skip to main content

Title: The effects of herbivore aggregations at water sources on savanna plants differ across soil and climate gradients

Water sources in arid and semiarid ecosystems support humans, wildlife, and domestic animals, forming nodes of activity that sculpt surrounding plant communities and impact critical grazing and soil systems. However, global aridification and changing surface water supply threaten to disrupt these water resources, with strong implications for conservation and management of these ecosystems. To understand how effects of herbivore aggregation at water impact plant communities across contexts, we measured herbivore activity, plant height, cover (trees, grasses, forbs, and bare ground), diversity, and composition at 17 paired water sources and matrix sites across a range of abiotic factors in a semiarid savanna in Kenya. The effects of proximity to surface water and herbivore aggregation on plant communities varied substantially depending on soil and rainfall. In arid areas with nutrient‐poor sandy soils, forb and tree cover were 50% lower at water sources compared to neighboring matrix sites, bare ground was 20% higher, species richness was 15% lower, and a single globally important grazing grass (Cynodon dactylon) dominated 60% of transects. However, in mesic areas with nutrient‐rich finely textured soils, species richness was 25% higher, despite a 40% increase in bare ground, concurrent with the decline of a dominant tall grass (Themeda triandra) and increase inC. dactylonand other grass species near water sources. Recent rainfall was important for grasses; cover was higher relative to matrix sites only during wet periods, a potential indication of compensatory grazing. These findings suggest that effects of herbivore aggregation on vegetation diversity and composition will vary in magnitude, and in some cases direction, depending on other factors at the site. Where moisture and nutrient resources are high and promote the dominance of few plant species, herbivore aggregations may maintain diversity by promoting grazing lawns and increasing nondominant species cover. However, in arid conditions and sites with low nutrient availability, diversity can be substantially reduced by these aggregations. Our results highlight the importance of considering abiotic conditions when managing for effects of herbivore aggregations near water. This will be particularly important for future managers in light of growing global aridification and surface water changes.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
Wiley Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons)
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Ecological Applications
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    We experimentally examined the influence of grass competition, grass species identity (taxa) and water availability on the seedling growth and survival of two dominant tree species (Vachellia(formerlyAcacia)robustaandV. tortilis) of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Despite being widely distributed, the species have an opposing overstorey dominance across a rainfall and productivity gradient, withV. robustadominating the more productive mesic sites andV. tortilisin the lower productivity, drier sites. We investigated the role of different grass species, which vary in distribution and abundance across the rainfall gradient, in influencing the growth and survival ofVachelliaseedlings. We found a significant effect of grass competition but no effect of grass species identity on the growth or survival of seedlings. Seedling survival was highest in the absence of grass competition, intermediate when grasses were defoliated to simulate grazing and lowest when grown with ungrazed grasses. Grass competition had a more negative effect on the stem diameter ofV. tortilisthanV. robusta.AllV. tortilisseedlings grown under a combination of drought conditions and unclipped grasses died by the end of the experiment. However, reduced grass competition by simulated grazing improvedV. tortilisseedling survival to comparable levels achieved byV. robustaspecies. Our study advances our understanding of tree and grass competition across environmental gradients and suggests that the presence of grass and soil moisture have species‐specific effects on tree seedling growth and survival in African savannas.

    more » « less
  2. Forbs comprise most of the plant diversity in North American tallgrass prairie and provide vital ecosystem services, but their abundance in prairie restorations is highly variable. Restoration practitioners typically sow C4grasses in high abundances because they are inexpensive, provide fuel for prescribed fires, can dominate reference sites, and suppress weeds that suppress sown forbs. However, C4grasses can also suppress sown forbs, calling this practice into question. We evaluated how C4grasses influence the abundance and diversity of sown forbs in 78 restored prairies across Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan. We found that the direct negative effects of C4grasses on sown forbs outweighed indirect positive effects that occurred as C4grasses suppressed nonsown species, which in turn suppressed sown forbs. This pattern was especially strong for the C4grass big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii). Therefore, strategies to promote big bluestem and other C4grasses would not promote sown forbs. Although C4grass cover was not strongly related to two hypothesized drivers (time since fire or site age), seeding density of C4grasses increased their cover. Sown forb cover also increased with forb seeding density, increased indirectly with fire (through its negative effect on nonsown species), and decreased indirectly with soil water‐holding capacity (through its positive effect on nonsown species). These results highlight the complex interplay of species groups during grassland restoration and show how managers can promote sown forbs in restored prairies: increasing forb seeding density and reducing time since fire and the abundance of C4grasses and weeds.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    The purpose of this study is to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)‐based remote sensing method that can estimate vegetation indicators in arid and semiarid rangelands. This method was used to quantify six rangeland indicators (canopy size, bare soil gap size, plant height, scaled height, vegetation cover, and bare soil cover) in a semiarid grass–shrub ecosystem. The drone‐based estimates were validated with field measurements by using the standard transect methods (gap intercept, drop disk, and line‐point intercept methods) in the spring and summer of 2017. The drone‐based estimates showed strong agreements with in situ measurements in cases where deciduous vegetation (mesquite) had leaves withR2for bare soil gap size and vegetation height of 0.97 and 0.89 in the summer, respectively. The RMSE of bare soil gap size and vegetation height are 0.2 m and 6.72 cm in the summer, respectively. Based on these results, we found that drone‐based remote sensing proved to be an efficient and highly accurate method that serves as a complement to field measurements for rangeland indicator estimation. We discussed the possible applications of drone‐based products on arid and semiarid rangelands: the spatially explicit input of an ecological model, to detect and characterize non‐stationarity, and to detect landscape anisotropy.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Management of tree cover, either to curb bush encroachment or to mitigate losses of woody cover to over‐browsing, is a major concern in savanna ecosystems. Once established, trees are often “trapped” as saplings, since interactions among disturbance, plant competition, and precipitation delay sapling recruitment into adult size classes. Saplings can be directly suppressed by wildlife browsing and competition from adjacent plants, and indirectly facilitated by grazers, such as cattle, which feed on neighboring grasses. Yet few experimental studies have simultaneously quantified the effects of cattle and wildlife on sapling growth, particularly over long time scales. We used a series of replicated 4‐ha herbivore‐manipulation plots to investigate the net effects of wildlife and moderate cattle grazing onAcacia drepanolobiumsapling growth over 10 years that encompassed extended wet and dry periods. We also simulated more intense cattle grazing using grass removal treatments (0.5‐m radius around saplings), and we quantified the role of intraspecific tree competition using neighborhood tree surveys (trees within a 3‐m radius). Wildlife, which included elephants, had a positive effect on sapling growth. Wildlife also reduced neighbor tree density during the 10‐yr study, which likely caused the positive effect of wildlife on saplings. Although moderate cattle grazing did not affect sapling growth, grass removal treatments simulating heavy grazing increased sapling growth. Both grass removal and neighbor tree effects on saplings were strongest during above‐average rainfall years following drought. This highlights that livestock‐driven reductions in grass cover and catastrophic wildlife damage to trees during droughts present a need, or an opportunity, for targeted management of sapling growth and woody plant cover during ensuing wet periods.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Fire exclusion and mismanaged grazing are globally important drivers of environmental change in mesic C4grasslands and savannas. Although interest is growing in prescribed fire for grassland restoration, we have little long‐term experimental evidence of the influence of burn season on the recovery of herbaceous plant communities, encroachment by trees and shrubs, and invasion by exotic grasses. We conducted a prescribed fire experiment (seven burns between 2001 and 2019) in historically fire‐excluded and overgrazed grasslands of central Texas. Sites were assigned to one of four experimental treatments: summer burns (warm season, lightning season), fall burns (early cool season), winter burns (late cool season), or unburned (fire exclusion). To assess restoration outcomes of the experiment, in 2019, we identified old‐growth grasslands to serve as reference sites. Herbaceous‐layer plant communities in all experimental sites were compositionally and functionally distinct from old‐growth grasslands, with little recovery of perennial C4grasses and long‐lived forbs. Unburned sites were characterized by several species of tree, shrub, and vine; summer sites were characterized by certain C3grasses and forbs; and fall and winter sites were intermediate in composition to the unburned and summer sites. Despite compositional differences, all treatments had comparable plot‐level plant species richness (range 89–95 species/1000 m2). At the local‐scale, summer sites (23 species/m2) and old‐growth grasslands (20 species/m2) supported greater richness than unburned sites (15 species/m2), but did not differ significantly from fall or winter sites. Among fire treatments, summer and winter burns most consistently produced the vegetation structure of old‐growth grasslands (e.g., mean woody canopy cover of 9%). But whereas winter burns promoted the invasive grassBothriochloa ischaemumby maintaining areas with low canopy cover, summer burns simultaneously limited woody encroachment and controlledB. ischaemuminvasion. Our results support a growing body of literature that shows that prescribed fire alone, without the introduction of plant propagules, cannot necessarily restore old‐growth grassland community composition. Nonetheless, this long‐term experiment demonstrates that prescribed burns implemented in the summer can benefit restoration by preventing woody encroachment while also controlling an invasive grass. We suggest that fire season deserves greater attention in grassland restoration planning and ecological research.

    more » « less