Native ungulates of diverse body sizes collectively regulate long-term woody plant demography and structure of a semi-arid savanna
Article first published online: 28 AUG 2013
© 2013 The Authors. Journal of Ecology © 2013 British Ecological Society
Journal of Ecology
Volume 101, Issue 6, pages 1389–1399, November 2013
How to Cite
Sankaran, M., Augustine, D. J., Ratnam, J. (2013), Native ungulates of diverse body sizes collectively regulate long-term woody plant demography and structure of a semi-arid savanna. Journal of Ecology, 101: 1389–1399. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12147
- Issue published online: 17 OCT 2013
- Article first published online: 28 AUG 2013
- Accepted manuscript online: 11 JUL 2013 10:50PM EST
- Manuscript Accepted: 4 JUL 2013
- Manuscript Received: 5 FEB 2013
- NERC. Grant Number: NE-E017436-1
- Earth & Biosphere Institute (EBI)
- University of Leeds
- National Centre for Biological Sciences
- TIFR, India
- Ramalingaswamy Re-entry Fellowship, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India
- plant–herbivore interactions;
- shrub encroachment;
- top-down control
Large mammalian herbivores are well recognized to play important roles in regulating woody cover and biomass in savannas, but the extent to which browsing ungulates are capable of regulating woody populations in the absence of other disturbances such as fire is unclear. Moreover, the degree to which browser effects on savannas operate through effects on woody plant recruitment vs. mortality has rarely been examined.
We conducted a 10-year, replicated herbivore exclusion experiment in a semi-arid savanna in East Africa (mean annual rainfall = 514 mm), where fires have been actively suppressed for decades. Browsers dramatically influenced recruitment, growth and mortality of all size classes of woody vegetation. A decade of herbivore exclusion resulted in a sevenfold increase in recruitment, a 2.5-fold decrease in mortality and a threefold increase in woody biomass inside exclosures, while biomass outside exclosures remained relatively unchanged.
At the plant community level, extensive browsing of seedlings by small-bodied ungulates suppressed woody recruitment in this semi-arid system, generating a ‘browsing trap’ comparable to the ‘fire trap’ reported for mesic systems. Browsing by large- and medium-bodied ungulates reduced both growth and survival of individuals in larger size classes.
At the plant species level, browser impacts were variable. Although browsers negatively influenced recruitment of all species, they had little to no impact on the mortality of some dominant species, resulting in a long-term, browser-driven shift in woody species composition that was largely mediated via their differential effects on plant mortality rates rather than recruitment.
Synthesis. Our results demonstrate unequivocally that, even in the absence of fire, native browsing ungulates can exert dramatic ‘top-down’ controls in semi-arid savannas, influencing all aspects of woody plant demography. Besides suppressing woody plant recruitment, browsers can also have substantial cumulative long-term impacts on growth and mortality rates of woody plants, including adults, which can differ between species in ways that fundamentally alter the structure and function of woody vegetation. In semi-arid rangelands, intact communities of native browsing ungulates thus provide a critical ecosystem service by regulating woody cover, and their removal (or extinction) from these systems can lead to rapid woody encroachment.