ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: Landscape ethnoecology focuses on the ecological features of
the landscape, how the landscape is perceived, and used by people who live in it.
Though studying folk classifications of species has a long history, the comparative
study of habitat classifications is just beginning. I studied the habitat classification
of herders in a Hungarian steppe, and compared it to classifications of botanists
and laymen. METHODS: For a quantitative analysis the picture sort method was used.
Twenty-three pictures of 7-11 habitat types were sorted by 25 herders. 'Density' of
pictures along the habitat gradient of the Hortobagy salt steppe was set as equal
as possible, but pictures differed in their dominant species, wetness, season, etc.
Before sorts, herders were asked to describe pictures to assure proper recognition
of habitats. RESULTS: Herders classified the images into three main (and 6 smaller)
groups: (1) fertile habitats at the higher parts of the habitat gradient (partos,
lit. on the shore); (2) saline habitats (szik, lit. salt or saline place), and (3)
meadows and marshes (lapos, lit. flooded) at the lower end of the habitat gradient.
Sharpness of delimitation changed along the gradient. Saline habitats were the most
isolated from the rest. Botanists identified 6 groups. Laymen grouped habitats in
a less coherent way. As opposed to my expectations, botanical classification was not
more structured than that done by herders. I expected and found high correspondence
between the classifications by herders, botanists and laymen. All tended to recognize
similar main groups: wetlands, "good grass" and dry/saline habitats. Two main factors
could have been responsible for similar classifications: salient features correlated
(e.g. salinity recognizable by herders and botanists but not by laymen correlated
with the density of grasslands or height of vegetation recognizable also for laymen),
or the same salient features were used as a basis for sorting (wetness, and abiotic
stress). CONCLUSIONS: Despite all the difficulties of studying habitat classifications
(more implicit, more variable knowledge than knowledge on species), conducting landscape
ethnoecological research will inevitably reveal a deeper human understanding of biological
organization at a supraspecific level, where natural discontinuities are less sharp
than at the species or population level.