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Keywords:

  • Banded vegetation;
  • Bush encroachment;
  • Desertification;
  • Fertility islands;
  • Fire;
  • Herbivory;
  • Spotted vegetation

Abstract

Objectives: To (1) assess the strength of evidence for the role of termites in vegetation heterogeneity in African savannas, and (2) identify the mechanisms by which termites induce such heterogeneity.

Location: African savannas.

Methods: We conducted a review of the literature, a meta-analysis and qualitative systems analysis to identify mechanisms to explain the observed patterns.

Results: The review provided evidence for termite-induced heterogeneity in floristic composition and vegetation patterning in savannas across Africa. Termites induced vegetation heterogeneity directly or indirectly through their nest-building and foraging activities, associated nutrient cycling and their interaction with mammalian herbivores and fire. The literature reviewed indicated that termite mounds essentially act as islands of fertility, which are responsible for ecosystem-level spatial heterogeneity in savannas. This was supported by the meta-analysis, which demonstrated that mounds of Ancistrotermes, Macrotermes, Odontotermes (family Macrotermitinae), Cubitermes (family Termitinae) and Trinervitermes (Nasutitermitinae) are significantly enriched in clay (75%), carbon (16%), total nitrogen (42%), calcium (232%), potassium (306%) and magnesium (154%) compared to the surrounding savanna soil.

Conclusions: Termite activity is one of the major factors that induce vegetation patterning in African savannas. The implications of this are discussed and research questions for future studies and modelling efforts are indicated.