Landscape ecology by definition deals with the ecology of landscapes. Surprisingly, there are many different interpretations of the term “landscape.” The disparity in definitions makes it difficult to communicate clearly, and even more difficult to establish consistent management policies. Definitions of landscape invariably include an area of land containing a mosaic of patches or landscape elements (see below). Forman and Godron (1986) defined landscape as a heterogeneous land area composed of a cluster of interacting ecosystems that is repeated in similar form throughout. The concept differs from the traditional ecosystem concept in focusing on groups of ecosystems and the interactions among them. There are many variants of the definition depending on the research or management context.

For example, from a wildlife perspective, we might define landscape as an area of land containing a mosaic of habitat patches, often within which a particular "focal" or "target" habitat patch is embedded (Dunning et al. 1992). Because habitat patches can only be defined relative to a particular organism's perception and scaling of the environment (Wiens 1976), landscape size would differ among organisms. However, landscapes generally occupy some spatial scale intermediate between an organism's normal home range and its regional distribution. In-other-words, because each organism scales the environment differently (i.e., a salamander and a hawk view their environment on different scales), there is no absolute size for a landscape; from an organism-centered perspective, the size of a landscape varies depending on what constitutes a mosaic of habitat or resource patches meaningful to that particular organism.

This definition most likely contrasts with the more anthropocentric definition that a landscape corresponds to an area of land equal to or larger than, say, a large basin (e.g., several thousand hectares). Indeed, Forman and Godron (1986) suggested a lower limit for landscapes at a "few kilometers in diameter", although they recognized that most of the principles of landscape ecology apply to ecological mosaics at any level of scale. While this may be a more pragmatic definition than the organism-centered definition and perhaps corresponds to our human perception of the environment, it has limited utility in managing wildlife populations if you accept the fact that each organism scales the environment differently. From an organism-centered perspective, a landscape could range in absolute scale from an area smaller than a single forest stand (e.g., a individual log) to an entire ecoregion. If you accept this organism-centered definition of a landscape, a logical consequence of this is a mandate to manage habitats across the full range of spatial scales; each scale, whether it be the stand or watershed, or some other scale, will likely be important for a subset of species, and each species will likely respond to more than 1 scale.


KEY POINT It is not my intent to argue for a single definition of landscape. Rather, I wish to point out that there are many appropriate ways to define landscape depending on the phenomenon under consideration. The important point is that a landscape is not necessarily defined by its size; rather, it is defined by an interacting mosaic of patches relevant to the phenomenon under consideration (at any scale). It is incumbent upon the investigator or manager to define landscape in an appropriate manner. The essential first step in any landscape-level research or management endeavor is to define the landscape, and this is of course prerequisite to quantifying landscape patterns.