Viability of ecological processes in small Afromontane forest patches in South Africa



Abstract  The conservation of biodiversity is dependent on protecting ecosystem-level processes. We investigated the effects of fragment size and habitat edge on the relative functioning of three ecological processes – decomposition, predation and regeneration of trees – in small Afromontane forests in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Ten sampling stations were placed in each of four forest categories: the interior of three large indigenous forest fragments (100 m from the edge), the edges of these large fragments, 10 small indigenous fragments (<1 ha) and 10 small exotic woodlands (<0.5 ha). Fragment size and edge effects did not affect the abundance of the amphipod Talitriator africana, a litter decomposer, and overall dung beetle abundance and species richness significantly. Bird egg predation was marginally greater at large patch edges compared with the other forest categories, while seed predation did not differ among forest categories. Tree seedling assemblage composition did not differ significantly among large patch interiors and edges, and small indigenous fragments. Sapling and canopy assemblage composition each differed significantly among these three indigenous forest categories. Thus, while tree recruitment was not negatively affected by patch size or distance from the edge, conditions in small fragments and at edges appear to affect the composition of advanced tree regeneration. These ecological processes in Afromontane forests appear to be resilient to fragmentation effects. We speculate that this is because the organisms in these forests have evolved under fragmented conditions. Repeated extreme changes in climate and vegetation over the Pleistocene have acted as significant distribution and ecological extinction filters on these southern hemisphere forest biota, resulting in fauna and flora that are potentially resilient to contemporary fragmentation effects. We argue that because small patches and habitat edges appear to be ecologically viable they should be included in future conservation decisions.