Landscapes are composed of elements–the spatial components that make up the landscape. A convenient and popular model for conceptualizing and representing the elements in a categorical map pattern is known as the patch-corridor-matrix model (Forman 1995). Under this model, three major landscape elements are typically recognized, and the extent and configuration of these elements defines the pattern of the landscape.

(1) Patch.--Landscapes are composed of a mosaic of patches (Urban et al. 1987). Landscape ecologists have used a variety of terms to refer to the basic elements or units that make up a landscape, including ecotope, biotope, landscape component, landscape element, landscape unit, landscape cell, geotope, facies, habitat, and site (Forman and Godron 1986). Any of these terms, when defined, are satisfactory according to the preference of the investigator. Like the landscape, patches comprising the landscape are not self-evident; patches must be defined relative to the phenomenon under consideration. For example, from a timber management perspective a patch may correspond to the forest stand. However, the stand may not function as a patch from a particular organism's perspective. From an ecological perspective, patches represent relatively discrete areas (spatial domain) or periods (temporal domain) of relatively homogeneous environmental conditions where the patch boundaries are distinguished by discontinuities in environmental character states from their surroundings of magnitudes that are perceived by or relevant to the organism or ecological phenomenon under consideration (Wiens 1976). From a strictly organism-centered view, patches may be defined as environmental units between which fitness prospects, or "quality", differ; although, in practice, patches may be more appropriately defined by nonrandom distribution of activity or resource utilization among environmental units, as recognized in the concept of "Grain Response".

Patches are dynamic and occur on a variety of spatial and temporal scales that, from an organism-centered perspective, vary as a function of each animal's perceptions (Wiens 1976 and 1989, Wiens and Milne 1989). A patch at any given scale has an internal structure that is a reflection of patchiness at finer scales, and the mosaic containing that patch has a structure that is determined by patchiness at broader scales (Kotliar and Wiens 1990). Thus, regardless of the basis for defining patches, a landscape does not contain a single patch mosaic, but contains a hierarchy of patch mosaics across a range of scales. For example, from an organism-centered perspective, the smallest scale at which an organism perceives and responds to patch structure is its "grain" (Kotliar and Wiens 1990). This lower threshold of heterogeneity is the level of resolution at which the patch size becomes so fine that the individual or species stops responding to it, even though patch structure may actually exist at a finer resolution (Kolasa and Rollo 1991). The lower limit to grain is set by the physiological and perceptual abilities of the organism and therefore varies among species. Similarly, "extent" is the coarsest scale of heterogeneity, or upper threshold of heterogeneity, to which an organism responds (Kotliar and Wiens 1990, Kolasa and Rollo 1991). At the level of the individual, extent is determined by the lifetime home range of the individual (Kotliar and Wiens 1990) and varies among individuals and species. More generally, however, extent varies with the organizational level (e.g., individual, population, metapopulation) under consideration; for example the upper threshold of patchiness for the population would probably greatly exceed that of the individual. Therefore, from an organism-centered perspective, patches can be defined hierarchically in scales ranging between the grain and extent for the individual, deme, population, or range of each species.

Patch boundaries are artificially imposed and are in fact meaningful only when referenced to a particular scale (i.e., grain size and extent). For example, even a relatively discrete patch boundary between an aquatic surface (e.g., lake) and terrestrial surface becomes more and more like a continuous gradient as one progresses to a finer and finer resolution. However, most environmental dimensions possess 1 or more "domains of scale" (Wiens 1989) at which the individual spatial or temporal patches can be treated as functionally homogeneous; at intermediate scales the environmental dimensions appear more as gradients of continuous variation in character states. Thus, as one moves from a finer resolution to coarser resolution, patches may be distinct at some scales (i.e., domains of scale) but not at others.


KEY POINT It is not my intent to argue for a particular definition of patch. Rather, I wish to point out the following: (1) that patch must be defined relative to the phenomenon under investigation or management; (2) that, regardless of the phenomenon under consideration (e.g., a species, geomorphological disturbances, etc), patches are dynamic and occur at multiple scales; and (3) that patch boundaries are only meaningful when referenced to a particular scale. It is incumbent upon the investigator or manager to establish the basis for delineating among patches and at a scale appropriate to the phenomenon under consideration.

(2) Corridor.--Corridors are linear landscape elements that can be defined on the basis of structure or function. Forman and Godron (1986) define corridors as “narrow strips of land which differ from the matrix on either side. Corridors may be isolated strips, but are usually attached to a patch of somewhat similar vegetation.” These authors focus on the structural aspects of the linear landscape element. As a consequence of their form and context, structural corridors may function as habitat, dispersal conduits, or barriers. Three different types of structural corridors exist: (1) line corridors, in which the width of the corridor is too narrow to allow for interior environmental conditions to develop; (2) strip corridors, in which the width of the corridor is wide enough to allow for interior conditions to develop; and (3) stream corridors, which are a special category.

Corridors may also be defined on the basis of their function in the landscape. At least four major corridor functions have been recognized, as follows:


      1.   Habitat Corridor.--Linear landscape element that provides for survivorship, natality, and movement (i.e., habitat), and may provide either temporary or permanent habitat. Habitat corridors passively increase landscape connectivity for the focal organism(s).


      2.   Facilitated Movement Corridor.–Linear landscape element that provides for survivorship and movement, but not necessarily natality, between other habitat patches. Facilitated movement corridors actively increase landscape connectivity for the focal organism(s).


      3.   Barrier or Filter Corridor.–Linear landscape element that prohibits (i.e., barrier) or differentially impedes (i.e., filter) the flow of energy, mineral nutrients, and/or species across (i.e., flows perpendicular to the length of the corridor). Barrier or filter corridors actively decrease matrix connectivity for the focal process.


      4.   Source of Abiotic and Biotic Effects on the Surrounding Matrix.–Linear landscape element that modifies the inputs of energy, mineral nutrients, and/or species to the surrounding matrix and thereby effects the functioning of the surrounding matrix.

Most of the attention and debate has focused on facilitated movement corridors. It has been argued that this corridor function can only be demonstrated when the immigration rate to the target patch is increased over what it would be if the linear element was not present (Rosenberg et al. 1997). Unfortunately, as Rosenberg et al. point out, there have been few attempts to experimentally demonstrate this. In addition, just because a corridor can be distinguished on the basis of structure, it does not mean that it assumes any of the above functions. Moreover, the function of the corridor will vary among organisms due to the differences in how organisms perceive and scale the environment.


KEY POINT Corridors are distinguished from patches by their linear nature and can be defined on the basis of either structure or function or both. If a corridor is specified, it is incumbent upon the investigator or manager to define the structure and implied function relative to the phenomena (e.g., species) under consideration.

(3) Matrix.--A landscape is composed typically of several types of landscape elements (usually patches). Of these, the matrix is the most extensive and most connected landscape element type, and therefore plays the dominant role in the functioning of the landscape (Forman and Godron 1986). For example, in a large contiguous area of mature forest embedded with numerous small disturbance patches (e.g., timber harvest patches), the mature forest constitutes the matrix element type because it is greatest in areal extent, is mostly connected, and exerts a dominant influence on the area flora and fauna and ecological processes. In most landscapes, the matrix type is obvious to the investigator or manager. However, in some landscapes, or at a certain point in time during the trajectory of a landscape, the matrix element will not be obvious. Indeed, it may not be appropriate to consider any element as the matrix. Moreover, the designation of a matrix element is largely dependent upon the phenomenon under consideration. For example, in the study of geomorphological processes, the geological substrate may serve to define the matrix and patches; whereas, in the study of vertebrate populations, vegetation structure may serve to define the matrix and patches. In addition, what constitutes the matrix is dependent on the scale of investigation or management. For example, at a particular scale, mature forest may be the matrix with disturbance patches embedded within; whereas, at a coarser scale, agricultural land may be the matrix with mature forest patches embedded within.

It is important to understand how measures of landscape pattern are influenced by the designation of a matrix element. If an element is designated as matrix and therefore presumed to function as such (i.e., has a dominant influence on landscape dynamics), then it should not be included as another "patch" type in any metric that simply averages some characteristic across all patches (e.g., mean patch size, mean patch shape). Otherwise, the matrix will dominate the metric and serve more to characterize the matrix than the patches within the landscape, although this may itself be meaningful in some applications. From a practical standpoint, it is important to recognize this because in FRAGSTATS, the matrix can be excluded from calculations by designating its class value as background. If the matrix is not excluded from the calculations, it may be more meaningful to use the class-level statistics for each patch type and simply ignore the patch type designated as the matrix. From a conceptual standpoint, it is important to recognize that the choice and interpretation of landscape metrics must ultimately be evaluated in terms of their ecological meaningfulness, which is dependent upon how the landscape is defined, including the choice of patch types and the designation of a matrix.


KEY POINT It is incumbent upon the investigator or manager to determine whether a matrix element exists and should be designated given the scale and phenomenon under consideration.