Landscape Ecology

, Volume 25, Issue 10, pp 1519–1527 | Cite as

Spatial vegetation patterns as early signs of desertification: a case study of a desert steppe in Inner Mongolia, China

  • Yang Lin
  • Guodong Han
  • Mengli Zhao
  • Scott X. Chang
Research Article


Proper assessment and early detection of land degradation and desertification is extremely important in arid and semi-arid ecosystems. Recent research has proposed to use the characteristics of spatial vegetation patterns, such as parameters derived from power-law modeling of vegetation patches, for detecting the early signs of desertification. However, contradictory results have been reported regarding the suitability of those proposed indicators. We used an experiment with multiple grazing intensities as an analog of a desertification gradient and evaluated the performance of two predictors of desertification: percent plant cover and a transition from a patch-area distribution characterized by a power law to another portrayed by a truncated power law, in a desert steppe in Inner Mongolia, China. We found that spatial metrics, such as the largest patch index and coefficient of variation of mean patch area had negative linear relationships with grazing intensity, suggesting that vegetation patches became more fragmented and homogeneous under higher grazing pressure. Using a binning-based method to analyze our dataset, we found that the patch-area relationship deviated from a power-law to a truncated power-law model with increasing grazing pressure, while the truncated power law was a better fit than the power law for all plots when binning was not used. These results suggest that the selection of methodology is crucial in using power-law models to detect changes in vegetation patterns. Plant cover was significantly correlated with stocking rate and all spatial metrics evaluated; however, the relationship between cover and vegetation spatial pattern still deserves a thorough examination, especially in other types of ecosystems, before using cover as a universal early sign of desertification. Our results highlight a strong connection between the vegetation spatial pattern and the desertification associated with heavy grazing and suggest that future studies should incorporate information about vegetation spatial pattern in monitoring desertification processes.


Grassland Dryland Herbivory Sheep grazing Overgrazing Spatial homogeneity Habitat fragmentation Heterogeneity Small-scale 



We thank Zhen Wang, Liangliang Zhang, Shuangyang Zhang, Yuanheng Li, Jiajun Bai and Na Yu for their help in field measurements. We thank Fangliang He, James F. Cahill, Jr., Edward W. Bork, Xing Jin, Zheng Shi and Haiqing Lei for helpful advice on experiment design and data analysis. Comments from the coordinating editor and two anonymous reviewers significantly improved the manuscript. This study was financially supported by a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant to Scott X. Chang, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (30590832, 30860060) and the National Key Basic Research Program of China (2007CB106800) to Guodong Han and Mengli Zhao. Yang Lin was also supported by a travel grant from the China Institute, University of Alberta.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yang Lin
    • 1
  • Guodong Han
    • 2
  • Mengli Zhao
    • 2
  • Scott X. Chang
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Renewable ResourcesUniversity of AlbertaAlbertaCanada
  2. 2.College of Ecology and Environmental SciencesInner Mongolia Agricultural UniversityHohhotPeople’s Republic of China

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