Finite Mixture Model-based classification of a complex vegetation system
expand article infoFabio Attorre, Vito E. Cambria§, Emiliano Agrillo|, Nicola Alessi, Marco Alfò#, Michele De Sanctis, Luca Malatesta, Tommaso Sitzia§, Riccardo Guarino¤, Corrado Marcenò«, Marco Massimi, Francesco Spada, Giuliano Fanelli
‡ Department of Environmental Biology, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy
§ Department of Land, Environment, Agriculture and Forestry, University of Padova, Legnaro, Italy
| Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), Rome, Italy
¶ Faculty of Science and Technology, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Bozen, Italy
# Department of Statistical Sciences, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy
¤ Department of Environmental Biology and Biodiversity, University of Palermo, Palermo, Italy
« Department of Plant Biology and Ecology, University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain
Open Access


Aim: To propose a Finite Mixture Model (FMM) as an additional approach for classifying large datasets of georeferenced vegetation plots from complex vegetation systems. Study area: The Italian peninsula including the two main islands (Sicily and Sardinia), but excluding the Alps and the Po plain. Methods: We used a database of 5,593 georeferenced plots and 1,586 vascular species of forest vegetation, created in TURBOVEG by storing published and unpublished phytosociological plots collected over the last 30 years. The plots were classified according to species composition and environmental variables using a FMM. Classification results were compared with those obtained by TWINSPAN algorithm. Groups were characterized in terms of ecological parameters, dominant and diagnostic species using the fidelity coefficient. Interpretation of resulting forest vegetation types was supported by a predictive map, produced using discriminant functions on environmental predictors, and by a non‐metric multidimensional scaling ordination. Results: FMM clustering obtained 24 groups that were compared with those from TWINSPAN, and similarities were found only at a higher classification level corresponding to the main orders of the Italian broadleaf forest vegetation: Fagetalia sylvaticae, Carpinetalia betuli, Quercetalia pubescenti-petraeae and Quercetalia ilicis. At lower syntaxonomic level, these 24 groups were referred to alliances and sub-alliances. Conclusions: Despite a greater computational complexity, FMM appears to be an effective alternative to the traditional classification methods through the incorporation of modelling in the classificatory process. This allows classification of both the co-occurrence of species and environmental factors so that groups are identified not only on their species composition, as in the case of TWINSPAN, but also on their specific environmental niche.

Taxonomic reference: Conti et al. (2005).

Abbreviations: CLM = Community-level models; FMM = Finite Mixture Model; NMDS = non‐metric multidimensional scaling.


cluster analysis, finite mixture model, forest vegetation, Italian peninsula, vegetation plots


The analysis of the spatial distribution of assemblages of communities is receiving increasing attention by ecologists (Nieto-Lugilde et al. 2017). To this purpose community-level models (CLM) are being used more and more, based on an “assemble-and-predict-together” strategy to simultaneously model multiple co-occurring species within a single process (Ferrier and Guisan 2006). They include methods that model the distribution of multiple species using a common set of environmental variables (De’ath 2002; Yee 2004, 2006; Leathwick et al. 2006). This feature makes CLM particularly promising for the classification of vegetation since the identification of one type is based on both its species composition and the environmental space it occupies (De Cáceres et al. 2015; Guarino et al. 2018).

Approaches to CLM clustering can be either based on minimizing a given loss function (for instance, the sum of within-group deviance), or can be based on associating each group to a specific joint density, which is parametrically specified. In this last case, CLM based clustering arises. While in standard (either hard or fuzzy) partitioning groups are summarized or represented by prototypes, in CLM clustering groups are represented by specific shapes of the corresponding probability density. Using such an approach, vegetation plots can be classified using the posterior probability that each belongs to a given component of the mixture, each component describing a group. Moreover, when the dataset is large, hierarchical approaches, based on the calculation of the pairwise (between plots) distances, rapidly become unfeasible. In this case, partitioning around prototypes, either means, medians or other, in a hard or a fuzzy perspective are usually adopted. However, much of these are based on simple Euclidean distances between each plot and the group prototypes that do not consider the dependence, the association and the covariance between the variables (plant species abundance values) characterizing the plots. In this respect, finite mixtures of multivariate Gaussian densities provide a simple, model-based, extension to the K-means method, allowing for overlapping clusters oriented according to the group-specific covariances and providing, a posteriori, for the classification of each plot to one of the groups. For this reason, among CLMs, Finite Mixture Modelling (FMM) is an emerging method and has already been used to identify marine bioregions on the Western Australian continental margin (Woolley et al. 2013) and forest physiognomic types in Italy (Attorre et al. 2014). In this latter paper, data from a National Forest Inventory were used, while here we test the applicability of FMM as a classification method for the forest vegetation of the Italian peninsula (including the major islands but excluding the Alps and the Po Plain). This area is characterized by great biogeographical and environmental variability and hosts a number of forest vegetation types, for which several classification schemes have been proposed (Pedrotti 1995; Pignatti 1998; Ubaldi 2003; Biondi et al. 2014; Mucina et al. 2016). The Italian peninsula is a broad ecotone between the Temperate and the Mediterranean regions (Attorre et al. 2014; Pesaresi et al. 2014). Boundaries between communities are not clearly defined having many species with overlapping ranges. Geo-pedological diversity, a variety of microclimates (Attorre et al. 2007), and a long history of disturbance that dates thousands of years and includes logging, fire, grazing, and plantation activities (Médail and Quézel 1999; Scarascia-Mugnozza et al. 2000; Vallejo et al. 2005), make the identification and classification of vegetation types difficult.

Within this framework, this paper aims to verify the applicability of FMM as classification method of vegetation plots using a complex case study and a large dataset, comparing the classification results with (1) those obtained by the TWINSPAN algorithm and (2) with current syntaxonomic classification schemes.


Data set

Observation data include 5,593 georeferenced vegetation plots of between 100 and 300 m2 and 1,586 vascular species of forests in the Italian peninsula and major islands (Landucci et al. 2012; Agrillo et al. 2017). The database was created in TURBOVEG 3 (Hennekens and Schaminée 2001) by digitalizing and georeferencing published plots collected over the last 30 years (

Environmental covariates to be used in the statistical model were derived from a database with a spatial resolution of 1×1 km (Attorre et al. 2007): mean annual temperature (MeanT), mean minimum temperature of the coldest month (MinT), mean maximum temperature of the hottest month (MaxT), sum of mean monthly precipitation over summer (Ps) and winter months (Pw), and total annual precipitation (Ptot). We also used slope (SLO), derived from the GTOPO30 digital elevation model, geographical coordinates and a simplified geological map, derived from the geological map of Italy at 1:1.250.000 scale provided by the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, incorporating five main substrata: volcanic, arenaceous, carbonatic, clayey, sandy and conglomeratic.

Data analysis

We used a FMM to cluster vegetation plots, based on the assumption that data originate from one of K potential groups, also referred to as components. Each group is identified by a component, and each component is completely characterized by a distribution with known parametric form and component-specific parameters. When a (multivariate) Gaussian density is used to describe the component-specific distribution of observed plant species cover, the component is identified by a specific center, defined by the mean vector (as the observed values are on abundance scale, we may hypothesize that similar plots will be characterized by similar values of abundance of the same species), and a specific shape, summarized by the covariance matrix, which allows for varying dependence between cover values corresponding to different plant species for plots in that component. The groups (components) are defined as homogeneous in the sense that they include plots that show similar vegetation as described by the plant species cover. Therefore, the observed plots can be allocated to one of the groups by using a criterion associated with the proximity between plots and group centers. This criterion is based on the posterior probability that a plot comes from that group (component of the finite mixture). The sum of the posterior probabilities over the components for a given plot is equal to 1, meaning that the plot has a varying degree of membership to all clusters in the population. We usually allocate a plot to a given cluster by finding that for which the posterior probability is maximum. At the end of the grouping step, each group will be characterized by a weight defined as the mean of posterior probabilities and refers to the (relative) frequency of plots allocated to that group. These terms can be interpreted as (prior) probabilities that a generic plot is randomly drawn from a “population of plots” belonging to that group (component of the finite mixture). We propose to model these (prior) probabilities as a function of so-called auxiliary variables (see e.g. McLachlan and Peel 2000). Thus, for each plot, the probability that the plot belongs to a group is a function (through a multinomial logistic model) of environmental parameters, as well as of geographical information, represented by class membership of neighboring plots.

After estimating the parameter vectors for the component-specific densities describing observed abundance, and the prior probability models, we derived the updated posterior probabilities as the (normalized) product of the prior information (based on covariates) and the density for that specific component.

These two steps can be jointly performed within the same estimation algorithm (e.g. using Latent Gold software, see Haughton et al. 2009) using multiple maximization sub-steps; we first estimate the group centers and shapes, and, successively and conditionally on the previous results, we estimate the effect of observed covariates on the probability to belong to a given group. A further alternative is based on the so-called two-three-step procedures, see Vermunt (2010). Rather than defining the prior probability of belonging to a cluster as a function of both environmental and geographical variables, according to the latter approach we first estimated the FMM and then built up a model where cluster membership is a function of geographical and environmental variables, through a multinomial logit model. This may be of help when the approach we propose does present convergence issues, and it defines a viable alternative and an approximate approach to model cluster membership as a function of plot-specific geographical and environmental features. For a formal description of the FMM see Attorre et al. (2014).

In this paper, we adapted the FMM to account for a large data matrix, formed by 5,593 vegetation plots and 1,586 species whose percentage cover is recorded. In this case the direct application of a FMM would be difficult, since it would require the computation and inversion of a 1,586 * 1,586 covariance matrix, with a very sparse structure. Looking at the distribution of the number of species observed in each plot, we see that the corresponding median value is equal to 81; if we look at the distribution of the number of plots each species is present in, the median value is equal to 7. The outcome of this is that of 10,402,980 values in the abundance data matrix, we have 10,241,820 (i.e. 98.45%) null values. Thus, rather than applying a FMM to the observed matrix of percentage covers, we fitted this model to a derived matrix, defined by projecting the original data matrix onto the space spanned by the first 20 principal components of the original data matrix using an approximate method (see Baglama and Reichel 2005) for singular value decomposition (SVD) of the observed, sparse, data matrix, using the R package irlba (Baglama and Reichel 2019). The number of principal components has been chosen by looking at stability and robustness of the obtained partition; we have considered 5 to 40 eigenvalues and chosen 20 as the best balance between model fit and simplicity/robustness. After employing the sparse SVD, we have extracted the matrix A corresponding to the eigenvectors of the covariance matrix of the observed sparse data X. We defined the derived matrix Y=XA and applied to Y the FMM with some backfitting to check whether a too high (low) number of dimensions was considered. The FMM model parameters have been estimated using the mclust R package (Fraley et al. 2017).

The optimal number of forest groups (components) was obtained according to penalized likelihood criteria (AIC – Akaike 1973; BIC – Schwarz 1978; CAIC – Hurvich and Tsai 1989; AIC3 – Bodzogan 1994). For all criteria, the lower the value of the index the better (more parsimonious) the fit to the observed data.

FMM classification was compared with that obtained by TWINSPAN (Hill 1979). The modified version of TWINSPAN (Roleček et al. 2009), implemented in JUICE (Tichý 2002), was used. This version, which has already been used in several comparative analyses of classification methods (Gauch and Whittaker 1981; Cao et al. 1997; Moss et al. 1999), allowed us to select the same number of groups obtained with the FMM classification. TWINSPAN pseudospecies cut levels for species abundance were set to 0-5-25 percentage scale units and five levels of divisions were chosen.

The obtained groups were characterized according to environmental parameters and diagnostic species, which were determined using the fidelity coefficient (phi) of Tichý and Chytrý (2006). To avoid phi being dependent on the size of the target site group, group size was standardized to equal the average size of all groups present in the data set (Tichý and Chytrý 2006). The phi values vary independently of the concentration of species occurrence in the plots of individual groups. Statistical significance was obtained by a simultaneous calculation of Fisher’s exact test. Species with phi values higher than 0.5 and Fisher’s exact test significance lower than 0.001 were deemed to be diagnostic.

Interpretation of groups was supported by Kruskal’s non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMDS) ordination (function isoMDS in the MASS R package, Venables and Ripley 2002). Moreover, we produced a predictive map by calculating discriminant functions based on environmental parameters that best discriminate between the estimated groups. These discriminant functions were used, post-estimation, to allocate (to groups) those plots from study areas where no information on plant species covers was available, while covariates describing environmental parameters were derived from available databases at a given resolution. The discriminant functions were estimated using the function mda from the R library. A confusion matrix of omission and commission errors was then calculated to evaluate the capacity of environmental factors to discriminate the groups obtained by FMM.

FMM R code and R libraries used for the statistical analyses are included in Suppl. material 1.


FMM identified 24 groups, which were considered optimal according to all penalized likelihood criteria. However, four of these were discarded because they were characterized by few plots (less than 50), and they were quite heterogeneous. Descriptions of their environmental parameters, spatial distribution and syntaxonomic correspondences is presented in Suppl. material 2, while Suppl. material 3 shows mean and standard deviation of environmental parameters and dominant and diagnostic species of each group. With the support of the NMDS result (Figure 1) four main clusters were identified, corresponding to temperate beech forests (A), temperate chestnut-hornbeam forests (B) sub-Mediterranean deciduous forests (C) and evergreen Mediterranean forests (D). The distribution of classified vegetation plots is reported in Suppl. material 4, while the predictive distribution of groups and clusters is shown respectively in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 1. 

Kruskal’s NMDS ordination of the vegetation groups. Due to the high number of plots only the centroids of the groups are shown. Stress values of the two components are 0.32 and 0.18, respectively.

Figure 2. 

Map of the predictive distribution of the 20 groups based on the discriminant functions applied to environmental factors. The grey color indicates the part of the Italian peninsula not included in the analysis (Alps and the Po Plain).

Figure 3. 

Map of the potential distribution of the 4 clusters corresponding to main syntaxonomic forest orders recognized for Italy: A – Fagetalia sylvaticae, B – Carpinetalia betuli, C – Quercetalia pubescenti-petraeae, D – Quercetalia ilicis.

Cluster A includes groups 8, 2, and 23. The first three can be found in temperate areas at an average altitude greater than 1000 m and are characterized by the dominance of Fagus sylvatica in groups 8 and 2, and by the codominance of this species with Abies alba in group 23 (Suppl. material 2 and 3). Group 8 is potentially widespread at the highest altitude along the Apennine chain and on the Etna volcano, while at a lower altitude, group 2 is mainly found in the southern part of the peninsula, and group 23 in the central-north (Figure 2). Cluster B includes only group 18, which is co-dominated by Fagus sylvatica, Castanea sativa and Carpinus betulus, with a distribution mainly localized in central Italy. Cluster C includes the sub-Mediterranean forests characterized by a high frequency of Quercus cerris in all groups, which can be accompanied by other deciduous tree species such as Ostrya carpinifolia, Quercus pubescens s.l., Quercus frainetto and Fraxinus ornus (Suppl. material 2 and 3). These groups occupy larger potential areas within an average altitudinal range from the coastal area up to 1000 m Some of these can be very localized, such as group 4, characterized by forest stands dominated by Quercus cerris in the sub mountain areas of Liguria and northern Tuscany, and group 3, which is characterized by the codominance of Quercus cerris and Ostrya carpinifolia and is scattered throughout the peninsula (Figure 2). Others are quite widespread such as group 7 characterized by a mixed forest of Quercus cerris and Quercus pubescens, often with a dominated tree layer of Carpinus orientalis and Erica arborea and a potential distribution of about 28,000 km2 mainly in central and southern Italy (Figure 2). Cluster D includes groups 20 and 22 characterized by the dominance of Quercus suber. Group 20 is localized in southern Italy and Sicily, while group 22 is potentially distributed in Sardinia and along the Tyrrhenian coast of the peninsula. Other groups within the cluster comprise formations dominated by Quercus ilex (Groups 9, 10, 12, 13 and 21). They can be subdivided into two main types: the first one mainly co-dominated by evergreen species at a lower altitude along the coast (Groups 13 and 21) and the second with deciduous tree species such as Fraxinus ornus, Quercus frainetto, Quercus pubescens and Ostrya carpinifolia, mainly localized in the inner part of the study area (Groups 9, 10 and 12).

TWINSPAN classification identified three main clusters, dominated by temperate broadleaved deciduous forests generally dominated by Fagus sylvatica (Groups 1–13), evergreen Mediterranean forests dominated by Quercus suber and Quercus ilex (Groups 14–18) and sub-Mediterranean deciduous forests dominated by Quercus cerris (Groups 19–24). The first TWINSPAN cluster corresponds to the four groups of the FMM classification (FMM groups 2, 8, 18 and 23, Table 1). The second cluster includes FMM Mediterranean evergreen groups, clearly differentiating Quercus suber and Quercus ilex dominated forests. The third TWINSPAN cluster contains all the sub-Mediterranean deciduous forest groups obtained with the FMM classification, group 24 accounting for more than 1000 of these plots.

Table 1.

Comparative matrix between the 24 groups obtained by Finite Mixture Model classification (rows) and the 24 groups by the modified version of TWINSPAN (columns). Colors of the margins (groups) indicate membership to the clusters. Within the matrix, the red color indicates no correspondence among the groups. An increasing correspondence is highlighted by a color gradient from yellow to dark green.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 Tot
2 1 5 50 15 12 32 9 21 79 44 4 10 80 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 363
8 4 10 19 142 34 18 106 21 47 95 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 497
23 0 12 47 28 4 12 3 0 24 35 28 51 132 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 1 0 5 384
18 0 3 11 0 6 4 0 0 5 0 30 21 79 0 0 0 2 0 10 0 0 3 1 12 187
3 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 79 42 13 0 0 0 1 0 3 0 1 8 0 50 198
4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 17 0 1 1 0 0 0 3 11 0 1 10 3 50 97
5 0 0 5 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 27 9 25 0 0 0 0 10 35 0 5 1 1 61 181
6 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 18 0 7 6 1 160 197
7 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 7 0 0 0 0 1 15 7 13 1 8 4 9 98 163
11 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 7 3 0 0 0 0 18 59 3 0 0 9 0 205 304
14 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 18 39 0 0 0 14 3 323 397
16 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 84 23 81 0 0 0 0 0 5 0 3 2 0 38 238
17 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 6 1 2 7 0 3 11 43 43 0 13 7 3 55 195
9 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 2 3 0 0 0 21 31 5 0 22 14 1 11 113
10 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 0 0 0 87 165 4 1 0 26 0 46 333
12 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 7 237 38 2 0 1 16 66 13 381
13 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 55 390 0 1 0 0 0 2 449
21 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 29 0 28 36 246 0 0 0 1 1 16 357
20 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 18 15 76 19 33 0 1 0 0 2 2 166
22 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 96 44 46 2 56 0 0 0 0 0 0 244
1 1 9 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 8 0 0 4 0 0 0 4 16 0 7 0 0 5 56
15 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 10 9 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 1 0 9 31
19 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 3 3 0 0 0 4 0 6 0 1 3 2 10 33
24 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 2 0 2 0 0 7 0 2 1 0 12 29
Tot 8 39 133 185 58 68 118 42 157 174 308 179 429 157 59 164 526 1124 185 5 71 127 93 1184 5593

The confusion matrix built to compare classified versus predicted plots highlighted that, with only some exceptions, environmental factors alone are insufficient to clearly discriminate among the groups identified by the FMM classification (Suppl. material 5). However, a significant difference emerges among clusters: beech forests (Group 2, 8, 23) appear to be better distinguishable, as indicated by the lower omission and commission errors. They are followed by evergreen Mediterranean forests. The poorest results were obtained for sub-Mediterranean deciduous forest types.


The choice of an algorithm for the classification of vegetation plots depends on the objective of the classification and each algorithm has advantages and drawbacks (De Cáceres et al. 2015). The results of a classification algorithm can be evaluated by comparison with those of another and with current scientific knowledge on the vegetation type analyzed. In our study, the comparative analysis of FMM and TWINSPAN results highlighted good correspondence only at a high classification level where temperate, deciduous sub-Mediterranean and evergreen Mediterranean forest vegetation clusters were identified (Table 1). At lower levels, significant differences emerged with FMM classification producing groups with an even distribution of plots. Conversely, TWINSPAN split the homogeneous beech forests into many groups but identified two (groups 18 and 24) with 1000 plots each, including almost all the evergreen Mediterranean Quercus ilex dominated forests and the sub-Mediterranean deciduous forest dominated by Quercus cerris (Figure 4).

Figure 4. 

Modified TWINSPAN classification with 24 groups. Light blue color indicates groups belonging to Fagetalia sylvaticae (Groups 1–10), purple to Carpinetalia betuli (Groups 11–13), orange and red to Quercetalia ilicis (Groups 14–18), and green to Quercetalia pubescenti-petraea (Groups 19–24).

Consequently, FMM appears an effective alternative to traditional classification methods, such as TWINSPAN, to support the analysis of complex vegetation systems due to the ability to integrate both species composition and environmental factors into the modelled classificatory process. Moreover, since FMM identifies groups according to their ecological space, a predictive distribution map can also be produced (Figure 2) that better highlights geographic patterns than by viewing the distribution of classified plots alone (Suppl. material 4).

When compared with current syntaxonomic knowledge, the groups obtained by the FMM classification largely corresponded to several alliances and suballiances recognized for Italy according to Mucina et al. (2016) (Table 2). The environmental niche of groups also aligns well with that proposed in the relevant literature, while the floristic composition and the spatial distribution of groups can significantly differ. For instance, in Italy the temperate deciduous forest vegetation characterized by Fagus sylvatica and Quercus sp. pl. has been traditionally classified on the basis of a distinction between northern and southern syntaxa (see Blasi et al. 2004). This tradition began with Gentile (1970) in the study of beech forests of the Apennines, and was based on the recognition of a number of vicariant closely related species: Geranium nodosum (North) / Geranium versicolor (South), Digitalis lutea (N) / Digitalis micrantha (= D. lutea subsp. australis) (S), Teucrium scorodonia (N) / Teucrium siculum (S). This phytogeographical distinction was related to a sharp bioclimatic boundary between northern and southern Apennines, the former with no or limited summer drought stress and thus broadly referable to a temperate climate, and the latter with a more pronounced drought stress and thus referable to a sub-Mediterranean or supra-Mediterranean climate (Feoli and Lagonegro 1982; Pignatti and Wikus Pignatti 1990). This led to the definition of northern and southern alliances or suballiances, for instance, the northern Geranio nodosi-Fagion (= Cardamino kitaibelii-Fagenion) and southern Geranio versicoloris-Fagion (= Geranio striati-Fagenion) (Feoli and Lagonegro 1982; for the nomenclature see Di Pietro et al. 2004).

Table 2.

Correspondence between the FMM group and the syntaxonomy in Mucina et al. (2016). The alliances are sorted according to an environmental gradient from temperate mesophilous to Mediterranean xeric.

FMM Group Alliance in Mucina et al. (2016)
2 New alliance?
8 FAG-02B Fagion sylvaticae Luquet 1926
23 FAG-02C Geranio striati-Fagion Gentile 1970
18 FAG-03 Carpinetalia betuli P. Fukarek 1968
3 PUB-01F Fraxino orni-Ostryion Tomazic 1940
4 FAG-03C Erythronio-Carpinion (Horvat 1958) Marincek in Wallnofer et al. 1993
5 PUB-01L Crataego laevigatae-Quercion cerridis Arrigoni 1997
6 PUB-01L Crataego laevigatae-Quercion cerridis Arrigoni 1997
7 PUB-01L Crataego laevigatae-Quercion cerridis Arrigoni 1997
11 PUB-01G Carpinion orientalis Horvat 1958
14 PUB-01G Carpinion orientalis Horvat 1958
16 FAG-03C Erythronio-Carpinion (Horvat 1958) Marincek in Wallnofer et al. 1993
17 PUB-01L Crataego laevigatae-Quercion cerridis Arrigoni 1997
9 PUB-01M Pino calabricae-Quercion congestae S. Brullo et al. 1999
10 QUI-01D Fraxino orni-Quercion ilicis Biondi, Casavecchia et Gigante in Biondi et al. 2013
12 PUB-01M Pino calabricae-Quercion congestae S. Brullo et al. 1999
13 QUI-01A Quercion ilicis Br.-Bl. ex Molinier 1934
20 QUI-01E Erico-Quercion ilicis S. Brullo et al. 1977
21 QUI-01E Erico-Quercion ilicis S. Brullo et al. 1977
22 QUI-01E Erico-Quercion ilicis S. Brullo et al. 1977

In our analysis, a more complex pattern emerged: the gradient of different bioclimates, from temperate to sub-Mediterranean, with decreasing water availability and increasing temperature, follows not only the phytogeographical sector but also an altitudinal gradient. For instance, temperate beech forests of the upper altitude are potentially distributed all along the peninsula including the Etna volcano in Sicily (Group 8), while lower altitude beech forests (Groups 2 and 23) are distributed respectively in the south and in the central north (Figure 2). This result substantially agrees with Willner et al. (2017), even though the geographic boundaries between groups 2 and 23 are different because the southern group is more localized than indicated by Willner et al. (2017). Moreover, high altitude beech forests (Group 8) are floristically relatively different from the currently recognized alliances since they include many local endemics from both the north and south Apennines (Suppl. material 3).

Cluster B includes only group 18 and can be referred to the Carpinetalia betuli order (Mucina et al. 2016), which is united with Fagetalia sylvaticae in the Carpino-Fagetea class. NMDS analysis (Fig. 1) confirmed its floristic affinity with the beech forests, even though in the Italian peninsula it is spatially and ecologically embedded within the deciduous sub-Mediterranean forests (Suppl. material 3 and Figure 3).

Sub-Mediterranean deciduous oak forests of cluster C are characterized by a complex geographic pattern along the Apennines, which cannot be explained only by the combination of geo-climatic factors, as is highlighted by the very high omission errors of the confusion matrix (Suppl. material 5). These groups show a good correspondence with many alliances and sub-alliances reported in the prodrome of the Italian vegetation (Biondi et al. 2014). Nonetheless, in our study, some syntaxonomic units are split into two or more floristically and ecologically well-defined groups. For instance, the Cratego laevigati-Quercion cerridis alliance is split into two groups (6 and 7), with different floristic composition and distinct ecology. Another similarity is represented by the alliance Carpinion orientalis, for which three suballiances, Laburno anagyroidis-Ostryenion, Cytiso sessilifolii-Quercenion pubescentis and Lauro nobilis-Quercenion pubescentis have been identified for Italy (Blasi et al. 2004). In our analysis, they correspond respectively to groups 3, 11 and 14. However, a comprehensive comparison with the Carpinion orientalis of the Balkans is still lacking, as well as with the Quercion pubescenti-petraeae described by Braun-Blanquet for Provence and Catalonia, which seems very similar to group 14 and to which this has been sometimes referred to (Ubaldi 2003).

The geographic pattern also characterizes the evergreen Mediterranean forests, which are difficult to classify due to the low number of characteristic species, especially in the herbaceous layer. FMM (and also TWINSPAN, see Table 1) clearly differentiated Quercus suber and Quercus ilex dominated forest vegetation (Figure 1). The former includes groups 20 and 22, one distributed in southern Italy, and the other one in Sardinia and the northern Tyrrhenian coast. A geographic pattern is also evident for evergreen forests dominated by Quercus ilex: group 10 is mainly distributed in Liguria and central Italy, group 13 mainly in southern Sardinia and Sicily in the thermo-Mediterranean region, and group 21 includes the coastal forests along both sides of the Italian peninsula. Mixed evergreen and deciduous forests are localized in the supra-Mediterranean region respectively, group 12, co-dominated by Quercus pubescens s.l., in Sicily and Sardinia, and group 9 co-dominated by Quercus frainetto very localized in central Italy and Calabria. This classification significantly differs from that currently indicated in the Italian vegetation prodrome, which for the evergreen Mediterranean forests in Italy recognizes only four suballiances (Biondi et al. 2003; Bacchetta et al. 2004; Brullo et al. 2008). In our study, we find instead seven groups, which are not exceedingly well characterized from a floristic point of view (even though it must be taken into account the floristic poverty of the Quercetea ilicis forests) but are instead perfectly reasonable under an ecological and phytogeographical point of view. For instance, an interesting distinction of both Quercus suber and Quercus ilex forests in northern-central (22 for Quercus suber, and 10 for Quercus ilex) and southern groups (20 for Quercus suber and 13 for Quercus ilex) can be observed. This result has important phytogeographical and syntaxonomic implications that are related to the limits between the meso-Mediterranean and thermo-Mediterranean regions, and it deserves a broader analysis at the continental scale.

The 20 groups can be aggregated in four clusters corresponding to the main syntaxonomic orders recognized for the Italian peninsula: Carpinetalia betuli, Fagetalia sylvaticae, Quercetalia ilicis Quercetalia pubescenti‐petraeae (Figure 3). Their spatial distribution also largely corresponds to the bioclimates recognized by Rivas Martínez for Italy (Rivas Martínez et al. 2004), even though the boundary of the sub-Mediterranean region shifted more south especially in the Apulia region. The bioclimatic limit defined by Rivas Martínez has a better correspondence with the results by Bohn et al. (2003) and Attorre et al. (2014). However, these authors based their biogeographical analyses only on dominant tree species, while in our analysis we included the whole species composition of forest vegetation plots. This also explains why Sardinia is completely classified as Quercetalia ilicis, whereas in the previous studies patches of sub-Mediterranean forest vegetation, characterized by stands co-dominated by Quercus pubescens s.l. and Quercus ilex, were recognized.


Despite a greater computational complexity, Finite Mixture Model seems to be a promising classificatory approach when dealing with the analysis of complex vegetation systems and using a large dataset. This relied on the possibility of modelling in the classification process both the co-occurrence of species and environmental variables so that groups are identified not only based on their species composition, such as in the case of TWINSPAN, but also on their specific environmental niche. These features can effectively highlight geographical patterns as depicted by predictive maps and support the interpretation of classification results.

Data availability

Primary data are stored in the European Vegetation Archive (Chytrý et al. 2016) and the Sapienza University vegetation database (

Author contributions

F.A., V.E.C., E.A. and G.F. conceived the study, M.A. and L.M. run the statistical analyses, and N.A., M.D.S., T.S., R.G., C.M., M.M. and F.S. contributed to the interpretation of results.


We would like to thank Laura Clarke for revising the text and all those who collected vegetation-plot data in the field and integrated these data in the Sapienza database (


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E-mail and ORCID

Fabio Attorre (, ORCID:

Vito E. Cambria (Corresponding author,, ORCID:

Emiliano Agrillo (, ORCID:

Nicola Alessi (

Marco Alfò (, ORCID:

Michele De Sanctis (, ORCID:

Luca Malatesta (, ORCID:

Tommaso Sitzia (, ORCID:

Riccardo Guarino (, ORCID:

Corrado Marcenò (, ORCID:

Marco Massimi (

Francesco Spada (

Giuliano Fanelli (, ORCID: