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Acacia species turnover in space and time in an African savanna


William J. Bond Botany Department, University of Cape Town, Private Bag, Rondebosch, 7701, South Africa. E-mail:



Patterns of species turnover along environmental gradients are better studied than their causes. Competitive interactions, or physiological tolerance are most often cited as determinants of turnover. Here we investigate differential tree species response to disturbance by fire and mammal browsing as causes of changing dominance of species within and among sites along an altitudinal gradient.


We documented the distribution of two Acacia species using maps and sample transects. We explored possible causes of species turnover by studying differences between the species in tolerance to grass competition using pot experiments, to browsers by observing patterns of shoot damage, and to fire by comparing the size structure of populations burnt at different frequencies and intensities.


Acacia karroo woodlands were rare and occur at higher elevations than the much more common A. nilotica woodlands. Woodland composition seems set to change in future since the pattern of dominance was reversed in juvenile stages. A. karroo juveniles were very widespread and far more abundant than A. nilotica juveniles. A. karroo juveniles were most abundant in tall fire-prone grasslands and were rare on grazing lawns whereas A. nilotica showed the reverse pattern. In the pot experiments, growth of both species was suppressed by grasses but there were no significant differences in response between the two species. Juveniles of A. karroo were more heavily browsed than those of A. nilotica. However juveniles of A. nilotica were less tolerant of frequent intense burns than juvenile A. karroo.

Main conclusions

Disturbance gradients, from high fire frequency and low herbivore density at high altitudes, to lower fire frequency and higher herbivore density at low altitudes, are responsible for the shift in community structure along the spatial gradient. Differential responses to browsing and fire may also explain temporal turnover from A. nilotica in the past to A. karroo in the present. Changes in the area burnt annually, and in faunal composition, suggest a landscape-scale shift from grazing-dominated short-grass landscapes in the 1960s, favouring A. nilotica, to fire-dominated tall grasslands in the 1990s favouring A. karroo. We suggest that species turnover due to differential responses along disturbance gradients may be much more widespread than the current paucity of studies suggests.