for using a limited set of variables. We demonstrate that it is possible to predict the spatial pattern of such a forest based on sampling across a highly complex landscape. Such methods offer accurate mapping of composition that can guide conservation.