Vegetation structure from LiDAR explains the local richness of birds across Denmark

Classic ecological research into the determinants of biodiversity patterns emphasised the important role of three-dimensional (3D) vegetation heterogeneity. Yet, measuring vegetation structure across large areas has historically been difficult. A growing focus on large-scale research questions has caused local vegetation heterogeneity to be overlooked compared with more readily accessible habitat metrics from, for example, land cover maps. Using newly available 3D vegetation data, we investigated the relative importance of habitat and vegetation heterogeneity for explaining patterns of bird species richness and composition across Denmark (42,394 km2). We used standardised, repeated point counts of birds conducted by volunteers across Denmark alongside metrics of habitat availability from land-cover maps and vegetation structure from rasterised LiDAR data (10 m resolution). We used random forest models to relate species richness to environmental features and considered trait-specific responses by grouping species by nesting behaviour, habitat preference and primary lifestyle. Finally, we evaluated the role of habitat and vegetation heterogeneity metrics in explaining local bird assemblage composition. Overall, vegetation structure was equally as important as habitat availability for explaining bird richness patterns. However, we did not find a consistent positive relationship between species richness and habitat or vegetation heterogeneity; instead, functional groups displayed individual responses to habitat features. Meanwhile, habitat availability had the strongest correlation with the patterns of bird assemblage composition. Our results show how LiDAR and land cover data complement one another to provide insights into different facets of biodiversity patterns and demonstrate the potential of combining remote sensing and structured citizen science programmes for biodiversity research. With the growing coverage of LiDAR surveys, we are witnessing a revolution of highly detailed 3D data that will allow us to integrate vegetation heterogeneity into studies at large spatial extents and advance our understanding of species' physical niches.