Using unmanned aerial vehicle-based multispectral, RGB and thermal imagery for phenotyping of forest genetic trials: A case study in Pinus halepensis


The assessment of genetic differentiation in functional traits is fundamental towards understanding the adaptive characteristics of forest species. While traditional phenotyping techniques are costly and time-consuming, remote sensing data derived from cameras mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) provide potentially valid high-throughput information for assessing morphophysiological differences among tree populations. In this work, we test for genetic variation in vegetation indices (VIs) and canopy temperature among populations of Pinus halepensis as proxies for canopy architecture, leaf area, photosynthetic pigments, photosynthetic efficiency and water use. The interpopulation associations between vegetation properties and above-ground growth (stem volume) were also assessed. Three flights (July 2016, November 2016 and May 2017) were performed in a genetic trial consisting of 56 populations covering a large part of the species range. Multispectral (visible and near infrared wavelengths), RGB (red, green, blue) and thermal images were used to estimate canopy temperature and vegetation cover (VC) and derive several VIs. Differences among populations emerged consistently across flights for VC and VIs related to leaf area, indicating genetic divergence in crown architecture. Population differences in indices related to photosynthetic pigments emerged only in May 2017 and were probably related to a contrasting phenology of needle development. Conversely, the low population differentiation for the same indices in July 2016 and November 2016 suggested weak interpopulation variation in the photosynthetic machinery of mature needles of P. halepensis. Population differences in canopy temperature found in July 2016 were indicative of variation in stomatal regulation under drought stress. Stem volume correlated with indices related to leaf area (positively) and with canopy temperature (negatively), indicating a strong influence of canopy properties and stomatal conductance on above-ground growth at the population level. Specifically, a combination of VIs and canopy temperature accounted for about 60% of population variability in stem volume of adult trees. This is the first study to propose UAV remote sensing as an effective tool for screening genetic variation in morphophysiological traits of adult forest trees.