Aim At a regional scale, across southern Africa, woody thickening of savannas is becoming increasingly widespread. Using coupled vegetation and faunal responses (ants), we explore whether major changes in woody cover in savannas represent an increase in the density of savanna trees (C4 grass layer remains intact) or a ‘regime shift’ in system state from savanna to thicket (=dry forest) where broad-leaved, forest-associated trees shade out C4 grasses.
Location Hluhluwe Game Reserve, South Africa.
Methods We sampled paired open (low woody cover) and closed (high cover that have undergone an increase in tree density) sites. Vegetation was sampled using belt transects, and a combination of pitfall trapping and Winkler sampling was used for ants.
Results Closed habitats did not simply contain a higher density of woody savanna species, but differed significantly in structure, functional composition (high prevalence of broad-leaved trees, discontinuous C4 grasses) and system properties (e.g. low flammability). Ant assemblage composition reflected this difference in habitat. The trophic structure of ant assemblages in the two habitats revealed a functional shift with much higher abundances of predatory species in the closed habitat.
Main conclusions The predominance of species with forest-associated traits and concomitant reduction of C4 grasses in closed sites indicate that vegetation has undergone a shift in fundamental system state (to thicket), rather than simply savanna thickening. This biome shift has cascading functional consequences and implications for biodiversity conservation. The potential loss of many specialist savanna plant species is especially concerning, given the spatial extent and speed of this vegetation switch. Although it is not clear how easily the habitat switch can be reversed and how stable the thicket habitats are, it is likely in the not-too-distant future that conservation managers will be forced to make decisions on whether to actively maintain savannas.