Have you used quadrats before? You might have taken samples in your school playing field during one of your science subjects. If not, don't worry. Quadrats are (usually square) frames used for identifying a sample area and counting individuals that lie within it. 

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    Although they're called quadrats (quad = four), they don't necessarily have to be square (i.e. have four equal sides). They can be any shape you like, as long as you can work out their area. But to make things easier, most quadrats are square. It saves you wasting time doing complex calculations when you could be out sampling the environment instead!

    Quadrats: Definition

    The definition of a quadrat is a piece of equipment used to identify a sample area and study the sessile organisms within it.

    Sessile means the opposite of mobile – a.k.a. non-moving.

    Quadrats are used to estimate the abundance and distribution of a species.

    There are three types of quadrats: frame, grid, and point. We’ll go into more detail about these later.

    Quadrats grid quadrat StudySmarterFig. 1 - A grid quadrat measuring vegetation in a sand dune habitat. Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Quadrat Sampling

    Quadrats are used for measuring biotic factors (living components of an ecosystem). There are four main biotic factors to focus on:

    • Population Size: the number of individuals of one species living in a habitat

    • Species Richness: how many species are present in a habitat

    • Species Distribution: how species are spatially arranged in a habitat

    • Biodiversity: the measure of variety and abundance of species in a habitat

    Measuring the biotic factors of an ecosystem is useful for research and monitoring. When combined with abiotic measurements, the data can help to draw a detailed picture of an ecosystem.

    Quadrat Sampling Methods

    Quadrats can be used for all three types of sampling: random, systematic, and stratified.

    • Random sampling is truly unbiased; each member of the population has an equal chance of being selected. A random number generator is used to select coordinates within the study site where quadrat measurements will be taken.
    • In systematic sampling, members of the population are chosen at uniform intervals. This method provides guaranteed coverage of the study site and is especially useful when the study site experiences an environmental gradient. Quadrat locations are predetermined using a map or a transect.

    Transects come up again later, so keep reading.

    • In stratified sampling, the population is divided into known groups, then sampled randomly within these groups. The number sampled in each group is proportional to the size of the group. Quadrat locations are selected randomly within the groups.

    Frame, Grid, and Point Quadrats

    Let's study the three types of quadrats. Each has an associated calculation used to assess biotic factors.

    FrameA square frame (usually 1m2) that is placed directly on top of the vegetation. They are typically made of plastic, PVC pipe, metal, or wood. Any species lying within the area of the frame are identified and counted. Percentage Frequency
    GridSimilar to frame quadrats, but are subdivided into squares (usually 25 or 100).Percentage Cover
    PointA T-shaped frame, where the bar of the T contains 10 long pins. The quadrat is pushed towards the ground. Different plants hit by pins are identified and counted.Local Frequency

    Quadrats are used in passive sampling – i.e. sampling without removing the organisms from their natural habitat. Organisms are usually counted by hand. Alternatively, you can take a photograph for future analysis.

    Quadrats and Transects

    A transect is a straight line drawn across a sampling area. Transects are tools commonly used when sampling in a study site that experiences an environmental gradient.

    An environmental gradient is a change in abiotic factors through space.

    Sand dunes are a common example of a habitat that experiences an environmental gradient.

    Transects are used for systematic sampling– where samples are taken at fixed, regular intervals.

    There are two kinds of transects: continuous and interrupted.

    • At continuous transects, you record vegetation along the whole length of the transect. They provide a high level of detail, but are very time-consuming to use. Thus, they're only suitable for short distances.

    • At interrupted transects, you record vegetation at regular intervals along the transect. Using an interrupted transect is much quicker, but doesn't provide as much detail as a continuous transect.

    When systematic sampling is combined with abiotic measurements, the data can be used to demonstrate ecological succession. The community composition varies depending on the physical conditions of the ecosystem.

    What are the stages of sand dune succession?

    StagePhysical ConditionsPlant Communities
    Embryo DunesAlkaline and salty conditions, exposure to wind and seawater.Scattered pioneer plants, e.g. sandwort and Lyme grass
    Yellow DunesLess salty, more stable, raised above the beachDune building grasses, e.g. Marram grass and red fescue
    Grey DunesMore sheltered, soil pH decreasesComplete vegetation cover, e.g. orchids and bracken
    Climax CommunitySheltered, with acidic soils and high humus contentLarge shrubs and trees, e.g. oak and heather

    Quadrats yellow dunes StudySmarterFig. 3 – Yellow dunes in Hayle, Cornwall. Source: unsplash.com

    Kite Diagrams

    Kite diagrams allow the comparison of frequencies along the same transect. The transect is shown on the x-axis. The frequency of each species is indicated by the width of the 'kite'.

    Evaluating Plant Populations with Quadrats

    When studying vegetation, it's important to consider your quadrat size. The size of your quadrat is usually related to the size of the vegetation being studied. For example:

    • 10 cm x 10 cm quadrats: used for very small plants, e.g. algae or bryophytes

    • 25 cm x 25 cm quadrats: used for short grassland or other low-growing vegetation

    • 50 cm x 50cm quadrats: used for long grass or heathland

    When studying very large vegetation, such as trees, it's easier to mark out plots on the ground using tape measures.

    Furthermore, when planning fieldwork, you need to consider the number of quadrat samples you will take. You must take enough samples to minimise the effect of anomalies and perform statistical tests, but not too many that you run out of time. It's recommended that 10 quadrat samples is the minimum for each study site.

    Now, let's look at the calculations that are carried out using quadrat data. These calculations can be used to determine population size, species richness, species distribution, and biodiversity.

    Percentage Frequency

    You can calculate the percentage frequency of a species using data from your frame quadrat.

    Percentage Frequency = (number of quadrats containing target species ÷ total number of quadrats) x 100

    For example, Marram grass is found in 3 out of 20 quadrants.

    Percentage Frequency = (3 ÷ 20) x 100 = 15%

    The percentage frequency of Marram grass is 15%.

    Percentage Cover

    You can estimate the percentage cover of different species using a gridded quadrat. If an internal square is over half occupied by a species, it is assumed that the species covers the whole square. The results from multiple quadrats can be amalgamated and averaged to get an estimate for the entire study area.

    A disadvantage of this technique is that the coverage of plants is often overestimated or underestimated.

    Local Frequency

    You can estimate local frequency using data from a point quadrat.

    Local Frequency = (number of hits on a species/total number of pin drops) x 100

    If 15-point quadrat measurements were taken, that's a total of 150 pin drops. Let's say that 40 pins hit thistles.

    Local Frequency = (40 ÷ 150) x 100 = 26.7%

    Using Quadrats

    Pay close attention to this section – you may need it for planning practical work, and it's a typical exam question.

    • Place tape measures at right angles to divide the study site into a grid.

    • Use a random number generator to produce coordinates within the grid. Place a quadrat at each coordinate.

    • Use a key to identify the species present in each quadrat.

    • Then, count the number of individuals, or estimate percentage cover within each quadrat. If you're pushed for time, take photographs of each quadrat instead and do this part later.

    • Record your results in a table.

    • Calculate the average abundance of each species.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Quadrats

    Let's weigh up the pros and cons of quadrat sampling.

    • Simple to use
    • Affordable equipment
    • Doesn't harm the species being studied
    • Enables a straightforward study design
    • Not suitable for mobile organisms
    • Can be physically demanding to use
    • Possibility of introducing errors: incorrect quadrat size, inappropriate spacing

    I hope that this article has clarified quadrats for you. Remember that they are used to identify a sample area and study the sessile organisms within it. There are three types of quadrat: frame, grid, and point. Each has an associated calculation for assessing biotic factors.

    Quadrats - Key takeaways

    • A quadrat is a piece of equipment used to identify a sample area and study the sessile organisms within it.
    • Quadrats are used to measure the biotic factors of an ecosystem. This is useful for research and monitoring. There are three types of sampling methods: random, systematic, and stratified.
    • There are three types of quadrat: frame, grid, and point. Each has an associated calculation used to assess biotic factors.
    • A transect is a straight line drawn across a sampling error, typically used when the study site experiences an environmental gradient. Transects are either continuous or interrupted.
    • When studying plant populations, it's important to take a suitable number of samples using the correct quadrat size.
    • There are three calculations that use quadrat data: percentage frequency, percentage cover, and local frequency.

    1. Lorna Dawson, Sand Dunes, The James Hutton Institute, 2015

    2. Neil Chalmers, The OU Project Guide: Fieldwork and Statistics for Ecological Projects, 1989

    Frequently Asked Questions about Quadrats

    How do you use a quadrat?

    You place a frame or grid quadrat directly on top of vegetation. Alternatively, you push a point quadrat towards the ground.

    What is the quadrat method?

    Quadrats are used to sample sessile organisms in their natural habitat. The data from quadrats can be used to measure biotic factors.

    How do you make a quadrat?

    A simple quadrat can be made from wire or piping. Use a tape measure to make sure that the sides of the quadrat are the same length.

    Why is the quadrat method good?

    The quadrat method is simple, affordable, and enables a straightforward study design. Plus, it doesn't harm the species being studied.

    What are quadrats used for?

    Quadrats are used to study sessile organisms.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Choose 3 organisms that you could sample using a quadrat.

    This type of quadrat is subdivided into squares.

    This type of quadrat is a simple square frame.


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