Effects of fire on woody vegetation structure in African savanna


  • Corresponding Editor: J. Belnap.


Despite the importance of fire in shaping savannas, it remains poorly understood how the frequency, seasonality, and intensity of fire interact to influence woody vegetation structure, which is a key determinant of savanna biodiversity. We provide a comprehensive analysis of vertical and horizontal woody vegetation structure across one of the oldest savanna fire experiments, using new airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology. We developed and compared high-resolution woody vegetation height surfaces for a series of large experimental burn plots in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. These 7-ha plots (total area ∼1500 ha) have been subjected to fire in different seasons and at different frequencies, as well as no-burn areas, for 54 years. Long-term exposure to fire caused a reduction in woody vegetation up to the 5.0–7.5 m height class, although most reduction was observed up to 4 m. Average fire intensity was positively correlated with changes in woody vegetation structure. More frequent fires reduced woody vegetation cover more than less frequent fires, and dry-season fires reduced woody vegetation more than wet-season fires. Spring fires from the late dry season reduced woody vegetation cover the most, and summer fires from the wet season reduced it the least. Fire had a large effect on structure in the densely wooded granitic landscapes as compared to the more open basaltic landscapes, although proportionally, the woody vegetation was more reduced in the drier than in the wetter landscapes. We show that fire frequency and fire season influence patterns of vegetation three-dimensional structure, which may have cascading consequences for biodiversity. Managers of savannas can therefore use fire frequency and season in concert to achieve specific vegetation structural objectives.