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Competitive effect and response of savanna tree seedlings: comparison of survival, growth and associated functional traits




What is the effect of neighbour competition on the survival, growth and biomass of mesic and humid savanna tree species? Can competitive effect and response be linked to plant functional traits?


Neil Tainton Arboretum, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, ZA.


Using a target–neighbour design, all combinations of four humid and four mesic savanna tree seedlings were tested in a greenhouse experiment, to establish the effects of neighbourhood competition on target plant performance. The competitive response and effect of each species was quantified, and regressed against several functional traits to determine which traits are predictive of competitive ability.


We found that neighbour density negatively affected the survival of mesic tree seedlings but not humid tree seedlings. Mesic plants were able to maintain their relative growth rates (RGRs) despite increasing neighbourhood competition. The RGRs of humid species significantly decreased as the density of neighbours increased, indicating that competition may be a factor affecting plants in savannas receiving more than 650 mm mean annual rainfall. We used the quantile regression method to show that the biomass of humid tree seedlings decreased with increased neighbour biomass, when considering competitive response only. We also found that resource-acquiring traits (such as maximum RGR, plant height and root biomass) were positively correlated with the competitive effect of mesic savanna seedlings, while specific leaf area captured the competitive response of humid savanna seedlings to neighbour competition.


Competitive interactions between savanna trees negatively affect survival and growth rate, although the competitive effect or response of a particular species depends on its adaptation to either high- or low-resource environments. Our results show significant relationships between plant traits and competitive ability, which may be used to predict competitive interactions between tree seedlings from humid and mesic savannas.